We’ve reached the final installment in our seven-part series on the third sector of education—the sector serving the millions of adults who continue to learn and grow in the decades following their secondary and post-secondary education—so we’re breaking down what we’ve learned along the way and, most importantly, what it all means for your learning business.
In this final episode, we reflect on our recent discussions with L&D expert Nigel Paine and LaTrease Garrison, executive vice president of the education division at the American Chemical Society. We discuss how their insights add to our understanding of the third sector and build on conversations earlier in the series. We also examine the implications for the sector’s growth and begin to unpack what a fuller awareness of the sector might mean for your learning business’s strategy.
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[00:18] – An overview of the first six episodes in our series on the surge of the third sector of education:
Revisiting the Definition of the Third Sector—Not Tertiary Education
[02:05] – The “third sector of education” is a term Jeff coined. The first sector is the pre-K through high school system that serves children. The second sector covers higher education that grants degrees. Both those sectors are well known.
The third sector of education is less familiar but definitely not new. That third sector serves the millions of adults who continue to learn and grow in the decades that follow their secondary and post-secondary education.
We’ve mentioned that definition before and revisited it through the series, but it occurred to us that we should talk about why Jeff felt the need to coin the term in the first place—after all, the concept of tertiary education has been around for a while.
But the third sector is not the same as tertiary education. If we look at how tertiary education is typically defined, it emphasizes formal education. Tertiary education can be characterized as more of the same—more time at the university, another degree, a specialized certificate.
Those advanced degrees and specialized certificates are part of the third sector, but they’re just slices. They’re not the whole story. The third sector also encompasses more informal and shorter-burst learning, single courses, workflow learning, social learning, and so on.
There’s a set or prescribed path in tertiary education usually—it’s an increasingly deep dive into a specific area of expertise, where a BS in biology leads to master’s in biology, a PhD in marine biology, and then a post-doc studying marine algae.
But the third sector isn’t always about going deeper. Sometimes what a third-sector provider offers is broader learning rather than deeper study. That came up in our conversation with LaTrease Garrison.
The American Chemical Society doesn’t just offer chemistry courses. They also get into the so-called soft skills, topics like communication and critical thinking, because they, as a provider in the third sector, recognize that chemists need more than a knowledge of chemistry to succeed and thrive.
The World Bank’s 2019 annual report titled The Changing Nature of Work focuses on the future of work and finds that, in part due to the increasing role of technology in the world, lifelong learning is becoming increasingly relevant and important for workers competing in the labor market. One of the seven chapters is in fact called “Lifelong Learning.”
We mention the report because there’s an excerpt that speaks to what we’re talking about:
The demand for advanced cognitive skills and sociobehavioral skills is increasing, whereas the demand for narrow job-specific skills is waning. Meanwhile, the skills associated with “adaptability” are increasingly in demand. This combination of specific cognitive skills (critical thinking and problem-solving) and sociobehavioral skills (creativity and curiosity) is transferable across jobs.The Changing Nature of Work, 2019 annual report from the World Bank
LaTrease talked about the American Chemical Society seeing itself as a resource to help individuals as they ponder their next career move, whether that’s moving up the ladder they’re already on or shifting to a new field. When a provider has a broader focus, as ACS does, then it’s better positioned to help individuals throughout their working life.
A little later in the chapter on lifelong learning, the World Bank 2019 report says this:
Education systems, however, tend to resist change. A significant part of the readjustment in the supply of skills is happening outside of compulsory education and formal jobs.The Changing Nature of Work, 2019 annual report from the World Bank
That point gets at why the third sector exists and is needed, not just more narrow tertiary education.
Society needs the providers and the players who can see a need and respond to it. That came up in our conversation with Nigel Paine. He made the point that it’s essential for the third sector to remain diverse, with lots of players. He talked about not wanting to see the third sector go the way of social media, where a few big players gobble up all the others, in part because the smaller providers have a first-mover advantage. They can be quick and nimble and respond to a need they see emerge.
So, again, this speaks to way the third sector is different than and bigger than tertiary education.
Sponsor: Blue Sky eLearn
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Opportunities and Threats
[08:16] – There’s great potential in the third sector and many opportunities for those who know how to strategically pursue them.
When we spoke with Dr. Anthony Carnevale, he talked about how the third sector is getting a lot more attention than in the past. That attention, which brings more money, attracts more providers. Tony talked about some people being concerned about for-profits getting involved, and we talked about the sector being a bit of a Wild West in our conversation with LaTrease.
When we spoke with Liam O’Malley of Blue Sky eLearn he mentioned providers flooding the space in the early days of COVID, sensing opportunity. Amanda Davis, also of Blue Sky, talked about the noise in the space too.
Nigel mentioned confusion when we talked to him—the sector can be overwhelming and confusing to learners. Choice is great, and Nigel thinks choice is part of a healthy third sector, but it can be hard for learners to navigate when there are so many choices.
Going back to the first interview of the series with Michelle Wiese, we talked about that difficulty learners have navigating the sector. And the need for on- and off-ramps to be built so adults can get the learning they need when they need it without major disruption to their careers and family life.
Michelle also commented on how frustrating it has been for her to see duplication of effort—different providers doing the same work, oblivious to the fact that someone else is addressing the same problem.
Duplication of effort isn’t just bad business and poor use of finite resources. It’s arguably amoral when you think about the truly important, truly fundamental role of the third sector in society. The third sector has a responsibility that borders on a moral obligation to provide the continuing education, the professional development, the lifelong learning that sustains and shapes society.Jeff Cobb
Connections Across the Third Sector
[12:36] – Understanding the sector and the other players in it is key to a learning business’s success and value. And it’s why we wanted to dedicate this series to unpacking the third sector.
This series is a primer on the third sector and a starting place for learning businesses that want to better understand the landscape in which they exist.
Too often organizations are too focused on themselves, their learners, their stakeholders. But organizations don’t exist and work in a vacuum. Their learners and stakeholders are likely tapping other third-sector providers, and so it behooves organizations to be aware of those others.
As for what happens after awareness, partnerships may be an avenue many learning businesses want to pursue—informal and formal and where partners might be employers, academic institutions, or other third-sector providers serving similar or adjacent audiences, or members.
LaTrease brought up partnering with members who serve as subject matter experts in our conversation with her. That partnership helps the American Chemical Society provide and own top-notch content, and it raises the profile of those SMEs, so it’s a win-win.
Partnership might also be around sharing data, information, and insights rather than or in addition to co-developing or co-offering specific products or services. Michelle Weise mentions data trusts in her book Long Life Learning, and those are interesting partnerships because they allow organizations to share data that informs and deepens the understanding of individual learners or a field or a profession. And that helps with what we’ve called the “impact imperative”—being able to show the results that come from learners engaging with your offerings. Many learning businesses have difficulty seeing the translation of learning to the job because they don’t have direct oversight of the learner on the job.
Accreditors can also be partners as we discussed in our conversation with Casandra Blassingame from IACET. Such a partnership can help you stand out in a competitive, noisy marketplace, and lend you credibility and trust.
Competencies may be foundational to better, more fruitful, deeper partnerships. Competency-based learning came up when we talked with LaTrease. A competency framework gives partners a common reference point and a shared understanding about what’s important, what skills and knowledge build on other skills and knowledge, and how it all fits together.
A competency framework allows different players to “own” some parts of the framework and look outside to satisfy other parts. Think, for example, about an association that has a competency framework in place that defines the essential skills and knowledge for the profession it serves. You map that competency framework to the major job roles in the profession, and then you map that to your job boards, which speak to what employers are actually looking for.
If employers know that people are accessing through your job boards, which are mapped to the essential skills and competencies that the profession needs, that goes a long ways towards addressing skills gaps. Whoever is behind that competency framework is adding a tremendous amount of value to the profession because it is valuable to the job candidates, to the employees in the profession, and it’s valuable to the employers in the profession.
So that’s an example of using a competency framework as a foundation for a very powerful type of partnership.
Implications for Your Learning Business’s Strategy
[17:50] – In episode 258, the first in this series on the third sector, we posed two reflection questions to get you thinking about the implications of what we’ve been talking about for your learning business and your strategy.
The first question was simply a question to gauge your current awareness: “What’s your learning business’s awareness of the third sector of education?”
Hopefully your third sector intelligence quotient has gone up as you’ve tuned in to this series, and hopefully the series added some nuance and depth to your awareness of the sector you’re part of.
The second question we posed was “How might a deepened awareness of the third sector help your learning business?” Answering that question may have implications for your strategy. More or different partnerships may come to be part of your strategy.
Thinking about implications also brings to mind some advice Dr. Anthony Carnevale from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce shared about thriving in the third sector. His advice is to connect to the labor market and make sure you can show that what you’re offering is resulting in positive outcomes.
Moving the needle in the field or profession or industry you serve is absolutely critical. We’ve long believed that, and, as Tony says, the scrutiny is only going to grow, along with the demand for accountability and transparency. And that’s a good thing for learners and learning businesses, as long as you get your ducks in a row and know what it is you’re really doing and delivering through your learning products and services.
[21:11] – Wrap-Up
This is the last episode in the seven-part series on the third sector of education. We hope you’ve enjoyed the series, and we’d love to hear your feedback and suggestions for the future. You can leave a comment below or e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We’ll resume releasing episodes of the Leading Learning Podcast with a new series starting in April 2021.
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[23:08] – Sign-off
Other Episodes in This Series:
- The Third Sector of Education
- Long Life Learning with Michelle Weise
- Accrediting Lifelong Learning with Casandra Blassingame
- Reflecting with Anthony Carnevale
- Continuous Development with Nigel Paine
- Uncovering Opportunity in Challenges with LaTrease Garrison
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