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What Is Lifelong Learning? 4 Pillars for Learner-Centered Experiences

February 14, 2023

At a Glance

JFFLabs to publish insights and incubate lifelong learning strategies and solutions.

Eugene So Managing Director
Practices & Centers

The debate on the value of higher education has never been in the spotlight as much as it is today. Changes in our work environments, initiated by developments in technology and accelerated by the effects of COVID-19, have exposed the faults in our higher education system: it’s slow, poorly fitting, and too expensive to meet the needs of workers and learners. As a result, we are seeing year-over-year enrollment declines in our traditional higher education institutions, along with lingering questions on the real value of a degree.

At the same time, we are also experiencing historic investments in private-sector education and learning solutions adding to the overall supply of options, but unfortunately also to the confusion for people in understanding the impact value and quality of specific learning related to their current and aspirational work. A recent report released by the nonprofit Credential Engine points to more than 1 million unique education credentials in existence today, most of which are issued by nonacademic providers.

The good news is that we are at a point in time where the desire to intentionally map learning to work is becoming commonplace across our systems. Many organizations have begun to mobilize a skills-first philosophy and are leading national conversations on how best to develop hiring processes that value diverse life experiences and education and training backgrounds. However, with so many credentials available today, how do we determine which programs and experiences actually provide quality learning?

Jobs for the Future (JFF) is developing a resource we’re calling the Quality Learning Experiences Framework to outline the core pillars of a comprehensive approach to a new learner-centered ecosystem. Through our Lifelong Learning practice and in connection with our work with the Education Quality Outcomes Standards (EQOS), this framework will be designed to identify, recognize, and codify tools, services, and practices that shape quality learning experiences.

Here’s a snapshot of the four pillars of our Quality Learning Experiences Framework:

  1. Learning that is relevant, appropriate, and meaningful in advancing equitable economic mobility (skills-based experiential learning, asset-backed credentials issuance)
  2. Learning that offers participants direction and/or career navigation supports while fostering autonomy, resilience, curiosity, and hope (career navigation, data and technology infrastructure, digital equity, learning and employment records)
  3. Learning that emphasizes and promotes connectivity through activation of social capital and community engagement (peer-to-peer learning models, capturing learner voice, community-focused solutions)
  4. Learning that is welcoming and supportive of diverse people and of diverse learning types (innovative learning models that service new majority learners)

This framework looks to account for our traditional learning systems and future innovations in the learning solutions space. The workforce of tomorrow is rapidly changing, and the disruptions made by automation and advanced technology will not be felt in a vacuum. One issue that needs to be addressed is the fact that Black and Latinx workers, who are disproportionately concentrated in direct-service jobs, are the most at risk of job displacement due to the projected disruptions in the next 10 years.

But these technological disruptions also create opportunities that will come with technological advancements. We see increases in workers who identify as self-employed and those who participate in the creator economy. We are also seeing rapid learning innovations arise to address talent needs in reaching distributed and remote global workforces, to respond to core needs in key industries such as healthcare, manufacturing, and financial services, and in efforts to future-ready our technology infrastructure to create equal opportunities for all.

This increasing diversity of learning options, from traditional in-person classrooms to online programs, to even metaverse apprenticeships, requires a sound, evergreen foundation of quality that helps people understand the value of their learning. This is the work that must be done today. Through our collective efforts in defining quality inputs and outputs, advancing solutions that align with these parameters of quality, and integrating our systems architecture to include our traditional and nontraditional partners, we will unlock opportunities and create a new learner-centered ecosystem.

It is incumbent on us here at JFF, and our partners, to explore these innovations and produce impact insights that provide a transparent perspective on the implications of new models and modalities to the wider learner and worker stakeholder base.

Among these innovations would be exploration of Web3 technologies; the impact augmented reality, virtual reality, and extended reality tools could have on traditional learning models and career training and education; and peer-to-peer learning models that catalyze the exchange of quality knowledge.

We also must seek opportunities to diversify and expand Pell Grant applicability and tuition benefit programs. Currently, the majority of federally allocated dollars for learning in the postsecondary space are made for academic credit-bearing coursework. Supporting our efforts to continually help our higher education institutions innovate their offerings is an important endeavor, but we must also recognize that the majority of credentials issued today come from nontraditional learning providers.

Our work to help define and scale quality in this robust credential space will help unlock not only awareness for the learning experiences that are making impacts on socioeconomic mobility, but also help us to unlock essential funding for people to make learning decisions that are best for them. This in turn will help shift the debate from just skills versus degrees to a collaborative dialogue on facilitating an ecosystem of continuous lifelong learning.

JFF is excited to drive orchestration in this regard in the hopes of positively influencing learning provider behavior as well as creating intentional connections to our work and policy environments. We are actively searching for partnerships to help us define the changes needed and drive adoption of solutions that impact learners and workers where they are at. We encourage all to reach out about opportunities to learn, collaborate, and invest in developing, implementing, and expanding this work.

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