The technology of higher education


For nearly 30 years, pundits have predicted that education technology would disrupt higher education. Online courses will reduce costs and create unprecedented access to higher education, so the argument goes. Likewise, adaptive learning will improve — or replace — the art of teaching as the right digital content is delivered at the right time to each individual learner.

It’s looking increasingly like none of these are the game-changers we expected. While online learning is commonplace, higher education remains firmly in the crosshairs of critics targeting high tuition, student debt, poor completion rates and unemployed and underemployed graduates — demonstrating a growing skills gap.

But all is not lost. It may be that technology’s transformation of higher education lies not in the transformation of teaching and learning, but the advent of a new digital language that connects higher education and the labor market and, in so doing, exerts profound changes on both.The historic disconnect between higher education and the needs of the labor market is a data problem. In the past, data translating the discrete skills or competencies that employers need was not easily available or meaningful to faculty who create courses, or the students who take them.

Meanwhile, hiring managers have consistently relied on signals supported by anecdotal evidence, at best — for example, assuming that philosophy majors from Brown made terrific analysts, or that teachers with master’s degrees performed better in the classroom.Today, technology is changing the relationship between education and the workforce in four distinct ways.

First, competency data is becoming increasingly available. Online psychometric assessments, e-portfolios and micro-credentials are surfacing student competencies beneath the level of the terminal credential (i.e. degree). In addition, many colleges and universities are in the process of migrating to competency-based models, which will allow for the output of transcripts that better describe the competencies of graduates.

Third, this data is being extracted and parsed into competency statements by algorithms originally developed for purposes other than human capital development (i.e. search, e-commerce). On the other side, the same algorithms are extracting and parsing competency statements from job descriptions, then matching the two.

 Of course, regardless of the caliber of student competency data, matching students with jobs only works if employers’ job descriptions accurately capture and describe key competencies. So the fourth major development is the advent of “People Analytics” technologies, allowing employers to track employee performance with a feedback loop to job descriptions. The result is that job descriptions continuously improve, moving from vague and data-poor to precise, data-rich renderings of the profiles of top performers.

Together, these four technological developments will close the gap between higher education and the labor market and usher in a new era in human capital.  The resulting “competency marketplaces” will help students understand the jobs and careers that they’re most likely to match and help employers identify students who are on track, or on a trajectory to match in the future.

Competency marketplaces will inform students’ direction through postsecondary education by providing a human capital GPS to help them select which credentials, courses, assessments, projects or virtual internships move them most efficiently and effectively toward target professions or employers.

The core of the competency marketplace is the candidate or student profile. Your profile will include your resume and transcript, along with badges, projects, the results of standardized tests taken over the course of your life (SAT, ACT, GRE, LSAT) or new industry- or employer-specific micro-assessments. Students with more comprehensive profiles (i.e. more competency data) will be given preference by employers via the ATS. Colleges and universities that fail to recognize this may find that their students are at a relative disadvantage in the labor market and, over time, may face enrollment pressure.

The market for competencies will ultimately put unprecedented pressure on colleges and universities to unbundle the degree. As employers move to competency-based hiring, many will determine that degrees are not a priority — or even required for certain jobs. Over the next few years, degrees will become MIA in many job descriptions.

While this seems like the stuff of science fiction, it is not far off. Millions of new job descriptions are posted online every month. Colleges and universities are issuing millions of micro-credentials, millions of students are posting work in e-portfolios. Thousands of employers use Applicant Tracking Systems that are transitioning to Applicant Information Systems.

As the new language of competencies disrupts higher education, we will need to be vigilant to protect the central role that our colleges and universities play in civil society and economic development. At the same time, colleges and universities must take no comfort in the fact that prior predictions of technological disruption have proven false. This time really is different.

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