September 02, 2017

On September 1st of every year, the city of Boston abruptly transforms. Seemingly every apartment lease in the entire city ends on August 31st, leading to an enormous shuffle of moving vans, of furniture being hauled through doorways and onto street corners. The summer heat finally abates, bringing on hoodie weather, and it seems that just about everywhere you look, there are college logos on the breasts of young, excitable, first year college students, the faces of back-to-school season.

Many of us associate this time of year with change and new beginnings--and we tend mostly to associate that sort of energy with youth. But these days, the back to school ritual is no longer just for young people, and the college experience is no longer just hoodies, dorm rooms, and sprawling campus lawns.

In the high velocity living of the 21st century education is not just a way of training to enter a profession, but a means of remaining relevant and competitive across 50-plus years of multiple jobs and careers. For many people working beyond the traditional 60-something retirement age is a way to ensure that their lifespan does not outpace their wealth span. Already for younger Baby Boomers and certainly Gen X, Millennials and recently graduated Gen Z, lifelong education is a vital part of their capacity to work longer and should be considered part of an overall retirement planning strategy. People with the willingness and agility to learn new skills--and relearn old ones--are the most resilient players in an economy defined by sudden technological shifts and the rapid accumulation of new knowledge.

Today we find ourselves driven by an exponential knowledge doubling curve. Before the 20th century, the sum total of human knowledge doubled once every century. By the end of the Second World War, driven by massive advancements in telecommunications, knowledge was doubling every 25 years. Today, that doubling happens in aggregate about once every year.

Before the 20th century, the turnover of the knowledge base of a profession took longer than a human lifetime to complete. For example, in the medical profession today, to name but one example, it takes about 18 months.

The nature of work and knowledge is creating extreme hyperspecialization in some professions and creating entirely new careers. A productive farmer today must learn how to use robotics to manage their crops let alone be able to operate a tractor. Only a few years ago you would have gotten a quizzical look from anyone if you said you aspired to being a social media analyst, data scientist, genetics counselor, mobile map maker, radiation therapist, wind turbine technician…or even Zumba instructor. How can we keep up?

Luckily, the delivery of education is changing with the same rapidity. One of the most remarkable examples is edX. edX is an education platform founded by MIT and Harvard in 2012 that provides people the ability to refresh their knowledge base from literally thousands of courses from over 90 universities and institutions from around the globe for free! These Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, allow an incredibly large number of people access to in-demand academics and experts as well as a global network of like-minded peer-learners without having to travel or for that matter leave their day job. For learners who desire to master a discipline, MIT has recently introduced the concept of the MicroMasters credential. The MicroMasters credential is achieved after a student successfully completes a sequence of 5 courses and passes a comprehensive exam - all online. Additionally, learners who have earned the MicroMasters credential may apply it for a full semester of credit towards a Masters Degree.

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