Covid as a catalyst: deepening lifelong learning
Miriam Green and Susanna Leong share key considerations for universities to develop effective lifelong learning programmes that will keep pace with the rapid changes across higher education
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The pace of change across higher education is accelerating. New programmes, new ways of learning, classroom technology and remote learning: it’s all coming faster and faster. Universities have a responsibility to promote critical thinking and encourage good citizenship. They must prepare learners for career changes and a labour market in constant flux. They have to support students through a lifetime of learning, not just an undergraduate degree. To build student fitness for change, a university needs to be adaptive, and to constantly assess its offerings.
Key considerations for effective lifelong learning
Real-world experiential learning
Experiential learning requires opportunities for real-world and practical application of students’ knowledge, both in and beyond the classroom.
In the classroom, it could be through the application of new skills to a faculty-supervised project or the use of virtual reality to help medical students improve doctor-patient communication.
Outside the classroom, community engagement is an essential aspect of experiential learning for undergraduates. Students should be encouraged to use multidisciplinary perspectives to understand and propose solutions to community problems, through coursework or group projects.
Internships and capstone projects offer vital experiential learning, for undergraduates and graduates. Besides the standard route of finding placements by searching online, or tapping into arrangements the university already has, alumni are a great resource for internships.
To create new internship opportunities through alumni, senior staff at the university could contact prominent alumni, meet them in person and invite them to give talks about their professional experience since graduation, about their company, and about career opportunities in their field.
If the event is successful, the alumni should be encouraged to invite select students to learn more about their company and industry. This could lead to internship opportunities for students. These opportunities are mutually beneficial, helping companies or organisations to identify strong potential hires before they graduate. But relationships must first be cultivated and maintained. Opportunities may also come from corporates already working with the university in various areas including research and enterprise transformation.
In the realm of undergraduate education, flexible, multidisciplinary education helps prepare students for change and lifelong learning. A common curriculum that includes written expression and data and digital literacies gives students tools to tackle real-world problems from a variety of perspectives. To address critical issues like climate change and inequality, students must be able to identify and understand problems, and to apply appropriate statistical tools and analysis.
One of the challenges in setting up multidisciplinary programmes is bringing together faculty from different fields, to create new intersections of learning and research. For large research universities, where scholarship happens in silos, it can be difficult to move away from “business as usual”. Strong leadership, a clear vision and suitable resources are required to build new programmes that include disciplines as disparate as science, engineering and business.
Before launching a new programme, a small task force composed of faculty and staff representing the disciplines likely to participate should conduct a feasibility study. A survey of similar offerings at competitor institutions should be conducted. Is this programme a good idea for the institution? Is there sufficient demand, capacity, and willingness to build the programme?
A next step is the appointment of an academic director: this person should demonstrate strength in academia as well as administration and have authority to make programme-relevant decisions. The academic director should appoint an administrative lead; these two together will build a team to solicit content expertise across the relevant disciplines to support the development of an innovative and industry-relevant curriculum, identify the best teachers for the programme and develop an applicant selection process and marketing strategy.
Flexibility and accessibility
For effective lifelong learning, universities must provide a wide range of options for adults, whether they are working or not. Some learners need upskilling, to acquire new expertise for a current or future position. Others come for reskilling to change careers – whether by choice or because their jobs or skills are obsolete.
For adult learners, accessibility is key: some courses have to be offered on evenings and weekends. A combination of in-person and online study, to suit the needs of working adults, can make these programmes appealing. Short courses, whether weekend-long or weekly sessions over a longer period, are attractive, especially if they can connect or can be stacked towards certifications or even degrees. Professional certificate programmes in high-demand areas, such as data science, artificial intelligence and digital marketing, provide training in industry-relevant skills that learners can immediately bring to their jobs. These typically require bigger time commitments from the learner, but courses can be cut into “bite-sized” pieces or spread out over time. If the employer gets on board, the learner may be given time from work to complete a course or certificate.
Alumni have a crucial role to play in all of this. Alumni networks are critical to identifying experiential learning opportunities, as well as internships and job connections. Successful alumni are often eager to engage with students as a way to give back to their institutions, and they can help assess the relevance of programmes. Alumni should be welcomed back to their alma maters to participate in continuing education, whether to attend events, take courses or give talks. Alumni who have been displaced might be offered financial aid to upskill or reskill. A university’s office of alumni relations must work hard to maintain alumni relationships, which benefit the university, the alumni and their organisations, and of course current students.
Collaboration and cooperation between universities, government and industry can enhance the ability of educational institutions to respond quickly to changes in the labour market and place new graduates and those with new skills into good jobs. Through dialogue or meetings among the parties, employers can share sector developments and associated talent needs; universities and government agencies can use this feedback to devise fit-for-purpose training solutions and industry talent development support plans. Research universities should project the kinds of skills that may be needed in the future workplace and provide commensurate training and education.
There is no telling when the pandemic will end, but it has moved us to embrace a “new normal”, whether we like it or not. Last year we saw radical governmental policies, emerging expectations around remote working, accelerated technological adoption, and the unusual consolidation of businesses within and across industries. The gap between the conventional practices of yesterday and requirements of tomorrow is widening at warp speed.
Miriam Jacqueline Green, principal policy analyst, and Susanna HS Leong, vice provost, both at the National University of Singapore.