Here Stevens talks about the convocation, why it was so important, and what’s next to better serve working learners.
Working learner, workforce learner, adult education – what is the best language for this effort and this demographic?
What I like about the term working learners is that equal emphasis is placed on the fact that people are constantly developing new skills and doing so either alongside work or in the workplace, at work. The people the current movement seeks to better serve are those who are in a precarious relationship to well-paid employment or post-secondary educational opportunities. They are most at risk of not completing their studies or going into debt for studies that they cannot use for professional mobility.
One attendee at the convocation said that work-based learner programs have historically been an “asterisk” for more traditional educational offerings that take place in schools for children and young adults. How do we need to rethink education to make progress in this area?
I think a big conceptual shift we need to make is that the typical learner doesn’t necessarily have to be a young person. The 20th century model was that learning occurred in the first trimester of a person’s life and that the way to improve human capital was to add more learning and formal education in the early stages.
This assumption is ingrained in our schools, in our vision of the resume, and in our research plans. We need to undo all of this. People are learners throughout life. There is no time when the need for learning and the joys it brings us cease.
One of the things that you and others called for at the call is more government funding in this area. There are many historical precedents for this, including the GI Bill of 1944, the National Defense Education Act of 1958 and the Higher Education Act of 1965. Why is now the right time for another significant investment?
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated long-standing inequalities in educational opportunity — nowhere more so than in Silicon Valley. The wealth that is currently being generated here by technological change is almost unfathomably large; At the same time, the lives of the people who make Silicon Valley worth living — those who feed us, take care of our children, maintain our homes, and look after us when we’re sick — have become much more difficult.
Is that sustainable? Can California continue to be a place where dreams come true? Can democratic government thrive under current levels of inequality? I’m afraid the answer is no. The nation needs to invest in lifelong learning and social mobility for all of its people. But that investment cannot take the same form as it did in the 20th century. Simply spending more taxpayers’ money to keep old schools the way they are or giving credit to attend existing programs won’t work. We must encourage new forms of education and reconfigure old schools to meet the needs of people who will learn, raise families, care for loved ones, and earn a living at the same time.
What were some of the biggest takeaways from the draft?
On the one hand, the recognition of the complexity of this population group and its needs. How do we responsibly create lifelong learning opportunities for Americans that allow them to have a positive relationship with work throughout their lives? This is a national challenge.
Another reason is that we need to build this capacity regionally, as labor markets vary greatly from place to place and the ecology of organizations that come into contact with working learners differs from place to place. The configuration of employers, schools, charities, and social service organizations in Silicon Valley is very different than the configuration of these things in Chicago, Dallas, or Miami. Social scientists have a fancy term to describe this: the United States is a “distributed polity.” It essentially means that Americans tend to build local when it comes to taking care of each other. A proud heritage that enables exceptionally flexible forms of social provision.
What next steps did the conference help move things forward in this area?
A next step is: How do we think about the future of work and learning here at Stanford, recognizing that Stanford is simultaneously an educational institution, a research institution, and an employer?
We had people from Stanford Land, Buildings & Real Estate, from Stanford’s Residential & Dining Enterprises, from Stanford’s central human resources department at the call-up. There are a great many people among Stanford employees who face the challenges we are talking about: They are trying to make a good living in a very expensive place. Do we offer our own employees enough learning and mobility opportunities? How do we make a career at Stanford a worthwhile proposition for the thousands of people who keep the university running?
How did this convening fit into the broader goals of the Transforming Learning Accelerator, which specifically identifies learners as one of the demographics most in need of innovation in education?
As TLA developed its mission to think well beyond the confines of K-12 schools, I brought the idea of this gathering to the Dean of GSE [Dan Schwartz, faculty director of TLA] as an opportunity for us to get input from people outside of Stanford, regionally and nationally. It was an opportunity to survey the landscape, receive advice and wisdom from our local colleagues and send a signal that we want to grow and learn from others what needs we can fill.
In my view, this all aligns perfectly with Stanford’s commitment to being a purposeful university: acting thoughtfully to enhance its mission as a research organization, educational institution, and employer.