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Who are the right partners for professional skills?

In a recent interview, Jeff Maggioncalda CEO of Coursera put in the latest plug for Coursera for Business. For those of us trying to read the tea leaves on this, it seems likely that the rumours of a Coursera pivot towards B2B (they’ve gone from 30 to 500 companies over 2017) as opposed to B2C are true.

All MOOC platforms have made some sort of pivot to professionals, because they make up the core of their paying customer base but most do this by pushing for in-demand academic subjects such as Computer Science, Programming, Data Science and Business. That makes sense as that leverages their strengths — their university partnerships. Notably however, most platforms that exclusively or primarily serve the B2B/ professionals market own their own content and/or commission corporations or individuals to fill the gap. Pluralsight own and create their own content, as do other tech platforms like Treehouse or Datacamp, which begs the question: if the problem is professional skills, are university courses the answer?

First let’s unpack “professional skills” a somewhat vague term. There are the core conceptual and foundational elements of a subject e.g. Statistics that are a prerequisite for Data Science or critical reading in the humanities (to grossly simplify). Then there are the more applied courses which employers are specifically interested in (and complain universities don’t do, making graduates poorly equipped to start), these are by nature narrower in context — such as training someone to be Ruby developer in an agile product team. Universities are less suited to this latter type.

Universities clearly do carry some advantages in this context. Universities are a trusted brand — which is useful for the user to use as a proxy of quality (not to be underestimated in a market flooded with certificates and suppliers), their courses are often variants of on-campus courses that are subject to regulatory quality assurance and of course, university courses delivered by experts in the field.

The problem for universities is that many of these strengths could be construed as weaknesses. The first problem is the inability to meet demand — Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity, frequently argues that key technology skills such as Self-driving cars — need tens of thousands of engineers yet only a handful of university departments in the US teach this — throttling supply. LinkedIn’s latest job data tells the same story with a Data Scientists, only 35K exist in the US despite demand increasing by 650% since 2012,

That points to a second problem, which is the pace of change. The same LinkedIn survey notes that technology skills also see the highest turnover of skills, Machine Learning followed very quickly on the heels of Data Science.

Some might point out that these problems are specific to technology-focused subjects and as such Universities are resilient due to their broader subject base. There are two problems with this argument. Firstly, Technology jobs are the fastest growing jobs in the labour market — so to not meet it is to not be able to target one of the largest and fastest growing segments of skill demand. Secondly, digitisation is permeating across different work areas which previously didn’t apply digital technology (Healthcare, food, construction). MOOC platforms thus cannot afford to miss out on technology but are perversely limited in by their university reliance in their ability to meet the nature of the demand. That’s why Udacity and Pluralsight et al tend to own their content. In fact, the success of Udacity other technology focused learning platforms (but also bootcamps) lies precisely in exploiting the rapidly emerging skill shortages generated by technological change. Universities need to balance teaching and research requirements with their staff, ensure new course material is properly QA’d and consistent with the curriculum and hire staff who can meet these academic standards, none of which begets rapid course production to meet emergent skill gaps.

What then is to be done? It’s hardly hopeless but if universities want to be part of the professional skills solution they will need to develop the internal capabilities to produce courses faster that meet demand while also being more explicit about the value of learning the deeper fundamentals of any subject where they have a natural advantage. Bootcamps etc are seductive because of their MVP content but Universities can argue that a more resilient career has to be built off deeper foundations (much as MIT have done with their new Manufacturing Micromasters). A second approach would be to help develop a framework for the credentials of their professional skills courses. Were universities to agree on common standards for professional skills courses (either by awarding credit or other systems) they could provide employers with a trusted framework to assess a candidate’s skills — which has hitherto been a somewhat quixotic endeavour as employer try to make sense of the myriad of certificates, providers and qualifications.

Universities and learners alike would have much to gain from such an approach. Universities are under constant pressure to justify their return on investment by value for money to students via employability. While learners have to deal with a wild west of Edtech and bootcamp courses all purporting to teach them skills for the job of their dreams. Universities could bring the framework, quality and expertise to bear on this problem, helping professionals and students alike and in doing so renew their role in the 21st century as the gold standard of learning. It is much as Tancredi notes in the Leopard “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change”.

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