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This piece is the first article in a two-part series. Look forward to part two next week.

Let’s begin the New Year with two, salient 2014 facts destined to drive educational policy and technological innovation in higher education throughout 2015: (1) Today, skills matter more than how or where they were acquired; and (2) ed-tech innovators are creating Internet-driven online educational programs aimed at solving a growing skills-gap deficit.

These felicitous facts have created unanticipated competition for universities, now threatened in their traditional role as the necessary mobility portal for our society.

In 2015, look for higher education’s disruptive creators to innovate upon the moral high-ground assertion that providing a more affordable and measurable path to competencies will bring value to employers and to students looking to justify their costly diplomas. These efforts will be planted on fertile ground, given that average tuition costs have risen 440 percent over the past quarter-century and have created nearly $1.1 trillion dollars in student-loan debt today.

In order to innovate sustainably, companies will roll out implementation plans promoting more online offerings premised upon novel subscription-based business models able to accommodate an increased craving for “on-demand” type learning environments. In our Netflix binge-watching culture, this type of demand is required by learners with voracious appetites who seek to pick up where they left off (or stop when they want) as their most convenient and requested form of educational experience.

I expect an explosive increase in cutting-edge ed-tech offerings centered on various modes of adaptive, online-based competency platforms. These new game-changing online platforms finally will produce affordable variegated on-ramps for the traditional, non-traditional and career learner by leveraging sequential competencies valued by employers as the core deliverable. If successful, expect traditional colleges to continue to be at severe competitive disadvantage.

2014: Looking Back

In 2014, explosive growth occurred in new degree programs and massive open online courses (MOOCs) giving students increased options to acquire employable skills. An expansion of the educational technology sector promoting these offerings centered learning tools geared toward the realization of creditable outcomes and demonstrable competencies.

January 2014 also began with the release of a defining higher education survey of College and University Chief Academic Officers, which offered up a defining conundrum that ignited a powerful discourse that will continue into the New Year. This study pointedly told us that only 11 percent of business leaders—compared to 96 percent of chief academic officers—believe that college graduates have the requisite skills necessary for the workforce.

The collision of these two events—technology’s ability and promise to bridge the skills gap, commingled with higher education institutions’ aloof unawareness or inattention to any perceived gap—forms the underlying basis for higher education innovation in 2015.

2015: The Competency Conundrum

Higher education institutions, legislators, ed-tech entrepreneurs, academics and impact-driven philanthropies, including the Michelson 20 Million Minds Foundation, have dissected this conundrum, which comes down to whether successfully graduating from traditional higher education programs is really the best indicator of a quality education program if students do not seamlessly transition into high-impact/high-need careers.

The debate heightened with the announcement of President Barack Obama’s new college rating system, which had traditional higher education reeling over two words: “employment outcomes.” The phrase signaled that, alongside tuition costs, “outcome-based” factors will now be important enough to rate our higher education institutions.

In a world where skills matter more than how they were acquired, the President and his Department of Education seem to have recognized and captured the accumulating frustration that “there is increased evidence that college students are learning very little in terms of the skills that higher education prides itself on—basic things like calculations, critical thinking, writing skills.”

Given most higher education institutions have historically separated teaching and academic scholarship as a distinct enterprise from vocational training, they now face a disruptive choice: adapt toward a new paradigm with the tools afforded by the Internet of Things, or resist it by maintaining stalwart control of the traditional degree and insist that the ultimate consumers of degrees, namely employers, must provide the polishing skills and training themselves.

A New America Foundation report issued this year gave us the debate parameters—and possibly the solution: “It is time to move beyond artificial distinctions between ‘education’ and ‘training’ and recognize that all students benefit from a mix of both … There is little benefit to thinking of workforce development, job training, career and technical education, and higher education as fundamentally different activities—they are all designed to support learning.”

This will be the year that policymakers, foundations and ed-tech innovators will solve this dilemma by pursuing, creating, funding and scaling implementable “online” innovations built around competency-based education.

A settlement forged by these unyielding parties might be the only mortar able to keep a disintegrating ivory tower intact, by identifying what employers need and seamlessly weaving these skill sets directly into the formal curricula itself via accepted online platforms. An innovative, online-based merger of these conflicting principles could illuminate a learning pathway for nearly half of graduating college students still in the dark and looking for jobs.

If successful, as Peter Cappelli told the Washington Post, “students no longer will be asked to play venture capitalist, picking majors years out from [actually] applying for jobs with companies that demand increasingly specific skills sets and without a full understanding of the skills employers are looking for.” Students themselves have already given us the top five reasons they are attending college today which include “to be able to get a better job” (No.1), “to get training for a specific career” (No. 3) and “to be able to make more money.” (No. 4).

To be successful in 2015, change-resistant institutions and decision makers must agree to work toward the adoption of major disruptive technologies supported by new and changing education policies.

Although a very small number of this nation’s prestigious liberal arts colleges—and many major research universities may be able to ignore the competency conundrum—nearly 80 percent of all state-supported colleges will have to innovate for the sake of institutional preservation, as employers begin to turn to online, competency-based education providers. Students are already abandoning expensive mid-tier colleges and settling instead on lower-cost options based on the academic paradigm of “career education” able to produce demonstrable employment outcomes.

Emancipated: Skills, Mastery and Ongoing Learning

Innovations in this new era will rely on technology-enabled emancipation of traditional learning from confined class hours and mandatory physical attendance. Concepts such as seat time, credit hours and a unified institutional degree program must co-exist alongside newer tech-driven delivery models offering students more diverse paths toward completion.

Educators do facilely acknowledge that students learn at different paces—yet our higher education institutions continue to measure learning in credit hours and instinctively choose uniformity over diverse learning delivery methods. Does anybody really believe that counting instructional hours as a prerequisite for learning is rational and sustainable in the Internet era?

Allowing higher education students the ability to advance due to irrefutable mastery—will be the challenge for new technologies seeking to challenge outdated models of curriculum delivery and their lengthy pathway to a degree. Government policy modernization is also a requirement given the need to support these new technologies by changing the current forms of assessment and challenging self-preserving institutional certification protocols.

For innovations with potential to solve the conundrum, I expect to see competency edtech efforts and outcome-focused approaches that target the mastery of skills at the learner’s pace rather than within a specific period of time. Sustainable innovations in 2015 must be anchored giving students the ability to stack their own learning objectives and prove their mastery of these objectives through innovative formative assessments that move them to their next competency objective.

Dean Florez is the president and CEO of the Michelson 20 Million Minds and has 20 years of legislative & policymaking experience in the higher education field. 20MM and its initiatives are made possible by the generous support of Dr. Gary Michelson and his wife, Alya Michelson.

Dean Florez

CEO, Michelson 20 Million Minds Foundation

Dean Florez is the president and CEO of the Michelson 20 Million Minds and has 20 years of legislative & policymaking experience in the higher education field. 20MM and its initiatives are…