Scientific application to the question of how working adults without a university degree can best be supported

Flora, a 32-year-old single mother, faces a dilemma shared by many of America’s millions of adults without a college degree.

A new report co-authored by Stanford scientists advises the National Science Foundation on building applied science to support “working learners.” (Image credit: Getty Images)

She is an outstanding, highly motivated Tier 1 patient care worker at a health insurance company. Now their company is automating their work and all Tier 1 positions are eliminated. Her company will be promoting employees to Tier 2 Patient Care Officers, something Flora has long wanted. Unfortunately, she doesn’t have the degree the job requires. Flora earned a certificate in customer service at work and has six credits from a community college, but she can’t afford to go back to school.

Flora’s case study, composed of research interviews and analysis of demographics, aided the year-long effort of leading educators convened by the Graduate School of Education and Stanford’s Transforming Learning Accelerator to build an applied science to study the needs of “working people.” learner”, a term used to refer to adults who are simultaneously pursuing paid employment and learning opportunities. The project culminated in nine recommendations released Jan. 19 as part of a succinct report to the National Science Foundation, which funded the endeavor.

“In short, we call on government to play a leading role in investing in an applied science of adult and lifelong learning, with a particular focus on understanding the educational needs of working adults who do not have a four-year college degree,” , said Mitchell Stevens, a sociologist and professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education (GSE) who is leading the project. “Most educational research only looks at the first quarter of life. The relationships between school, work and biography across the lifespan are a black box.”

In recent years, a growing number of government agencies, non-profit organizations, for-profit corporations, philanthropists and educational institutions have developed programs to support working learners, spurred by the realization that many adults without a college degree are struggling with the impact of new technology on work and life have attendant shifts in employment qualifications. But there is still no reliable way to assess the effectiveness of such programs, or even to determine whether they address the most critical challenges faced by working learners. The new report suggests that a major research initiative can determine how best to build an education system for working learners and how to most effectively invest public and private resources.

Recommendations include identifying new learning opportunities that workers can benefit from throughout their working lives; encouraging collaboration between researchers and companies to better understand how new skills affect hiring decisions; and the development of data collection systems that enable researchers to track transitions between learning and employment experiences as people progress from young adulthood to retirement. The report also recommends that such research be conducted by bringing together different stakeholders at the regional level.

Universities have a unique role to play as organizers, as employers, and as educators and researchers, said Stanford University President Marc Tessier Lavigne, speaking at the latest of four discussion sessions in July that laid the groundwork for the new report. More than 180 education leaders from across sectors — government, private and non-profit organizations, philanthropists, and academia — attended the online meetings, convened with NSF funding from Stevens and the Transforming Learning Accelerator (TLA), a university-wide development initiative, Fairer and more scalable learning solutions. More than 35 Stanford faculty, staff and students contributed to the project.

“To be effective, this needs to be a real cross-sectoral discussion, because any science that we develop requires the input of all these stakeholders,” Tessier-Lavigne said at the July 28 meeting. “This is the start of a conversation that has the potential to make a lasting difference for working learners.”

Daniel Schwartz, the I. James Quillen dean of the Graduate School of Education who directs TLA, added in a recent interview that the report underscores the importance of the ongoing work at Stanford. “We are creating new scholarship and learning solutions that bridge discoveries in education, neuroscience, humanities, data science, psychology, law and other fields to meet the needs of working learners,” he said. “We must foster a future where all learners thrive – regardless of their cultural background, zip code or age.”

The summer meetings prompted the Stanford Office of Community Engagement to convene a campus call to explore how the university could deepen collaboration to support working learners. Megan Swzey Fogarty, associate vice president of community engagement at Stanford and an attendee at the July meetings, said, “We need to learn from leaders across campus, from local community colleges, human resources development agencies and others how we can improve knowledge and skills can contribute not only for our own employees but also for others in our region.”

Stanford Digital Education, a unit in the Office of the Provost, plans to help implement the report’s recommendations by piloting new programs developed with partners for working adults. These programs could in turn open up new research opportunities in the emerging science of lifelong learning. Stanford Digital Education was launched last year to drive educational innovation with social impact and strengthen Stanford’s digital learning infrastructure.

Attention to working learners has increased in recent years as part of a sea change in thinking about national education policy. Ever since the Higher Education Act of 1965 extended the GI Bill’s college-entry subsidies for World War II veterans to all citizens, the nation has sought to ensure economic mobility by promoting colleges for all. However well intentioned, this policy recipe has created its own problems. The key is that having a college degree has become a fateful rift in American life.

“On the one hand, there are reasonably well-paying jobs, better health, more stable families, and more informed civic participation,” Stevens said. “On the other side there is precarious menial employment, dangerous levels of debt, strained relationships, depression and anger.”

In the hypothetical case study, Flora, the insurance clerk whose job is being eliminated, finds herself on the wrong side of this divide. To move forward, she must consider a dizzying array of new educational services from big tech companies and smaller, more recently formed edtech ventures, with no data to help her choose a path that would improve her prospects.

“This is a new frontier for working-learner science,” Stevens said, noting that researchers need data if they are to find answers. More and more of this data is proprietary and in the hands of private individuals. The new report calls on researchers, governments and other stakeholders to create new data infrastructures that can align with existing systems for evaluating K12 and college programs.

Like many working learners, Flora may choose to use online courses. Such offerings are convenient but not necessarily suited to the learning needs of older people. The use of digital education for working learners is still in its infancy, and the report calls for identifying which approaches work best for which groups.

“To effectively serve working learners, we must connect their educational needs with our technology and human capabilities,” said Matthew Rascoff, Stanford vice provost for digital education, who participated in the NSF-funded project and is a Stanford Community leader of practice for working learners. “Working learners need the timing flexibility of asynchronous online learning—but also need to connect with a supportive learning community that fosters growth. Our design challenge is to balance these requirements in scalable models.”

“We’re still in the discovery phase,” Rascoff said.

On January 19 at 9:00 am Pacific Time, Stevens and a colleague will host a virtual forum on the report Luther Jackson, Silicon Valley program manager NOVA works Employment Agency; Catherine Neuman, System Chancellor for Academic Programs at the University of Massachusetts; and Sarah TurnerAssociate Professor of Economics and Education at the University of Virginia. Journalist Paul Fain of The Job will moderate. To participate, please log in here.

Jonathan Rabinovitz is Director of Communications at Stanford Digital Education.

Leave a Comment