Agile model for higher education, learning in sprints instead of semesters

In an earlier post, I suggested that the benefits of community college (or higher education) come from the voluntary participation of the learners.   In contrast to high schools in the compulsory education model, higher education has a higher density of motivated learners and less distraction from disinterested but captive students.   My proposal was to leverage our existing investment in high school education to obtain the same benefit by ending compulsory education at middle school.  Students can voluntarily pursue academic education in high school.  For those that decline this opportunity, I proposed using the per-student spending to finance trade school training or subsidizing entry level work (so employers pay less than minimum wage while the government makes up the difference).  I mentioned these options as a continuation of the spending commitment so that the proposal does not result in a cost savings for the community.   The goal is to direct the students in the areas where they are most likely to benefit.  The goal is not to cut spending (except through improved educational efficiency).

My focus was on the academic learning and the resulting benefits of reducing the distraction of under-motivated students.  My assumption was that having sufficient density of motivated students can allow high school education to proceed at a higher pace: learning more and in less time.   The value of the 4 years of high school would be greater than we have today.  I think it is possible that the voluntary 4 years of high school can achieve the same academic goals of compulsory 4 years of high school followed by voluntary 2 years of community college.   I think students can learn a lot faster than we allow them to learn in the current system because of our intentions to teach to the slowest student.

In another recent post, I explored a particular approach to education where a for-profit corporation takes the financial risk of providing education in turn for a percentage of future income by the student.   The terms of the arrangement would automatically expire after a short number of years but the percentage is set based on income and not on any prior valuation of the education.   The arrangement gives the corporation an opportunity for a financial windfall if it produces students where industry demand results in high salaries.   The students also benefit, but the fixed percentage from income will mean they paid more for the education than peers who did not get as good paying jobs.   The corporation assumes the risk of no return for students unable or unwilling to obtain sufficiently high paying jobs.  Toward the end of that post, I described how this process appears to be emerging in some industries where companies provide training in exchange for a contract for access to the earnings for a set period of time.   I argued that these practices run afoul of laws against peonage but nonetheless offer workers substantial advantages over education paid out of pocket or from loans.   In such arrangements, the corporation assumes the future risk that the education does not pay off within a certain time.

Peonage can be described as debt-slavery although the form I proposed is a partial implementation because involves a set fraction of wages instead of 100% of wages, and the terms expire after a certain date instead of when debts are paid off.   Present laws against peonage were set up in response to abuses of the older forms that resulted in perpetual indebtedness to an employer who frequently abused the peons.

I concede that these laws are justified.   Even in my milder version, the market value of an education may be short lived so that new education (and a new royalty commitments) will be needed.   I described the emerging pattern in software industry of companies that place workers in short-term contracts and take a cut of the hourly rate that the client pays.   These companies are turning to internal training to meet the needs of clients but this training comes with a contractual commitment by the trained staff to work exclusively through this placement firm or even a commitment to work wherever the firm places them.   This can easily result in the perpetual debt-slavery that motivated the peonage laws in the first place.

However, the reality for most people is that they must work continuously in any case.   When people must finance their own education and training, they need work to pay for the training or (more likely) to pay off the loan for the education.  In contrast to the arrangement I described where the contract is satisfied after a certain number of months no matter how much or how little is earned, the self-financed student has obligation to pay off the entire principal of the loan no matter how long it takes.   Also, the loan payments are independent of current income and in cases can leave the worker with too little money for living expenses.  With rapidly changing labor markets, these workers may become perpetually indebted for student loans and the loans may eventually accumulate to leave the person in a similar financial trap as the historical peons.  Bill collectors for overdue loans can be abusive and coercive.

A peonage-like arrangement may be better for workers than self-financed education (especially when financing involves student loans).   At least in my formulation, the sponsoring corporation assumes the risk of education expenses in exchange for a fixed term commitment of a fixed percentage of salary.  Sometimes the corporation will reap a profit where the accumulated fees exceed the investment of education.   Other times the corporation will see a loss when the education fails to provide adequately paying jobs (or the student does not succeed in the work assignments).   The corporation will invest in market research to understand the type of training or education most likely to result in high paying jobs, and to understand what candidates are most likely to excel in them.   The corporation will design the terms of the contract to provide high confidence that the investment will be profitable.    Despite this advantage, the student has the advantage of not suffering the losses of investing in an education that does not pay off.   After the contract period expires, the student will have not further financial obligation for that prior education.

Historical experience justifies laws against peonage, but peonage offers major advantages to the worker in terms of avoiding financial risk of unrewarding education.   Recently, I have been describing a futuristic model for society that divides the workforce into two age groups.  The younger age group will operate under the current set of labor laws designed to protect the workers with employer-mandates for minimum wage, reasonable working hours, paid time off, paid unemployment and health insurance, and retirement contributions.   That list of protections can include peonage laws.   At some age (I proposed the age of 55), the worker retires from being eligible for any of these protections.   Many older people will continue to work, but the regulatory burdens on the employers will be less so that the older workers will remain competitive in the market.   I assume that despite these advantages of lower regulations on older workers, employers will find younger workers more profitable.   Even with these favorable labor laws, many older workers will simply retire or drop out of the labor market.

The older people who continue working will lose the benefits and employer commitments we currently associate with employment.  Older workers’ jobs will be in the form of short-term independent contracts that will result in cycles of working and not working.

Many older workers will be able to advertise his experience for prior employment in order to sell his services as an independent contractor.   I don’t think this will apply for most workers and even for the ones who can do this, they will eventually find their old skills less marketable.

To effectively remain marketable as independent contractors, the older worker needs access to some form of continuing education.  The problem is that the current options for education are based on the experience of educating young adults.  There is an attraction of reliving one’s youth by returning to such education systems.  There is also the pride of accumulating more credentials despite advancing age.

However, in a two-age cohort labor force, the economics of education are very different for young and old adults.   The young adults can devote years to education with the expectation or goal of long-term employment to get them to retirement age (or to the cohort-age boundary).   In contrast, the older adults face a more unpredictable future of short duration contracts.

One consequence of this difference is the rationality of obtaining a student loan.   It is more rational for younger people to accept loans for education because they can at least hope for a long term employment to pay it back.   Older people will not enjoy the same confidence for future income to pay back student loans.  Older workers are more likely to pay education expenses with cash (from their own savings) with very short-term loans backed by collateral of their property.   Even for the few older adults with promising careers, the older generation faces higher risks of becoming disabled due to illness or debilitating physical injury.    The future earning potential for the older cohort returning to school is much less certain than it is for younger adults.

In our current system, we do not distinguish two different work-forces.   Labor laws apply until retirement where retirement means complete withdrawal from the labor market.   The current expectation for such complete retirement is for that to occur in the late 60s.   Thus a 55 year old person can expect at least 10 more years of employment coverage protected by labor laws.  This ideal model of a working life implies there is still a good reason to return to the education system set up for younger adults.   I think these education options are inappropriate for older learners.

The existing education system evolved to take advantage of the conditions of being young.  Although there is certainly a lot of diversity within this population, the education systems seem to have found an optimal solution of an education process organized around a calendar year.   This process divides the calendar into quarters or semesters where each semester is an opportunity to study a handful of topics.   During the semester, the school needs only to provide class time for about 10% of the student’s waking hours.   This works great for students because they have freedom to manage the remaining 90% of waking hours as they wish.  Even with an expectation of 3 hours study for every hour in class, that still leaves about 60% of waking hours free.   This seems to be optimal for younger people who have a high need for social interaction and have generally shorter attention spans.

I think this approach is very inefficient for older adults.   Older adults have longer attention spans and less need for socializing.  Older adults can endure without complaint 2-3 times more intense instruction than younger adults.   Even considering the reduced ability to learning that comes with aging, the older person can benefit more from a more intense education schedule.

Having classes with peers in same age group would further enhance the learning effectiveness or efficiency.  The instructor can customize the training for the more homogeneous education goals for this group.  Just as the current education model optimizes on the youthful condition, a new education model can optimize for the conditions of the older population.

In terms of my sequence of posts of dividing government into two age cohorts, another consequence may be to generate two systems of educations.  One system more suited for younger people just starting their careers as employees, and another for older people needing to fulfill some immediate market need through short term contracts.

To describe the new learning model, I want to give my impression of the existing education options that work well for younger people.   I think the education options can be divided into two categories: one involves academic and the other involve trade skills.

The earlier discussion of organizing education around the calendar describes the academic model.   This is a model that envisions a sequence of learning organized into semesters or quarters that are devoted to 3-5 topics.   The sequence is enforced through prerequisites and courses available only after attaining a certain number of years in school.   Graduation requirements involve attaining a specific number of semester-hours among an approved set of courses for a certain discipline.  The graduation requirements are designed to assure some minimum capability that is achievable in 4 years.  The two goals of capabilities and duration are closely related.   Over time, we have defined capability expectations around what can be learned over 4 years using the semester model of teaching a few courses at a time.

The business of academic education also adapted around this semester model.  In particular, the staffing involves a certain course load on teachers.   Because of the relatively relaxed pace of educating individual students, teachers can teach multiple classes in the same period.   Also, because the course syllabuses are often very well established, the school can use more junior adjunct faculty to teach the course to the syllabus.   Academic achievement goals for a course and for a degree change very slowly.  The economics of operating the school takes full advantage of this slow pace of change.

Another characteristic of the academic education is that it is priced by the semester or quarter (assuming full time enrollment).   The total cost will depend on the number of semesters required to reach the goals.  The grade-level and prerequisite restrictions forces the education to last for at least a certain number of years (depending on the degree) but the student can take longer and thus incur even more expenses.

State laws setting accreditation standards for colleges further reinforce the prevailing requirements for academic education in order to allow students to transfer credits between accredited schools and allow students to apply for state-financed student loans.  These benefits to students results in further restraints that continue the less efficient pace of instruction based on semesters and arranging material by prerequisites and year-level.

The other education model is the certification and licensing approach used for trades.   These education programs are also optimized for youth by arranging training into semesters or quarters so that the instructors can fill their days teaching multiple classes.    The focus of the training though is on preparing the students for passing broadly available exams for industry certifications and licenses.

The exams may be on be on broad capabilities such as (in my experience in software) the PMP (for program management) and and CISSP (for IT security).  These certifications are governed independently by professional societies that often are global in nature.

Alternatively, the exams may be on specific capabilities such as for specific technologies or even specific vendors (or vendor models).   These exams are governed by the individual vendors but with market forces to assure employers that the certified staff will be competent.

The difference between trade-based education and academic based education is the means to regulate them for consistent training across different schools.   Consistent educations in trades is assured by passing a common set of exams available to all schools.  In contrast, academic schools will leave exams often to individual professors, but consistency comes from accrediting that the course syllabus and degree programs meet certain standards.

Both types of schools are optimized for the market of young adult learners (adults under 55) in the pace of instruction designed around calendar semesters with a small portion of each day devoted to classroom instruction.

Also, both approaches targeted learning new capabilities that may not have a market by the time the learning is completed.   This is similar to the complaint of product development where long term development cycles can produce a product envisioned for a particular market that is no longer viable when the product is available.   Likewise, targeted learning can pursue learning in a current active field that becomes less active (or even dead) by the time the learning is completed.  Also, in both of these approaches the student carries substantial risk of not recovering the investment in the education (such as being able to pay off the loans).    There is an opportunity for improvement.

In recent decades, there has been a growth of for-profit training programs that offer one week courses of intense full-day instruction.   My impression is that originally these were created to meet a market created by employment benefits of continuing education.   The employers offered to new employees a compensation benefit of paid training contingent on successful completion of the course.  This benefit included both the cost of the program and full-time pay.   Originally each of these training companies set their own standards for training.  They relied on their reputation to get repeat business but often the companies did not pay much attention to the quality of education.  Initially the primary goal for companies was to offer an employment inducement benefit in the form of time away from the job but where there is a chance of improvement.

These schools evolved over time as companies began to demand better standards for training.   In cases where schools advertised training in specific technology, the vendors of the technology also began to demand standards so as to defend their reputations from incompetent people who passed these training programs.   This led to the emergence of independent examinations designed by the industry and proctored through impartial third-party examination firms.   The training companies evolved to target their classes around passing these specific exams.   The quality of education is assured by the globally consistent quality of the certifying exam.

This system continues to evolve.  In recent years, these independent certifications often earned from these intense courses are becoming competitive with older semester-based education credentials.   In many fields, these certifications are sufficient for employment where increasingly there is no requirement for semester based education.

I approve of this development because it is a far more efficient approach to education and because it has a higher assurance of providing competency for staffing.    The problem with this approach is the expense resulting from this intensity of training and the independent examinations.   This approach works great for certifying employees using their continuing education benefits.   The expense of this approach can present major barriers for the unemployed or independent contractors.  These prospective workers need to finance the training from their own wealth or from incurring more debt.

Unlike the case for employee benefit financed training, the prospective worker takes the full financial risk of the failure to find rewarding work despite successful completion of the certification.   Sometimes they will succeed, and other times they will fail.   I see many people seeking work with a large number of certifications.  In some cases, these are self-financed certifications.  The evidence that they are seeking work suggests that these investments are not paying off.  If the person finds a job, it will be because only one of the several certifications have paid off.   Overall, he is getting a poor return on investment in the certifications.

Thinking about this problem motivated my previous post on the peonage model where employers take the financial risk of education in exchange for an agreement for a percentage of income for a certain period of time (of several but not too many years).   In that post, I introduced the term peonage deliberately because of its bad reputation from historical experience.   I realize that such arrangements do exist in some form today through clever contract language to avoid legal challenge of peonage.   I prefer to make explicit that these employment contracts are a form of peonage.  I instead challenge the notion that peonage is necessarily a bad thing.   If well regulated, a peonage arrangement is far more beneficial to workers than the current model based on student loans that can only be discharged by paying off all of the principle, not matter how long that takes.

The peonage model for financing employment training may be reserved for the older population in the proposed economic system of two age cohorts.  In that economy, the younger population will continue to operate under current labor laws including those that forbid peonage where future labor is partially owned by the corporation providing the education.   The older population can work under more lenient labor laws that can permit peonage in the form I proposed: a corporation pays for education to prepare a worker for a particular contract and then requires for a fixed term exclusive access to a percentage of wages earned that uses that trained skill.

Given the distinctly different economic situation for older people, the peonage model may be cumulative where new training will constantly renew the term for access to a percentage of income so that this arrangement can persist for the remainder of the workers working life.   The older worker already had the opportunity to work under the more protective employment environment (in particular protection from age discrimination) so that now he must compete more on specific skills offered.   Those skills are likely to be marketable only for a short period of time before new training will be required.

Of course, the older person has the option of self-financing his new education using savings or obtaining a loan.   The risk is that the training may not result in a paying job that will compensate for the expense of training.   When that happens, the worker will have to invest even more time and money in an alternative skill.   One possible result is that the worker can exhaust his savings in non-successful training and then be left unable to work and unable to pursue training to become eligible for work.

The alternative is to permit a peonage system for older workers where a corporate entity will take the risk of financing the education but by careful study of both the imminent job market and the inherent aptitudes of the worker.   The corporation will pay the worker to take training in exchange for committing to working on assignments where a portion of the income will belong to the corporation.    The contracts would for a set period of time obligate the worker to accept assignments that take advantage of this training.   The actual details of this obligation will need to be worked out in a way that will be acceptable to both parties as well as to society as a whole.   For this post, I’m not interested in these contractual details.  Instead I want to discuss how this business model might work.

I have in mind a business plan that prepares independent contractors by investing in specific training to meet immediate needs in exchange for commitment to perform duties for a certain period of time providing a cut in proceeds to the agent.  In particular, this business would employ only older workers in the imagined parallel economy of two different age groups.   This business will take advantage of the more lenient labor laws that would apply to the older population.

This business model would employ agile techniques to identify immediate market needs and then train available people to meet that specific labor market need.    This treats training analogous to the agile concept of a minimally viable product prepared in a very short time period called a sprint.

In current agile practices for product development, a minimally viable product is complete enough that it can be sold successfully but it must be completed within a very short and specific time.   There is a conflict between agile and longer product cycle development.   In recent times, the agile approach is more attractive for a wide variety of products.

My business concept applies agile principles to preparing trained staff instead of producing products.   The minimally viable product is the worker qualified to perform specific tasks for a contract.  Just as in product development sprints, the preparation of the worker can involve short intense training to earn the eligibility for the contract.   As in agile product development where design, implementation, testing, and documentation occur in the same interval, agile learning will learn various subjects at the same time but all related to a specific learning objective.

Agile learning is different from certification approach because the education would involve just enough learning to be successful for a very specific assignment.   In contrast a certification will require mastery of full range of capabilities, the majority of which will never be needed for any particular job.

The business model will take specific job requirements from a client and then set out to train the most eligible person on the team to meet these specific requirements.   The identification of the specific job requirements should be easy.  Most current job openings extensively list the precise capabilities that the client needs.   Even less specific job announcements usually required the hiring team to generalize known specific requirements in order to attract more applicants.   They would have preferred to list specific requirements.

The agile approach would subject an eligible worker to a couple weeks of intense training and testing to meet the requirements so that the worker can be available to work in a short period of time.    The resulting contract will be between the client and the corporation that will take a cut of the hourly rate and then pass the remainder to the worker.  The worker would be paid uniformly for the education and the assigned task.

However, the worker will not be paid while waiting for a new opportunity.   For example, once the contract with the client is over, the worker will stop receiving any income.   On the other hand, if circumstances work out that the client wants to continue employing the worker, then he will be able to make a new contract with the client independent of any obligation to the training corporation.  That continuation contract may result in a discount for the client even while the worker receives a higher take-home pay because the negotiated rate will be between the earlier worker’s compensation and the earlier billed rate.

The business model for the training company is to make money on placing specially prepared staff for urgent openings.   For urgent openings the billable rate may be higher than continuing contracts.   Also, I assume a successful company that is able to gain a reputation for delivering highly qualified workers for the task.

This business model also works specifically with older workers who have already completed careers in the younger economy.   Thus although the company only invests in educating the worker for the required skills, the worker has experience of working habits and aptitudes that will add to the qualification.   This is different than current job market that often demands years of experience in the specific skills.

I am making an assumption that the company will be able to sell a seasoned worker’s experience as sufficiently promising that he will succeed with the new skills.   The eligible worker probably has a history of successful projects.   Also, he will approach the new education with an awareness of what he has to learn in order to be successful in the next job.  In the current economy, this argument of transferable experience is hard to sell.   However, in the imagined parallel economy that separates young and old workers, the older workers will have some advantages in terms of lower labor-law obligations on the client.   The training company will also likely become skilled in marketing the relevance of prior experience when accompanied by agile training that meets a specific job requirement.

A topic for another post would describe in more detail the training process in this kind of arrangement.  The training would need to be holistic in the sense of capturing the full scope of a particular assignment as opposed to training for specific skills related to standard certifications.   Also, the training would focus on the specific needs of the client that may include client specific processes and policies so that the worker can be productive as soon as possible after starting.   The training would advantage of the new education technologies such as MOOCs.  At the same time the training would distinguish practical skills from lookup knowledge where the latter can be obtained on the job through immediate searches using Internet searching or expert software.   The point is that that very nature of this agile model of learning will be very different from standard education processes leading to semester courses or certification exams.

The goal of this post is to simply propose a concept of a agile model of education organized in sprints for a minimally viable product where that product is a suitably qualified staff to fill a contract position for certain number of months.   This training will be expensive, but like other agile projects the corporation will take the financial risk in paying for the education in exchange for a profit margin on selling the labor later.   The corporation justified this investment by identifying a skillset it can deliver to sell to a particular client (the viable product) and by selecting appropriate candidates from the pool of experienced older adults who have outlived the jurisdiction of more restrictive labor laws that would prohibit this kind of arrangement.

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One thought on “Agile model for higher education, learning in sprints instead of semesters

  1. I have been thinking more about how this will work. The preparation of a contract employee will involve a package deal that augments training as normally expected to qualify for a job with industry contacts facilitated by the contractor-sponsoring company to provide more direct access to tier-III (engineering) support from vendor.

    In the case of my field of databases, the sponsoring company would pay for training and certification for the specific technology that the client uses plus paid access to that technology’s vendor’s high level technical support/consulting services. This gives the contract employee an advantage of rapid access to top level support to rapidly resolve issues. The vendor support may also include direct access to advanced value-added tools that can facilitate resolving specific issues.

    The cost for this access will be part of the fee to the client (in other words further discounting the portion that goes to the contract employee). Larger sponsoring companies can arrange for a broad agreement to spread the cost over multiple contractors as needed. This would require negotiation since the vendors prefer to sell services directly to the client but I imagine that some deal would be possible. Many clients may be reluctant for cost reasons to obtain these value-added services directly from the vendor and so this provides an alternative revenue stream to the vendor. Also the certification and network of similarly trained contractors can assure the tools and services will be used competently to protect or enhance the vendor’s reputation.

    This related to my analogy of the Agile concept of a minimally viable product at the end of a sprint. A product is a package of related features that work together to satisfy a market need. In this case, the package includes a trained contractor with direct value-added access to the vendors enhanced services and tools.

    Obviously, there are details to work out between the relevant vendors and the contractor sponsor but this is business. In context of the dual age-group economy, the contractor would have more flexibility for compensating the older worker through deductions of the client’s billable rates to afford the enhanced services from vendors. The contract staff may have a lower take-home pay for the job, but it gives him some job that otherwise would not be available plus the arrangement helps to minimize the burden or stress of performing the job.

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