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Industry Spotlight: The Benefit of Higher Education Being Late to Technology-Based Learning

In his recent book Thank You for Being Late, Thomas Friedman analyzes why the world seems to be accelerating away from us at a remarkable pace. His explanation: Humans are adaptable, but no generation has experienced technology, globalization and climate change at the rate we are seeing. As an example, Friedman suggests that if advances in microchips had instead occurred in cars, today’s successor to the 1970s VW “Bug” would cost 4 cents and have a top speed of 300,000 miles per hour.

The book’s title comes from a remark Friedman shared with a friend who was tardy for their meeting. The extra minutes gave the author time to actually think before diving into yet another in a string of interviews. Sometimes being late is a good thing.

I believe that’s the case for higher education. Being late to the world of online learning has positioned universities to take advantage of technology that’s now far less expensive than when originally conceived in the 1990s. All one has to do is compare the array of applications and devices for mobile learning available today with concepts like performance support and clunky, unfriendly software such as learning management systems. Performance support was about providing workers information at the moment they needed it.

Twenty years ago, companies were investing millions of dollars in trying to define, build and tag knowledge and map it to a worker’s needs. Now, a high school student with a smartphone can get a contextually suitable result from a search engine of their choice, or even by posting a question to their preferred social network.

Higher education has begun to embrace the fluidity of learning and the realization that someone in the workplace isn’t the sum of their experiences leading up to a given situation. Instead, more and more colleges and universities realize that learning isn’t necessarily all the things along the way we did to prepare ourselves for a job, but the ability to access the resources in the moment to solve problems.

A neophyte on the job can have the ability to perform at the same level as a veteran if the rookie knows how to immediately access contextual information via technology. Just-in-time learning and tacit knowledge that was so elusive even 20 years ago is more accessible than ever before, and this access to on-demand know-how bridges the boundary between companies and higher education.

“By providing world-class, affordable credentials ranging from open-access courses to certificates to degrees, we enable our students to enrich their careers,” said Huntington Lambert, dean of Harvard’s Division of Continuing Education. “… now is the time for higher education to maximize our practical and creative capabilities … as we continue to transform into an information-based global economy.”

The practical and creative capabilities Lambert speaks of are a model of shared know-how, at the precise time in your career that you need it. Even today, companies still try to create “systems” for taking know-how from workers and putting learning into a knowledge base, instead of drawing on a fluid network of people who respond as they are queried for help.

“This leads to increased potential for economic mobility and equips citizens with the tools they need,” believes Lambert.

Universities need leverage this accidental circumstance and leverage learning technology and competency development to provide more personalized adaptive experiences to bridge the theoretical and practical aspects of education. Because institutions of higher education have access to a treasure trove of expertise and data, I believe there is huge potential for higher education to support companies more directly in developing their workforce. Instead of corporations and universities developing employees and students in two separate silos, there needs to be a fluidity of learning that mirrors how workers and students want to learn. I encourage Deans and Directors of Extended and Continuing Education to make those strategic connections with corporate learning leaders.


Lee Maxey is Founder and CEO of MindMax. Lee has led MindMax since its founding in 2009, providing technology-enabled marketing solutions to accelerate enrollments for universities. Lee takes pride in building long-lasting relationships with MindMax’s university partners and building a culture focused on results aligned with client specific needs. MindMax provides strategic guidance, proven processes, and the latest digital tools to optimize online marketing and enrollment operations for university-affiliated continuing and professional education organizations. We are a trusted advisor to many of the nation’s top universities, and have transformed hundreds of online programs, impacting over 1 million students.

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