The Edu-Sphere: Scaling the Great Disconnect in Education & Workforce

By Gordon Freedman

With completion rates so low, student debt so high and an abundance of skill-based jobs, is it time to rethink the relationships between learners, institutions and jobs?

In the past two weeks, I attended two different conferences that brought together the core players in education and workforce development, and technology in support of learning and education. One conference was in Austin, CloseIt, the other in Portland, WCET.

Austin and Portland are just where you want to be to try to crack the code of students, learners, jobseekers, jobs, the gig economy, community college and universities, start-ups, investors and foundations.

These were not mega-conventions but assemblies of reasonable size where many of us know each other and have for years. Some newcomers entered the conversation, but many faces were familiar. Each participant, representing a population of inventive institutions and organizations, tries to chip away at the insurmountable concrete wall separating what learners, students and jobseekers need—and what is traditionally available in terms of institutional education, training and workforce development, seemingly dense and hard to navigate.

The leaders and newcomers are trying to chart new ways for learners, students and jobseekers operate on the choppy waters of the digital economy, while many of the institutional, corporate and government entities upon which we collectively rely are still on the shore, firmly anchored on terra firma.

“Bending” was the hopeful term used at the WCET gathering to describe the potential of traditional higher education to change a little bit, while the back row suggested that we will see a corresponding growth of “shadow education” alongside the brick and mortar. I am not sure either of these is happening, or that the concrete wall is actually in charge of its own destiny. Other forces are necessary for change.

“Work+Learn” was the mantra at the CloseIt event, held in a relaxed Austin venue. This year’s CloseIt brought together Innovate+Education, the owner of the conference, and Palo Alto based Institute for the Future, which pioneered on the Work+Learn philosophy which had its roots in the ACT Foundation.

Individuals, Information & Institutions

Institutions – Players in the Middle

The problem across education and workforce technology and data solutions is unlike that in the tech sector. Community colleges, colleges, universities and training facilities stand between people—learners, students, jobseekers—and the worlds of employment and civic engagement. Likewise, workforce development, job hunting and talent acquisition are middle players between individuals, work and careers.

Education institutions, workforce agencies and employers want the same thing: qualified students or candidates who will perform in such a way that benefits the institutions, employers and the individuals. However, we are painfully aware of the institutional, governmental and corporate barriers. We cannot, and should not, remove the well-anchored intermediaries, but we do need to alter how they do business and what is measured as success.

Information – Exiting the Middle Player 

In pure-play Web-scale and app technology such as social media, search and consumer apps, success comes from an ability to remove the middle players. Toss them aside. Goodbye book stores, shopping malls, travel agents, taxis, hoteliers, libraries and drinking fountain gossip.

At the very heart of every one of the big information and identity-driven platforms or apps is a single person, an individual or end-user, who is the essential element in making a sale, a search or a connection. The middle folks in this world have been “disintermediated.”

The individual end-user in a platform or app is the beating heart of the digital economy, times all individuals using the solution. While the use of our personal information is a huge, almost unchallenged problem in the consumer world, in a renewed edu-sphere, we have to address this issue at the level of the individual and secure that learner, student or jobseeker.

Individuals – Need to be in the Equation

In education, training and workforce, that individual beating heart—a student or jobseeker—is a distant data point, not a singularly defined agent offering information and receiving services in return. This is the crux of the problem. The heart of the future is putting the individual, times all individuals, in the center of their own universe of learning and finding work.

However, in education, training, job placement and employment we are not going to be tossing the middle players out any time soon. Nor should we. Yet it is equally clear that there is a significant challenge to re-engineering campuses, workforce agencies or HR practices. They are not “bending” very far. In many ways, they cannot. There is no handbook for going from large-scale brick and mortar to an “edu-sphere.” Yet…

Long Way from End-Users Driving the Services

Faced with this growing “Great Disconnect,” institutions have not been able to customize or personalize for individuals or end-users who live in a world of instant connections, actions and interaction.

Unfortunately, learners, students and jobseekers do not exist as digital entities in the world of education, workforce and job hunting. Nothing about education or job placement has been about the actual people as individuals or as sole drivers, times all the drivers, in the larger ecosystem. Students, employees and jobseekers exist only on data plots. Unlike the greater Web/app world, there is no mass personalization, nor a clear path to it.

In both Austin and Portland good people, talented developers, data geeks and others were charting their way around institutional, corporate and government structures to better connect individuals, reduce the overhead and clear a path for a person negotiating learning to working.

Yet, top-down hierarchically, departmentally and bureaucratically organized structures do not have methods to reach every end-user or consumer equally and equitably. There simply is no means, or meme, to bridge into the digital economy at large-scale and simultaneously at the level of each student and each jobseeker.

At both conferences there were lively presentations and discussions with many workarounds, strategies and hopes. But the future at large-scale and at personal scale will not come from workarounds. Rather, the next solutions at scale will be about how institutions and workforce agencies collaborate with each end-user, times all end-users.

While it does not seem that we are any closer to solving the Great Disconnect or scaling the concrete wall than we were last year, there are signs that we can go far beyond a hopeful bending of institutions and a gig-like shadow education sector.

Is it possible to make a pure play in learning education, workforce or with employers where the individuals are the centers of their own universe?

The Edu-Sphere, Disintermediation by Personalized Controlled Data?

There were a few of us at both conferences. What was common among us, and between the conferences, were a few strategies that underpin the consumer pure play, avoid the consumer data security issue, and adapt to the organizational realities of institutions and agencies.

These include:

  • Common cross-function data standards that can bridge learners, students, jobseekers, employees and institutions, agencies and corporations. While campuses and agencies rely on older technology that grew up from ledgers and floppies and is on remote servers, data standards used across various learning, ed tech and workforce systems can begin to build bridges between the silos in each organization. Such standards development is underway.
  • Learner-owned records that are secure can include learning from multiple institutions and training that are related to labor codes of jobs held by learners and are secured by block chain or other non-tampering provisions. Moving to consolidated records would require different education and training providers to collaborate with end-users in order to provide more than a set of data bleeps in retention solutions and on dashboards. Such systems of records outside each campus or agency are in pilot.
  • Development of education record security and permissions attached to learners who control access to their own records, thus removing learners from the incessant data-mining prevalent on the Web through general apps and from likely the same behavior by ed tech, publishing and HR once students are data entities. Such solutions are underway.
  • Building new units inside of traditional institutions and organizations that can experiment and bring in the willing staff, faculty and dedicated outsiders into the new efforts less tethered to the old ways. This is underway in places like National University’s Precision Institute (where I am a fellow) and in the new California Community College Online Education Initiative.

These will become bridging, identity and security data middleware solutions. They could be the beginnings of the “edu-sphere.”

Wrap Up, From Austin and Portland and on to Albuquerque and Denver

Education and workforce are not going to turn into their own versions of the open Web and consumer apps, nor is the giant concrete wall coming down any time soon. But what can happen is that new forms of solution-spanning data middleware can link the silos and make individual learners and jobseekers much more than dots on data analytic dashboards.

See you next year in Albuquerque for CloseIt 2019 and in Denver for WCET 2019 where, hopefully, we will see the rise of the edu-sphere, a secure data middleware intersection of information, individuals and institutions.

Further Reading

Report Published by Innovate-Educate for CloseIn 2018 “A Nation Upside Down: A New Vision for the Future of Learning” Presents a realist’s view of who goes to college and for how long versus the Work-Learn framework from the Institute for the Future. (Presented at CloseIt2018)

Reimagining Higher Ed Ecosystem ChallengeTransforming the Postsecondary Ecosystem, U.S. Department of Education competition finalists answering the questions, How might we empower people to design their own learning journeys so they can lead purposeful and economically stable lives? (Presented at WCET 2018)

Free Range Learning in the Digital Ageby Peter Smith, reviewed by WCET and in sessions at WCET.

A New U: Faster+Cheaper Alternatives to Collegeby Ryan Craig, committed to the new model of skills acquisition in the digital economy.


Gordon Freedman is president of the National Laboratory for Education Transformation, a research and development nonprofit dedicated to modernizing learning, training and job-seeking, and a Fellow at National University’s Precision Institute. Previously, Freedman was vice president global education strategy at Blackboard, Inc.