The Microlearning Moment in Workplace Learning

column | Alternative Pathways

The Microlearning Moment in Workplace Learning

By Sean Gallagher (Columnist)     Nov 22, 2021

The Microlearning Moment in Workplace Learning

Just as formal education systems made a dramatic shift to digital since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, on-the-job training is changing as well. The same forces that transformed classrooms have accelerated the adoption of more digital learning in workplace training—advancing a trend that was already underway.

Many employers are investing in the professional development of their workers at a greater level than prior to the pandemic. One motivation is a need to give workers new skills so they can grow their businesses at a time when there is a faster rate of skills obsolescence, driving the need for lifelong learning. And employers are competing to attract and retain employees in what is being called a “war for talent.

Put simply, the short-lived recession of 2020 has given way to a massive shortage of workers and skills in 2021–and placed talent strategy and human capital back at the top of corporations’ strategic agendas.

These dynamics are at the center of what my colleagues and I have been studying in our recent research with employers exploring this new landscape for workplace learning.

Our analysis highlights a world in which learning is increasingly more digital, delivered when it is needed, and done in shorter and less structured ways than in the past.

These developments will have important implications for colleges and universities, training and skills providers, edtech firms and investors and other stakeholders in the education ecosystem.

The changing market also sets the stage for the emergence of new types of technology solutions and partnerships.

Smaller, Faster, Cheaper

Prior to the pandemic, learning in the workplace was already growing to include more technology-enabled “microlearning” that was less formal and less structured than traditional training programs. A few years back, leading analyst Josh Bersin popularized the idea of continuous learning and immediate application to real-world work problems as “learning in the flow of work.”

Rather than our traditional conception of “training” as a time-out from everyday work to visit to a classroom, on-the-job learning is increasingly about access to just-in-time, job-relevant content—often via a laptop or a smartphone, whether at a desk or on a manufacturing shop floor.

This shift is also being driven by many employers’ adoption of “learning experience platforms” (or LXPs) that curate content and learning from a variety of sources in one portal and that create personalized and trackable learning pathways. As one training director interviewed for our study described, “learning experience platforms allow us to democratize the learning for everyone and reach the masses”—in contrast to training programs that were often focused in the past on small groups of top executives. The shift to remote work in the pandemic also fueled the purchase of low-cost subscriptions to online training libraries.

The boom in short-form digital learning in the workplace doesn’t mean that classroom-based corporate training or more structured on-the-job learning is going away. But it does mean that the expectations of employers and workers are shifting, and that data and algorithms are driving and measuring what workers have learned.

Prior to the pandemic, about half of all corporate training hours were already being delivered in an online or mobile mode, and that has grown rapidly in the past 20 months. That means there’s a wider gap between the digital-leaning training world in many workplaces and the traditional-leaning practices at colleges as they return to in-person teaching.

When it comes to employee learning and development, employers have long favored options that are most directly aligned with their business goals and impact the bottom line. Employees, of course, often desire skill development that can be recognized externally and has career-long value beyond their current employer.

Microcredentials may be emerging as an ideal bridge between employer and worker interests: an employer may support investment in a job-related course or certificate, which the employee could later “stack” directly into a degree, either out-of-pocket or with employer support.

As more and more employers offer educational benefits to their workers, it’s worth noting that the trend is toward including shorter and faster offerings, not just degrees. In response to an inquiry for our study, education benefits management company Guild Education reported a 149 percent increase in applications for certificate programs over the course of the pandemic. And the number of active students in short-form offerings brokered by the company has grown ten-fold from the end of 2019 to the end of 2020.

Another key dynamic is the emergence of large-scale online learning platforms such as publicly traded companies Coursera and 2U (now combined with EdX), which are developing a rich ecosystem of courses, microcredentials and full degrees that employers are adopting as a resource for their employees.

In Coursera’s quarterly results just a few weeks ago, the company reported that its sales of its services to employers grew 75 percent compared to the year before, and that it had more than 700 corporate customers, up 124 percent from a year ago. At 2U, the enterprise business—a portfolio of subscription offerings including skills-based technical training and other courses—is the fastest growing area of the company.

As our new report noted, the shift toward subscription business models, smaller units of consumption, mobile delivery and on-demand offerings has some similarities to the shifts seen in the music industry over the last 20 years.

Big Changes Coming

Direct corporate involvement in postsecondary learning is growing as employers play a more active role in developing the workforce they need—and in a number of cases are providing their own credentials directly to workers. Our research suggests that a growing number of employers will be issuing digital badges in the future to document the skills and accomplishments of their workforce, currently exemplified by firms such as PwC and IBM.

That could mean the arrival of new ways to track and present learning and skill attainment over a lifetime, like “learning and employment records,” digital credential wallets and other technology infrastructure key to enabling a better functioning working and learning ecosystem.

Workplace learning has historically been an important market for postsecondary institutions: just think of the executive education offerings, continuing education and non-credit certificates, online degrees for working professionals and more. Employers are now making it clear that to continue to compete in this space, colleges will need to be more flexible and more nimble, technology enable, and bring more modular approaches to their curriculum.

Colleges and universities have an advantage as major partner to employers when it comes to developing talent, and the value of these often local partnerships came up often in our research. But their future role is far from assured.

We are still in the very early stages of a significant transition—and we’re truly living in the long-prognosticated “future of work.”

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