By now it is trite to assert that we are entering a new, digital, and disruptive age in post-secondary lifelong learning. The new services, products, and models that the digital age is spawning are all around us. And, as is often the case with paradigm shifts, the collective effect of these changes in the early stages can be truly dizzying, like skiing in a blizzard without goggles. To convert this chaos of change into a more orderly discussion, we need to develop a framework that will help us better understand the emerging ecosystem of learning.

There are two significant drivers behind today’s disruption: technological innovation and data analytics, both of which create possibilities and capacity that were unimaginable 15 years ago. As a result, we see two seismic shifts in the traditional assumptions that underpin colleges and universities.

First, we are living in a world where abundant, high quality, and low-cost curriculum is available for consumption by learners anytime and anywhere, opening the doors to learners who were previously denied access to content. For example, the Open Education Consortium provides free access to thousands of courses and correlated support services from around the world. StraighterLine offers extremely low cost courses that can accumulate to the associate degree level and then be transferred to any accredited institution in a consortium of partner schools. This leads to my use of the term “free-range learning.”

Second, we are seeing the creation of superior learning support services beyond the boundaries or control of the traditional campus community. For example, Authess is positioning itself to partner with colleges and universities to write world-class competency statements connected to courses. Credly enables users to curate their learning in an independent portfolio that includes some informal assessment services. And Innovate+Educate is bridging the training-work readiness gap by working directly with individual learners and employers, bringing in colleges as partners, or after the fact.

Two core functions will characterize higher education services in the future: the need for a Learner’s Global Positioning System (LGPS) and the emergence of evidence-based assessment as a pedagogical tool to measure all of an individual’s learning, wherever and whenever accomplished, giving students a record that has both academic and career value. Before we address these functions, however, we need to remember that all learning is personal. In the digital age, the personal nature of learning (personalization) will become even more significant.

Allen Tough’s research showed that the average adult spends hundreds of hours a year on nine to 12 discrete learning projects beyond the academic arena. These projects can be done individually, in small groups, or in larger sponsored settings organized by non-collegiate entities. Phil Barrett, an adult learner I interviewed for a book several years ago, described personal learning after completing a portfolio assessment course for his experiential learning:

My boss is talking about retiring in a few years and I want to sit in his chair. His job description requires a bachelor’s degree. Since I got my associate degree, I’ve spent my time taking classes that were convenient—one-week seminars and one-day workshops. I’ve accumulated all this time and experience and never got any credit for it [emphasis added].

I discovered that there was a college nearby that would consider giving you credit for learning you had done outside of school, so I looked into it and saw what was available. The program made a big difference for me beyond getting the credit. As I got more into the program, I found out that I knew more than I thought I did. I started listing all the things I had done in my life and I suddenly realized that I had done more than I thought I had [emphasis added].

The writing helped me remember, and it brought all my learning back up to the surface. I think we lose knowledge because we aren’t challenged to use it. Much of what I know is in the back of my mind. It just needed to surface (Smith, 1986, pp. 93-94).

The sum total of your personal learning surpasses the college-based learning in your life. In many cases, it is the source of personal and professional success traits such as teamwork, critical thinking, and problem-solving, as well as professional up-skilling. Personal learning has three important characteristics:

  • It is personal. You usually learn alone or in small groups in an informal setting.
  • It is purposeful. You always learn for a reason, even if you forget the reason or consider the learning inconsequential. As a result, much of the learning is absorbed into your collective experience and forgotten.
  • It is powerful. Personal learning continually is changing you, developing your behavior, skills, knowledge, and attitudes, which constitute your unique experience. Personal learning comes in all shapes, sizes, and containers. It has no uniform model.

As the world of higher education evolves from a “teaching universe” to a “learning universe,” being able to capture personal learning and tailor outcomes to the learner’s needs and aspirations becomes critically important.


The Learner’s Global Positioning System (LGPS)

Every new car and mobile phone has a GPS travel application that tells you how to get from where you are to your destination in the most efficient and direct way. Of course, if you decide to take a more scenic route, second and third options are offered. Whichever route you choose, however, you are secure in knowing that the information, the directions, and the time involved is essentially accurate and dependable.

The same kind of flexibility and focus is coming to educational and career planning. A GPS for learning and work is slowly taking shape in the learning/working ecosystem. It is too soon to describe this ecosystem, or even a specific learning GPS application to be used within it, because we are in relatively uncharted territory. Having said that, however, there currently exists a wide variety of tools and support services to inform your learning/working journey. And more are on the way.

The traditional model of higher education will continue, with learners coming to campuses, full- or part-time, to engage in programs that are comprised of linear, vertical tracks towards a certificate or degree. I believe there will be fewer of these students, but they will be there. What will change for many of them, however, will be access to the LGPS throughout their college studies, and a lifelong relationship with the institution after graduation, supported by the LGPS. Additionally, millions of free-range learners will be using the LGPS to chart their own learning pathways. For example, boot camps, such as General Assembly, will be evaluated and validated as academically viable events deserving of college credit and job placement. A learner can complete the boot camp and get a job, returning to college later on with academic recognition for the learning done.   

In the free-range world, the LGPS becomes a lifelong support partner for each learner. Using data analytics and “friendly” technology-enhanced support services, each learner can chart, and then re-chart again and again, a learning pathway that responds to his or her particular needs. Let me be clear, this level of personalization does not imply one thousand unique learning plans for each of one thousand learners. In fact, we are beginning to understand that a clear learning pathway with less choice is probably better for many learners. What this level of personalization does suggest is that each learner should have a deeply personal connection with what is learned, and why it was learned.

The Learner’s Global Positioning System will offer multiple services. It will provide a lifelong portfolio that contains all pertinent information about the learner and his or her learning, as well as career information and history. Multiple data-driven assessments will position the learner for his or her learning journey by answering the following questions:

  • What is my chosen destination? What is it I want to know and be able to do as a result of this learning?
  • How much of that knowledge and ability do I currently possess? How will I be placed on the learning pathway as a result, so that I do not repeat previous learning?
  • What is the gap between where I am and where I want to go?
  • What are the courses, projects, or other experiences that will get me to my destination?
  • How will I know that I have successfully reached my destination in each learning experience and overall?

An equally thorough career service and planning component will be part of the LGPS. From a dynamic database, the learner will be able to:

  • Research career and job choices in terms of academic requirements and pay scales, as well as turnover and availability of jobs within a defined distance radius of the learner, including a national analysis that shows the relative “density” of jobs in a given areas.
  • Determine whether non-academic entry requirements, such as years of experience or additional legal or professional requirements, will affect access to a particular job or career.
  • Find out whether there are specific behavioral traits that will enhance chances of success and satisfaction once employed.   
  • Explore other career options if it becomes apparent that a particular job, such as certified public accountant, is not a good fit for the learner.

Finally, and importantly, if the learner is affiliated with an institution, the same data, collected as the learner moves down the pathway, will give instructors and counselors rich information to enable them to support and enhance learner success.


Evidence-Based Assessment as a Pedagogy and Value-Added Function

Consider the following realities:

  • Universities are no longer the sole arbiters or sources of quality curricular content.
  • Third-party organizations are popping up to support and validate learning (including the examples described above—General Assembly, StraighterLine, Credly, and Innovate+Educate).
  • The U. S. Department of Education is exploring how to funnel financial aid to quality-assured but non-accredited third-party programs through the EQUIP program. In this innovative model, colleges, accreditors, and third-party education providers, like StraighterLine or a boot camp, form a partnership that ensures academic quality of the third party, awards credit for that activity, and makes federal student aid accessible to the learners in the third-party program.  

When I add up these actions and their implications for the future of postsecondary learning, I come to one clear conclusion. Namely, that another core function of colleges and universities in the digital era will be their use of evidence-based assessments (sometimes called competency-based or outcomes-based assessments) both to qualify learning that has happened away from the purview of colleges and to deepen the learning itself, regardless of where it happened. We have known for years that portfolio-based assessment of prior experiential learning drives higher completion rates for those who do it. From years of exposure to this process, I developed the notion of assessment as pedagogy. Working within this kind of model, the learner prepares a real-life application of knowledge, such as a business plan or a strategic plan, that addresses institutionally described outcomes standards at the course or program level and that demonstrates real-world applicability. This type of enhanced assessment combines the demonstration of “knowing” at the appropriate level with the demonstration of “applying” the knowledge at an equally appropriate level.

The Graduate School at the University of Maryland University College (UMUC) is re-engineering its curriculum with program-level competency statements that must be satisfied with evidence produced by the learner. Traditionally, assessment has been seen as a judging function, often through tests and graded essays. But at UMUC, we are employing evidence-based assessment as a means of guiding pedagogy because it is employed to deepen the learner’s understanding of what he or she has learned. Such assessment encourages the learner to reflect on what has been learned, coupling “knowing” with “doing.” This reflective process, the harvesting of meaning from experience and knowledge, is the sign of a conscious lifelong learner. When a person can do that, he or she can learn consciously throughout life.

Evidence-based assessment enables learners to develop skills that extend far beyond the curriculum. For example, students working on a coding project might learn critical communication and group work skills, while developing the problem-solving skills required for the project. I use the term “scaffolded assessments” to describe assessments that are integrated into the curricular design above and beyond the usual course outcome statement.

Evidence-based assessments can once and for all remove the barriers between academic recognition of learning and the application of that learning to work readiness standards. When learning outcomes are tied to job proficiency requirements, a trend that is occurring across the country both in institutions of higher learning and in programs sponsored by nonacademic vendors, the learner’s “readiness to graduate” and “readiness to work” become the opposite sides of the same coin. Scaffolded, evidence-based assessment links education and work without “vocationalizing” the learning experience unduly. Now with the advent of the digital age and data analytics, doing this type of assessment at scale and across different types of learning modes is not only possible, it is practical.

The value derived from deep reflection in evidence-based assessments is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. As Phil Barrett, the adult learner I quoted earlier, said when discussing the results of his portfolio assessment of experiential learning,

Experience alone isn’t enough. It’s seeing what you learned and knowing how you’ve changed that matters. . . . I’ve been learning how to see the difference between something that I did and how I changed as a result. I thought about how I used to react to a certain type of supervision from my boss when I started work. Then, when I got up to be a supervisor, I observed others’ management styles and how I reacted to the task. I was able to see a change in myself. I could say, “Hey, I can see where I went from being this type of person to being this type.” Or, I could see when I started thinking about my responsibilities as a manager rather than just being a manager. Then I realized what it really meant and what I had to do” (Smith, 1986, pp. 93-94).

Phil had learned more than the facts. He had also learned how to reflect on his learning and draw deeper meaning from it.



I am not suggesting that sense-making through the Learner’s Global Positioning Service and evidence-based assessment are the only functions of the university of the future. I am, however, advocating that the new technological capacities coming on the scene will forever change the relationship between institution and learner. On the one hand, institutions will be less “vertical” in their ownership and control of all services. Indeed, they will be more “horizontal,” operating through a network of services provided to their students by cooperating partners. On the other hand, the relationship between university and learner will become more akin to an advisor or an enabler than a teacher as we move ever further from a “teaching universe” to a “learning universe” where the learner ranges freely through a pasture rich with resources.

In the learning universe, functions like the LGPS and evidence-based assessment will be core functions. And continuing education can play the lead role in this transition.




Smith, Peter (1986). Your hidden credentials: The value of learning outside college. Washington D. C.: Acropolis Books.



Peter Smith is the Orlando Endowed Chair and Professor of Innovative Practices in Higher Education at the University of Maryland University College. He is also the founding president of the Community College of Vermont, California State University, Monterey Bay, and the Open College at Kaplan University.