What “Education” is Starting to Look Like in a Post-industrial World

The modern workplace is starting to look nothing like its forebears, but education and training are wondering what it’s even complaining about.
Look at me; I have two degrees in fields that I don’t work in, but I got the basic skills to start my career via an online credentialing program hosted by my local community college. I watched and listened to pre-recorded lectures, read assignments I downloaded, performed homework and took exams through a portal and even completed one final exam while in the back seat of a car.
That was valuable education for me, and I never once met my professor (though he did answer some emails) nor any classmates or school administrators. And now, a decade later, that’s practically quaint.
For decades, education in the United States looked like a straight progression—everybody attended compulsory primary school, at least some secondary, and then moved to a vocational training program, university, or straight into the workforce. It was possible to make a good living with just a high school diploma.
Recent decades have seen those lines blur, as universities offer degrees in ostensibly vocational areas (accounting, design, business, etc.) and employment for many people meant having at least a bachelor’s degree.
This proved to be cost-prohibitive to many (and had the side effect of deflating the value of a college degree), but the demand for skills not only stayed high—it rapidly changed with the introduction of new technologies. Now, while traditional education is still dominant, new models, applications and credentials are changing the game for people who might have been shut out before, but can cheaply, quickly and effectively train up for the careers of today and tomorrow.

  • It’s not only becoming more common, but downright commonplace, for people to learn career skills entirely online. The old correspondence school model has been replaced by robust online curricula that often align not just with industry standards, but credentialing institutions. There are even platforms that collect courses from major international universities and offer them online for a small fee, or even for free.
  • Similarly, the massive online open course (MOOC for short) has become a model for course delivery. Some of the above utilizes the model, and institutions themselves may offer a MOOC option for courses that can lead to a degree. They may be live or they may be pre-recorded, but the idea is to replicate part of the classroom experience online via video, chat and group activity.
  • Virtual training even extends beyond hard skills—there are video-based soft skill and process training tools that allow a person to view a scenario and respond to it, or practice an interaction and share it with colleagues or a supervisor for feedback. These tools can extend into virtual career mentoring, too!
  • Those kinds of innovations are also creative innovations in credentialing itself—whereas it used to be important to earn a degree or certificate to prove competency, and stacked credentials could be required to advance in a field, digital badging and other forms of microcredentialing are gaining steam as alternatives. By completing a course, passing an exam or otherwise demonstrating an acquired skill, a user earns a token that verifies the skill, which can serve as proof for employers looking for specific skill sets but not necessarily an entire degree or certificate’s worth of education.
  • In direct application, like in labs and classrooms, virtual reality and augmented reality are changing how training occurs in the first place. Imagine an auto shop class in which a student in goggles receives step-by-step instructions for repairing an engine as a visual overlay, or even entirely through a headset while they manipulate virtual tools via control sticks, with the program itself correcting missteps and offering advice. It’s happening, with applications all across workforce development.

Education has gone through a lot of changes over the last several years, and it continues to change as technologies emerge and new insights into how people learn can be applied.