Can edtech partnerships bring lifelong learning to all?

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the global economic outlook for the worse. According to the World Bank, urgent action is needed to “set the stage for lasting recovery”.

COVID-19 is affecting the foundations of the unique higher education ecosystem, although the role of higher education in confronting socio-economic challenges is incontrovertible. As an unprecedented global economic crisis looms, the ability of higher education to support sustainable employment through continuous learning is vital to minimise social divides – even more than it was a year ago.

Higher education must cater for an increasingly dynamic labour market where certain fields experience labour shortages and professions are fluid. For example, according to the World Economic Forum, the top 10 jobs of the future will be in artificial intelligence, big data and data analysis. In such a context, the pace of change is unpredictable and domain-dependent, and continuous re-skilling and alliance with the world of work is a must.

For this reason, universities are strengthening their commitment to lifelong learning.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

Initiatives have been bourgeoning for years. However, lifelong learning can no longer be an opportunity for some – it has to become available to all. This is not yet the case. Businesses do not want to spend on their staff’s lifelong development uncritically.

The Dutch platform Toekomst van Arbeid (‘Future of Work’) indicates that employers typically invest in the development of their employees if this benefits the organisation and if the organisation has sufficient mass to sustain an infrastructure for training and development.

Therefore, it is likely that a company would fund up-skill training courses only in its own sector and if it is sufficiently large.

Moreover, public funding of higher education is still based on the notion that learning ends after graduation. How much and how are governments willing to add to support lifelong learning? This conundrum raises key questions about how to design economically sustainable lifelong learning delivery options.

So what’s new?

Lifelong learning has come a long way. At its heart lies the interaction between the world of higher education and the world of work. But if it is to become ‘universal’, universities’ lifelong learning strategies must be both responsive and scalable.

Responsiveness implies the capacity to react to socio-economic and market demands through the knowledge, skills and competences an institution develops in learners. Scalability denotes an institution’s capacity to absorb more students (providing an equal quality of education) as flexibilisation increases.

We contend that partnership agreements between universities and educational technology companies (‘edtechs’) allow these two conditions to be met. Edtechs can be construed as being an interface between higher education and the labour market. They provide platforms (or enable universities or university alliances to create their own platforms) that allow educational institutions to apply the lifelong learning modalities best suited to the needs of their staff, students and businesses.

Nowadays, several online programme manager companies (OPMs) even design and deliver education. However, it is our contention that, ultimately, designing a learning experience is and should remain, the responsibility of universities.

Partnering with an edtech facilitates greater access to lifelong learning through:

Delivery of continuous education that is strongly related to a specific profession which is acknowledged, and has been requested, by that professional field. In this case, scale is achieved by targeting a professional group (say, vascular surgeons) or by a bundled demand from the business community.

An on-campus-only option is expensive and co-payment by businesses is necessary. Cooperating with an edtech can enable economies of scale by reaching out to a large population and optimising the connection between the provider and the field.

Companies might request the necessary skills and competencies, select the learners and foot part of the bill; a university might advise companies on how to tackle their transformation challenges (for instance, digital transformation), co-design and offer (online) courses; and the edtech can enable them to reach out to as many students as possible. This scenario not only benefits companies and enlarges the pool of learners, but it also boosts the university’s network.

Flexible degree paths, for example, enabling adults to attain a degree through dual trajectories, modular or stackable learning, and so on. This education is based on accredited courses. Scale can be achieved by combining regular full-time students with part-timers who wish to learn asynchronously.

In this instance, universities are increasingly partnering with edtechs and OPMs with the required expertise and technological know-how to deliver learning experiences that account for individual circumstances (for instance, through offering greater work-life balance).

Short learning opportunities to develop new skills. This option entails the delivery of short, targeted programmes by which individuals can acquire new skills as their preferences or job requirements evolve. These programmes are awarded with a credential that recognises the nature and content of the education received.

Cooperation between the education provider, the business and the individual is essential. A programme might be ‘challenge-based’, using practical cases in which the university and firms work together on a specific challenge, such as energy transition.

The learner acquires new knowledge and skills that drive his or her own company’s transformation. Thanks to the affordability of short courses, employees can learn at their own expense and become ambassadors of change within their organisations.

It is a win-win situation where individual empowerment goes hand in glove with organisational development.

Also, the provision of short learning programmes might involve establishing cooperation networks with complementary educational partners (for instance, a research university with a university of applied sciences) coupled with the use of a joint platform provided by an edtech. It is, therefore, a highly responsive and highly scalable option.

Perhaps a key advantage of a university-edtech partnership lies in its potential to deliver lifelong learning to ‘the masses’. A university-edtech partnership can bridge the gap between the promise of education providers to offer relevant education and the demand from businesses and individuals for specific skills and competencies.

We concede that the ability to deliver lifelong learning is a prerogative neither of one form of cooperation nor of one strategy. Indeed, it can be done in several ways, including, for example, through existing networks or consortia such as the European Consortium of Innovative Universities (ECIU).

ECIU is trying to offer several lifelong learning pathways at very low or zero entry cost in order to make them more inclusive. However, we do contend that partnering with edtechs is an efficient way to deliver lifelong learning. Universities remain the organisations that offer a degree or certificate that stands for a certain quality. But a university-edtech partnership is an innovative way of providing opportunities for affordable education to individuals who wish to develop new skills or obtain a degree flexibly.

From this perspective, it broadens access to lifelong learning to a large population who might otherwise not have had access to it.

At the same time, we caution universities to uphold the fundamental values that ‘make a university a university’. Without doubt, lifelong learning is an inherent contributor to universities’ missions; without a doubt, universalising access to lifelong learning falls within the realm of what universities (should) do.

Universities are also creators of knowledge through research. They are autonomous. They are distinct from contracted training providers. They fulfil a unique social responsibility. From this perspective, edtechs bring innovation in delivery, in connecting content, in using new technologies, and so on. Universities, on their own, might not deliver this true innovation. In cooperation with edtech companies, they may very well be able to do just that.

Marc-Jan Zeeman is a policy adviser in education at the University of Twente in the Netherlands. Leon Cremonini is a senior policy officer at the University of Twente’s strategy and policy department in the Netherlands, focusing on education policy. In the past, Cremonini has worked on higher education policy with GIZ (German Development Cooperation) in Ethiopia, the University of Twente’s Center for Higher Education Policy Studies and the RAND corporation in the United States. He is currently involved in several projects, including on lifelong learning, university collaborations, research and education financial models.

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