12 Trends (Still) Disrupting the Market for Lifelong Learning and Continuing Education

BY Jeff Cobb

Microlearning - photo of group of people around table, all focused on different mobile devices

Microlearning is a big emerging trend. Bring your own device!

A number of lifelong learning market trends have emerged over the past several years that continue to impact the market for continuing education, professional development, and other forms of lifelong learning. This post discusses some of the biggest ones we see. Note that I have not actually attempted to rank these – they have different degrees of importance and impact depending on where you sit. The numbers are purely just to add some structure to the post.

1. Microlearning

There is increasing recognition that very often “small is beautiful” when it comes to learning experiences. Many adults have neither the time or the need to engage in extended, formal courses experiences for much of the learning they really want or need on a day to day basis. Fueled by the rise of smart phones, Web video, apps, and other tools, microlearning experiences may last anywhere from a few seconds – the time it might take to answer a quiz question, for example – to roughly 15 to 20 minutes – the time it might take to watch a video, for example.  It may be the trend in this list most likely to become an established phenomenon fast. For more of our thoughts on it, see Leveraging Microlearning for Professional Development and Continuing Education. And check out this interview with Josh Goldman of the Ohio Society of CPAs, an organization that has pioneered the use of microlearning to create 10 minute CPE (continuing professional education) experiences.

2. Virtual Conferences

We’re seeing both interest in and adoption of virtual conferences rise in the association sector. We’re also seeing for profits adopt them as a business model – listen in on this interview with Phil Mershon of Social Media Examiner, for example. Place-based conferences aren’t likely to go away, but virtual conferences are too attractive from a cost, convenience, and logistics standpoint not to grow dramatically. For additional resources, see our Virtual Events Resource Center (and look for significant updates to this soon.)

3. Flipped Classroom

The idea of the “flipped” classroom is that core content can be reviewed and digested outside of the classroom. Class time (or Webinar time, or conference session time) can then be used for deeper discussion, collaborative learning, etc. Most of the buzz around the flipped classroom has been in the K-12 sector, but it is an idea that clear has implications for conferences, seminars, Webinars, and other popular forms of learning delivery in the lifelong learning market. Check out our Leveraging the Flipped Classroom for Professional Development and Continuing Education as well as my interview with Dr. Brian McGowan, who has been on the front line of implementing fliped learning in professional development situations.

4. Neuroscience

Over the past couple of decades we’ve learned more about how the human brain works than we ever knew before. Naturally, this knowledge is impacting how we think about teaching and learning. While there is plenty of misinformation, misinterpretation, and misapplication of neuroscience principles at this point, it seems inevitable that education providers will have to be fully up to speed on how the human mind works and what that means for delivering great learning experiences.

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5. Social Learning

Social learning is not a new concept, but clearly the widespread use of social media has had an impact on social learning opportunities. I’d say we’ve reached the “You’re soaking in it” point – people are employing a range of social connections and tools to support their learning without even thinking about it. Organizations increasingly have to think about how they can maintain a meaningful presence within their customers or members’ personal learning networks (PLNs). They also have an opportunity to help people think much more consciously and effectively about how to leverage social learning. For more on social learning, check out our free Social Learning in the Association Space report

6. MOOCs

While some of the wind has gone out of the sails of the massive open online course, or MOOC, movement, make no mistake about it: MOOCs are still a force to be reckoned with. Whether they will continue to be called MOOCs over time remains to be seen, but some form of “massive” online courses seems almost bound to be a permanent part of the educational landscape. For many associations, MOOCs may represent both a way to effectively serve their broader market and to attract new members. Check out our free white paper Exploring the Fringe: Flipping, Microcredentials, and MOOCs for more of our thoughts on this trend and also see Leveraging MOOCs for Professional Development.

7. Open Education

I’ve already mentioned one form of open education above – MOOCs – but the trend is much broader than massive courses, and it was building steam long before it started making headlines over the past year. (Check out this Mission to Learn post on open education from way back in 2007, for example.) “Open” in the pure sense doesn’t just mean free – it means allowing for changing content, adding to it, and re-distributing. Used wisely, it can be a powerful tool for spreading knowledge and creating real educational impact in your market. (Jeff Hurt recently did a good post on the possibilities for open education in the association world.)

8. Content Marketing

Even more than open education, the concept of content marketing has really shaken up the market for learning and knowledge. The whole idea behind content marketing is that you give away valuable content in order to attract prospects to paid offerings. Guess what, the vast majority of content marketing is educational content marketing. Teaching Sells, as Brian Clark and the folks at Copyblogger have so concisely put it. If you aren’t using teaching as part of your selling, you probably aren’t selling as much as you could be. (I recommend Copyblogger’s free tutorial on content marketing.)

9. Alternative Credentialing

Degrees have traditionally been the standard of higher educations and certification the standard of continuing education. Certificates, however, are playing a larger and larger role, and with the emergence of standards-based certificate programs, you can expect the growth to continue. At the same time, badges – perhaps best exemplified by Mozilla’s Open Badges project – are getting some traction as a form of validation that makes tremendous sense in our open, social, informal learning world. Check out our free white paper Exploring the Fringe: Flipping, Microcredentials, and MOOCs for more of our thoughts on this trend. Also, for insight into how an organization is actually implementing badging, listen to our interview with Jennifer Kabaker of Digital Promise.

10. DIY/Self-Directed Learning

You might also label this one “The Empowered Learner.” Many of the trends already noted have created an environment in which learners have a huge number of exciting options when it comes to engaging in lifelong learning. At the same time, it can be overwhelming and confusing out there. As I have argued before, the average adult is not necessarily prepared to be an effective lifelong learner in this environment. We need curators. We need filters. We need to embrace responsibility as learners. And, we need all of this now! (See also this post on the opportunity and threat of self-directed learning.)

11. Self-Publishing

By publishing, I don’t just mean books – though certainly the world of traditional book publishing seems on the brink of collapse. Rather, I mean all the possibilities for creating and distributing content that are available these days – from WordPress to CreateSpace to YouTube to Twitter to iTunes to …well, you name it. The opportunities for these new tools create for entrepreneurial subject matter experts, ambitious curators, and pretty much anyone else interested in teaching and facilitating learning are tremendous. They also lay the groundwork for the Market Maker business model. Combine all of this with the DIY phenomenon and the playing field is fundamentally altered. (As an aside, I happen to think that podcasts as a form of publishing enjoying a big second wave of popularity.)

12. Big Data

How could I do a trend post without using that already over-used phrase? Tired as we all may be of hearing about it, it is nonetheless extremely important. Collectively, we are creating a HUGE amount of data as we travel the InterWeb each day. On one end of the spectrum, organizations are increasingly in a position (whether they realize it yet or not) to mine that data and find out more about what is popular, what might be coming next, and perhaps most important, what is actually having impact. (Daphne Koller, co-founder of Coursera, discusses some of the possibilities in this video.) On the individual learner side, tools that help you manipulate, navigate, and focus the data will lead to increasingly targeted, high value learning experiences.

One Megatrend to Rule Them All

Okay, I said 12 in my headline, but really I need to make this a baker’s dozen with what I see as the One MegaTrend to Rule Them All when it comes to lifelong learning market trends. I’ll sum it up as….

Life Long, Life Wide

We’re living longer and longer. We live in the context of a global learning economy that requires us to constantly update, retool, rethink, and relearn. At the same time, we don’t march through our lifelong learning as if it is a narrow, straight shot curriculum. We are touched by learning broadly throughout our daily lives – through any number of informal interactions with other people, through our own focused, self-directed efforts, and yes, by the formal experiences that we associate with traditional education.

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Everything I have mentioned above makes this truer than ever. Learning happens in myriad ways through and throughout our lives. The smartest learning businesses recognize this and make sure they provide experiences and content that evolve with the learner. They are making sure they build a platform (think in terms of political platform, not just technology platform) that enables them to connect with learners in many different ways through many different channels – formally, informally, paid, free, online, offline. By doing this, they become a trusted source of learning lifelong and lifewide.

So, what do you think? How are these/will these trends impact your learning business?


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  1. Thanks for this useful summary Jeff. I couldn’t agree more about your overarching conclusion. I think we are entering a new era where we are growing a deeper understanding of the nature and value of lifewide learning and the ways in which we develop by creating our personal learning ecologies.

    Our ideas about lifelong learning are being reshaped by our growing awareness of its lifewide dimension and new practices are developing to support individuals lifewide learning and development (see for example http://lifewideeducation.co.uk/ ) together with the development of a lifewide approach to education in our public institutions.

    1. Jeff Cobb says:

      Thanks for commenting, Norman, and for the link. I look forward to checking out the site. – Jeff

  2. Jeff — And this post remains just as pertinent in 2015. These approaches have perhaps been disruptive to lifelong learning; however, as with many disruptive trends, these also will advance learning throughout life — long and wide.

  3. Kumar Shrinivasan says:

    Thank you for the insights.

    In a fast developing country like mine, continuing and adult education face the dilemma of a great need for this on one side, and practically no resources on the other, as most of the focus is on school education.

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