Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The new vocationalism

In the past 30 years, “vocationalism” became a dirty word in education, especially among those of us serving low income students. VocEd meant a two-tiered system in high school with a few kids getting ready for college and the rest stuck in shop class, getting ready for something “less.”

But the ROI of a four-year college has changed, and our perception of the relationship between education and work has to change with it.  The reality is that most people don't go to college to stay in academia.  They also don’t go to college to “self-actualize” (although that’s a terrific outcome when it happens - whenever in life it happens).  They go to college to get ready for, and then get, jobs.  Don't get me wrong, for many of us, college was one of the most transformative experiences in our lives.  We built the beginning of our professional networks and gained a little bit of perspective on life.  These non-academic benefits are undeniable.  Yet the cost of college only works financially if you can get a good job afterward. That may or may not mean a traditionally “professional” job, but it should mean one that enables you to keep moving forward for the rest of your life on all your goals, personal and career.

We are moving into an era where people will, thankfully, have much more clarity about what jobs are out there.  They will also know what skills they really need (not mere guesswork) to succeed at them.  In order to match people to the jobs available, and help people fill the gaps in their skills that will keep them from jobs they want, we have to figure out how to evaluate and get people those skills as efficiently as possible. This is a new, middle-class “vocationalism.”  

The best examples of the new vocationalism are the developer academies springing up daily in San Francisco - dev bootcamp, app academy, hack reactor and the like.  They take untrained folks and in a couple of months give them the technical skills they need to start their first job as an engineer.  In many ways, the developer academies were a reaction to a perfect storm: a glut of college grads with debt but no jobs, and a tech sector with a ravenous need for engineers.  Crucially, tech companies can measure the real skills of a candidate in an interview and tryout process, not by guessing from paper credentials by looking at developers code on github and giving them tasks to do.

These dev academies live in the physical world.  They provide intense bonding experiences over a couple of months for the people going through them.  They are also the first signs of the new vocationalism.  Many people that went to these schools skipped college and are now thriving in high paying jobs.  Companies don't have to care that the students skipped college because they have relevant, valuable, measurable skills, and demonstrated they had the resilience to survive this intense process.  I have hired a couple of people for my engineering team with these backgrounds on an otherwise very senior team. They are smart young engineers with humility, energy and passion along with their skills - exactly what startups crave.

Will this new vocationalism in coding move to other sectors?  If employers become clear about the skills they need (not as easy as it sounds, since 70% or more of what experts decide and do is unconscious, or tacit, expertise), and the jobs are plentiful while truly skilled supply is limited, we will see one sector after another get over their fondness for college credentials and focus on what mastery looks like for a particular job. Even now, employers struggle to make newly minted BAs ready for work - in health care, for example, new nurses often require tens of thousands of dollars worth of retraining time before they can be effective.

Will this new vocationalism move online?  Again, it seems at least some of it is very likely to do so. (But not all: the first time a professional draws your blood should probably not be with you, the patient: “Sorry - this worked so well for me on-line!”)   The way Zeal's engine (and I think most other online learning engines) works is that if you can quantify outcomes for which on-line training helps, we can pick a path for you to attain that outcome through a set of learning experiences tailored to your specific existing skills and gaps.  We use data from everyone that has come before you to optimize these paths.  We can pay attention to specific learning characteristics you have by clustering you with others who seem to benefit from similar lessons.  That constant mapping and remapping of the best next experience tailored to you makes technology-enhanced learning's potential incredibly valuable.  

The current set of MOOCs, with their mass-produced, pre-recorded lectures have missed this  point entirely.  But don’t worry, when the goal is learning, and the market spends $4 trillion on it annually, entrepreneurs will bang on the problem passionately until you learn what it takes to make you successful at work.   

Since vocational training is where the jobs are, it will get a lot of focus, and innovation will flourish.  Bror Saxberg and I have been chatting about how Kaplan, the large education company, is working on this challenge- he’s their chief learning officer. Kaplan is beginning to work both internally and with companies on mapping expertise (both conscious and non-conscious) in a variety of fields in a systematic way (using evidence-based techniques like cognitive task analysis), and then backwards mapping those outcomes into courses and training (also evidence-based, to maximize learner success) that Kaplan can offer. This point seems obvious, yet Kaplan is one of the only higher ed organizations to approach learning in such a systematic way.  Udacity's refocus away from college and into this area will look smart in hindsight.  My guess is that their experience with San Jose State helped them to realize that the other 99% aren't the same kinds of students, nor have the same kinds of goals, as the current 1% of the world's kids who go to traditional universities.  It takes much more to help them succeed, to gain a meaningful career (along with other benefits) from their studies.  But it can be done, and it can be done at scale online, building the skills that students need to join the middle class.

So, if challenging domain-specific skills of all kinds move online, what purpose does our current brick-and-mortar school system serve?  Many people feel a lot of angst about this.  Here's the secret that every employer knows: domain-specific, knowledge-intensive skills are not the only skills needed for expert performance.  What are often called “soft skills” within a domain, involving social emotional intelligence and character skills, play an enormous role for success in jobs (and in life).  

When we try a new engineer out for a couple of weeks, we are actually assessing 80% their character and interaction skills at work and 20% their ability to code.  In any human activity, the need for strong personal and interpersonal skills, not just technical skills, will always be critical.   People who can't work with others, organize tasks, control their frustration, communicate, convince, persist, etc. will not do well even when they have the specific job skills.  Beyond the world of pre-kindergarten, we have massively under-rated teaching these kinds of skills in our education system.  
My hope is that schools at all levels - K-12, vocational, and college; online and physical - start to quantify and measure these skills much more precisely so that they weave job-relevant character building and communication into every interaction with students.  KIPP has started to do this and my bet is that it will pay off enormously in their college persistence rates.  This is where the in-person experience shines, when people can work together over long periods of time to model, coach, and change each other’s behavior to fit the character and communication skills that make you happiest and most successful with others.  Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn wrote a great book called "The Startup of You" on a particular form of soft skills (long-term planning and networking) and their importance in navigating modern life.  I think we can all look at our successes in life and realize that they are a lot of non-academic skills that matter.

This jump to the new vocationalism, both from a technical and human standpoint, is not unfolding evenly across all sectors. The perfect storm is moving to our entire country - we have millions out of work, millions of jobs unfilled, and a national need to regain our place as the most innovative and productive country in the world.  The new vocationalism can help to make the transition from old economy to new at the speed we need to make it.