The de facto college degree is getting squeezed from two directions: employers requiring professionals to build new-age technical skills (where there is currently a skills gap); and typical students who are faced with the rising cost of a traditional college degree and must take on significant debt. Moreover, according to a recent Gallup poll, a very strong majority of business leaders say hiring managers consider ‘knowledge’ and ‘applied skills’ as ‘very important in hiring decisions’ - 84 and 79 percent respectively. (This is far greater than the ‘degree’ or ‘college attended’ in the same category, only 28 and 9 percent respectively.) [i] And in another Gallup poll, business leaders were asked if higher education graduates have the skills ‘my business needs’ and 33 percent disagreed and 34 percent were neutral to the statement.[ii] More professionals have the opportunity to build skills and knowledge their own way, and there are three reasons why: access to knowledge, online learning channels, and social media.
We are starting to understand that the ‘pure memorization’ of large volumes of information is less relevant, and therefore dramatically changes learning expectations. Every single piece of information is and will be published digitally and accessible via a network and the large majority of it can be found from a simple Google or Wikipedia search. I do not deny that understanding concepts and rationalizing require some memorization, especially when one must think on the spot. (But even simple reciting can and will be augmented by wearable devices.) For example, there are now freestyle chess competitions where computer programs and humans work together as a team; this takes away the burden of memorizing moves and scenarios, and lets human players concentrate on strategy and understanding their opponent.[iii]
Online learning is going to revolutionize the whole process of becoming educated in a few ways. First, for many disciplines, you participate in self-guided learning. You take a free online course from a top-notch professor in any subject and this lays the groundwork to acquire deeper knowledge or simply provides enough context to work with others in the field. Second, with asynchronous learning, you fit online course requirements into a busy schedule (which might include working at a job); you usually have to complete about two to three hours each week (any time or day) for two months. Third, you spread the learning experience over a longer period of time. Traditionally speaking, you spend two to six consecutive years taking courses and then get a degree. However, considering how fast technical skills change, it might make more sense to take one or two courses throughout your career – spreading it out in a steady stream. I predict ‘continual learning’ becomes a requirement for most professions.
With social media web services, it is possible to stay current with the most recent developments of a subject and interact with experts in the field. There are no barriers in following ‘thought leaders’ in Twitter, Google+, and LinkedIn. Many of them are willing to share their most current work for free; generally speaking, the only requirement is to spread the word (by liking them) and/or participating in the discussion. After some time, with enough active participation, you start to develop your own insights and build a reputation. In fact, most employers canvas the Twitter activity of potential candidates (and some claim to be willing to make their hiring decision solely based on it).
[iii] Tyler Cowen. Average Is Over. Penguin Group (New York, 2013).
iv Derek Bok. Higher Education in America. Princeton University Press (Princeton, 2013); page 93.