Skills Label

I am working on a new process (pat. pending) to create standardized displays for educational resources and experiences. Think about it: there is not a standardized process and display to attribute what has been learned from an educational resource.

Building Skills Label
Building Skills Label

There is no way of comparing traditional learning types – books, classroom courses, with emerging learning types – online games and courses, IoT, etc. This disarray becomes more apparent when comparing education, higher education, and professional learning resources.

Thinking in skills is one big step forward. Skills are the foundation of all learning. They work laterally across subjects and disciplines and vertically across education and career stages.

Picture a parent at a store (online or brick and mortar) comparing skills labels (aka education label) representing education resources and chooses a resource based on: cost or return on investment (ROI), how much time it takes to consume, learning preferences (like a type: book versus a game), or credential earned upon completion – all content shown clearly, concisely on the labels.

I invite you to see the current solution ( or ). I appreciate any and all feedback, send yours to: .

Benefactors of Free Community College or Technical Training

Providing universal access to higher education is a step in the right direction – whether or not the tab is picked up by federal and state governments. (Theoretically, non-profits, employers, and educational institutions could also chip in to make this happen.) President Obama recently proposed America’s College Promise where the government provides two years of community college for free. According to some early estimates, this proposal has a $60 billion price-tag.

If all states participate, an estimated 9 million students could benefit. A full-time community college student could save an average of $3,800 in tuition per year.[i]

Free Community College
Free Community College

Of course, there are many benefactors of this proposal: low-income families, less mature teenagers, veterans looking to validate skills, and ‘middle-skill’ professionals.

It is difficult for low-income families to put a student through college. Sure there are currently loans and grants offered for the families in need, but cutting the ‘red tape’ and telling these families everything is free is inspiring. If the proposal is accepted, more low-income students will go to community college.

Many teenagers are just not ready to enter a traditional four-year, on campus college program. They are not ready to take full accountability for their learning – attending class, doing homework, and balancing a social life. America’s College Program stipulates each student gets a mentor and must maintain a C+ average to stay in the program. A majority of community college students stay at home.

A proponent of America’s College Promise says it would benefit our veterans. They will be able to build upon their ‘technical skill and management expertise’ from serving and earn a degree – making them better job candidates. [ii]

Sixty percent of graduating high school students attend a two or four year degree education. It’s expected that as many as 25 million of all new job openings in the next decade will be for middle-skills jobs. In a 2014 survey, Accenture found that 69 percent of about 800 human resources executives said that middle-skill talent shortages “regularly affect their performance.”[iii]Clearly, this program would affect a large segment of the American population. It sets a new bar for education achievement of Americans.

Some other thoughts on the proposal:

  • Akin to another public initiative of adding one to two more years to high school. Both programs are designed to get students college credits and prepare for the final two years of a bachelor’s degree. It is not only about saving on tuition, but also giving students more time to mature for a higher order learning experience.
  • In a circuitous way, we are already paying for a large chunk of unpaid student loans. The federal government takes the burden of reparations for students who default on their loans, so our tax dollars are being used already.
  • Many community colleges face challenges to keep their doors open. One example is San Francisco Community College that almost collapsed without outside stimulus. A federal funding plan guarantees a revenue source, which makes it easier for community colleges to build a healthy foundation.
  • Skills gap due to a lack in technical skills. The program should increase the number of skilled workers. Community colleges offer accelerated programs to build these much-needed skills – engineering, programming, etc.
  • Puts pressure on the traditional four-year programs to reduce their tuition. Students have the option to take two years free at a community college, then transfer their credits and finish the last two years to earn a bachelor’s degree.
  • Provides resources to improve graduation rates by assigning a mentor. Community college dropout rates now hover somewhere between 66 percent and 80 percent.[iv]

Thinking in term of a Skills-Based Approach, there are alternative ways to build and validate the same technical skills; some of them include online training, certifications, apprenticeships, internships, coding camps, etc. Perhaps the program should cover two years of community college and other equivalent ways to build necessary technical skills. (Put a cap on the total expense and limit all programs to two years.) The president has also proposed the American Technical Training Fund, which is meant to expand beyond community colleges to other training institutions.

America’s College Promise guarantees everyone has access to higher education and training, so it increases the chances Americans find gainful employment and enjoy fulfilling lives. Moreover, it gives lower-income families a chance. For this reason, the essence of the program, I hope universal access to higher education becomes a reality – regardless if the president’s proposal gets approved (which is unlikely).





Transition to a Digital Classroom

The traditional education model is being disrupted by a new technology laden model. In the few books I have read on the future of education, every expert predicts this transformation – where technology delivers personalized and adaptive learning, levels educational gaps, and centers on reaching competencies. In Getting Smart, Tom Vander Ark summaries the advice of a public school CEO:

A perfect storm of reform… abandon seat-time requirements, stop buying textbooks, use open education resources on inexpensive tablet computers, and stretch staffing by moving students online for at least part of the day.[i]

Digital Classroom
Digital Classroom

Funding for education comes largely from property taxes, so wealthier communities have significant advantages over poorer communities; some of them include: scope of extracurricular activities, quality of teachers, and availability of learning resources. (As a high school soccer official, I have learned you can tell a lot about a community by the state of the school building and facilities and a general vibe from team members and the coach.) Vander Ark suggests considering funding education on a ‘per student’ versus ‘per community’ basis to address an achievement gap. Online learning is scalable and cost-effective so might help make education more egalitarian. Moreover, online and blended learning programs translates to less time sitting in a classroom at a school; therefore, some of the expense associated with maintaining a ‘brick-and-mortar’ facility goes away.

Vader Ark talks about the ability for students to learn at their own pace. Students who get bored in the traditional, sit at a desk for eight hours a day might get more stimulated by using online learning resources. Perhaps it becomes easier for students to graduate high school earlier; once students satisfy the required competencies they get a high school degree. Students might also take AP courses to satisfy college electives, which results in saving a couple of years of tuition. Other students might travel, intern, or participate in the community to learn more about themselves. (This extra time for self-exploration might be an effective way to address many students being immature and lacking focus with what they want to accomplish in college.)

Applying the Skills-Based Approach methodology in education makes sense for a number of reasons:

  • Vander Ark talks about ‘playlists’ in a curriculum. Students, teachers and parents participate in planning what skills a student needs and how to build them to reach a desired competency. The end result is a ‘playlist’ – a sequential, personalized, and adaptive learning approach.
  • Self-guided learning. There are no boundaries in building an expertise with a skill set. If a student identifies a core-competency or passion, he or she continues to build necessary skills online. The rigid, time sapping structure of subjects tied to grades is less relevant.
  • Competency based learning. Teaching experts all talk about the need to move away from learning based on grade levels where students are largely grouped based on age. Rather, students should learn based on how they learn best and what motivates them. It is more effective to tie competencies to the building and validating of a skill set – especially as students learn at varying rates and levels.
  • Gamification. It does not matter how students build skills, so learning through games is an exciting way to introduce intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. Badges are an excellent ways to present and validate an expertise with particular skills. (Vander Ark discusses Tony Roland’s, CEO of Mangahigh, realization that “gaming was really luring kids into skills-based learning”.)
  • Plethora of online learning resources. Students might learn from online courses, games, social media communities, video tutorials, and digital media (e-books, whitepapers, blogs, articles, and slideshows). It is practical and efficient to think in terms of skills when you are building skills from many different sources.
  • Threads education and career planning. Skills are tangible, something you can continue to build and validate after you graduate from high school and college. Think skill sets throughout your life – education, employment, and other experiences.


[i] Tom Vander Ark (2014). Getting Smart: How Digital Learning Is Changing the World. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Self-Guided Learning

Self-guided learning is increasingly accessible to us – through online learning platforms, digital content, discussion forums, etc. Sometimes going back to college to learn a particular discipline or subject is avoidable. To illustrate this notion of self-guided learning, I discuss my experience learning about K-12 and higher education systems over the last couple of years. I have a working knowledge in education systems and offer a unique perspective when I cross disciplines with my business and technology background.

Self-Guided Learning
Self-Guided Learning

I took a MOOC called Emerging Trends & Technologies in the Virtual K-12 Classroom and earned a grade of 96.4 percent (give you the grade as an assurance I took the course seriously). Through the course, I acquired a basic understanding of how teachers are utilizing technology and learning platforms in the classroom. Online courses are great for laying a basic, foundation of a new subject.

To understand how learning platforms work (and also satisfy curiosities), I took another five MOOCs in various subjects. Regardless of the subject, there are common elements in MOOCs (or any online course): finely tuned video lectures, learning assignments, quizzes and tests with instantaneous grading, and discussion forums. Practicing or applying what you are learning reinforces any knowledge gains (to be clear, in this case, I studied how learning platforms function).

Over the last two years, I read five books on higher education and two books on education from top thought leaders. In doing so, I became acquainted with perspectives of practitioners who have spent considerable time practicing, researching, and thinking about the education system. Learning from books is now more convenient than ever – simply click a button on Kindle to get it, make comments and highlights in the e-book, and follow the notes by clicking on links. A book is an immediate route into the mind of an expert where you follow their thought processes.

I have a daily routine of canvasing articles in major newspapers. I like the opinions section, where you get a pulse on what people are saying; for example, a parent talking about why Common Core testing is difficult on his or her child’s psyche. Newspapers keep you on top of the current issues and public opinion.

I have social media accounts. With Twitter I follow organizations providing educational services and discussing policy and funding issues. With LinkedIn I follow an education group of influencers. Articles in social media have insights from experts on current events followed by a long list of comments from readers.

I actively blog about concepts that interest me. Blogging forces you to stay current and offer your spin on things. (In a way, it is like building skills by teaching what you have learned.)

In K-12 education, students learn basic skills in reading, writing, and math; in higher education, students learn higher-order skills such as critical thinking and problem solving. Students also learn technical skills based on the degree they choose, and may continue onto graduate school to deepen their knowledge. Regardless of a person’s undergraduate degree, he or she has the basic knowledge and resources to learn other disciplines and subjects through self-guided learning. And, if necessary, he or she takes an online assessment to establish a competency and earns a credential matching a traditional degree.

Economists, lawyers, statisticians and many other common professions apply their technical skills to other disciplines. Cross-disciplinary skills are and will be highly sought after in the Information Age.

Many of today’s global problems are just too complex to be solved by one specialized discipline. These multifaceted problems require trans-disciplinary solutions.[i]


Valuing the Traditional College Education

There has been a lot attention given to the value of a traditional four-year college education. For the past thirty years or so, it has been thought of having three primary purposes: preparing students for a career, providing a social experience, and imparting civic-mindedness. However, with the rising cost of tuition and associated student indebtedness, the first two of these purposes are coming into question.

There is a skills gap. Are there alternative ways to build relevant skills and knowledge – apprenticeships and online training? Are there less expensive ways to educate students – online courses, MOOCs, etc.? Are there better credentials than a college degree – online badges? The traditional education is not going away, however, colleges are going to find ways to address these issues – blend online and classroom learning, make internships more like apprenticeships, and shorten the path to a degree.

There is sufficient evidence that many students are not learning much in college, even if they earn a degree. The bigger question is the value of a social experience. There is a transition from living at home under parental care and living independently. College shapes an individual’s social connectedness and sense of responsibility, but how much is this worth?

In the book Paying for the Party, two sociologists define three pathways (motivations) for college students; they are: mobility pathway, party pathway, and professional pathway.[1] I find the party pathway intriguing. Students prioritize Greek life and social aspects of their college experience. There is little emphasis on learning in this pathway. The idea is to get through the academics (to stay in college and party) and graduate with a credential – a degree. As the authors make clear, this is not necessarily negative for persons who strongly fit this motivation because they orchestrate the social interactions of the college. The majority of college students experience a maturation process where they learn to balance academics and partying; it is like a right of passage. (Though the intensity and circumstance of this process varies considerably based on social class.)

Social Experience
Social Experience

Nevertheless, as the cost of college is put under a microscope, I think it is important to consider students who gravitate towards a party pathway. Tuition is based on a credit hour system (related to the number of hours a week students spend on courses). Professors are paid based on the courses they teach. But if students are not attending the courses, what are they taking out loans and/or asking their parents to pay for?

Online learning helps some of these problems go away. Students can take a class or test when they are ready. There is no requirement to get up early in the morning or attend class on a Friday. Personalized learning and mastery is easier too. Students can get deeper into learning when they are ready.

Still I am not sure there is an easy solution in dealing with the escalating college costs. I think college students should understand their likely pathway and how it impacts their college experience. There has to be a better, less expensive way to go through a ‘maturation process’ to become academically prepared. Moreover, if you devote all of your time towards a ‘social experience’, then you should pay for a ‘social experience’ – not an academic education.

[1] Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura T. Hamilton. Paying for the Party. (Cambridge, Harvard University Press: 2013).