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The Commons: Ending Knowledge Discrimination

As the continuing and online education community knows all too well, in American higher education, where you learn something is more important than how well you know and can apply it. The average adult spends over 700 hours a year engaged in purposeful learning outside of the formal college curriculum. And the knowledge, skills, and abilities gained through that personal learning are largely internalized and forgotten by the learners as well as going unrecognized by colleges and employers alike. This is knowledge discrimination pure and simple, because the learning was devalued based on where it was learned.

I wrote Free-Range Learning in the Digital Age: The Emerging Revolution in College, Career, and Education (SelectBooks, NYC, June, 2018), to do two things.

  • First, I wanted to show the consequences of knowledge discrimination at street level, through the eyes of adult learners who have been left behind.
  • Second, I wanted to identify some of the positive practices and examples that are emerging within higher education as well as in the entrepreneurial world beyond campus boundaries. Again, I wanted to do through the eyes of the innovators. That’s why I interviewed several innovative presidents, like Ed Klonoski (Charter Oak State College) and Paul LeBlanc (SNHU). And then I supplemented their perspectives with those garnered from non-academic innovators such as Troy Markowitz at Portfolium and Matt Sigelman at BurningGlass.

The plain fact is that we are developing the tools and practices to end knowledge discrimination and bring this personal learning out of the closet. Doing so will drive serious, positive change for individuals as well as businesses as these previously hidden credentials are brought to light and validated.

While reasonable people can debate some of the specific causes and solutions, one thing is indisputable. As I lay out in Free-Range Learning, higher education is facing major disruption driven by forces beyond its control. In short, the traditions and practices that flow from faculty governance, broadly defined, are challenged by new practices and models for learning and employment driven by technological change.

And, importantly, the forces driving technologically-enhanced learning lie beyond the boundaries and the control of college campuses. So, the context within which colleges have historically operated is changing radically. In most cases, institutions that ignore the disruption and look the other way will be badly hurt. And in some cases, they will fail. Standing still is not an option.

Free-Range Learning is my attempt to paint this “emerging revolution” as an opportunity for reinvention and dramatic improvement of the learning/working environment for millions of Americans. 

As I wrote in the Introduction to Chapter 5,

                “….the five presidents I spoke with also agreed strongly on core values and  

priorities for the services and attitudes that would underlie institutional and student success in the future.  They included …

personalization…(academic and personal) advising and support…convenience…and strong connection to employment and the outside world.

Unspoken, but understood was the knowledge that almost two-thirds of the adult learners who are in online and blended programs and who leave before graduating, do so for non-academic reasons.”

The opportunity I referred to above reaches far beyond the capacity which technology is bringing to the table. It also includes changing our attitudes and institutional behaviors towards the people we serve. Continuing educators, as well as UPCEA, have embraced these “new” attitudes for years. They can be among the leaders of the charge.


Peter Smith is the Orkand Endowed Chair and Professor of Innovative Practices in Higher Education at the University of Maryland University College (UMUC). Previously, he was the Assistant Director-General of UNESCO and the founding president of California State University at Monterey Bay. Smith was the first president of the Community College of Vermont (1970–1978). He also served Vermont as Lieutenant Governor and as representative to the U.S. House of Representatives. He is the author of Free Range Learning in the Digital Age: The Emerging Revolution in College, Career, and Education.


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