How Online Edtech Partnerships Bridge the Skills Gap

Under constant pressure, the path forward for a pivotal player in the education ecosystem.  

GUEST COLUMN | by Colin Lumsden


Universities are constantly under pressure to diversify their offerings, serve new students and learners, reduce costs, and drive enrollment – all in a volatile, unknown, complex, and ambiguous external environment with compounding factors such as labor market changes, evolving skills gaps, and technology disruptions.

Universities are facing an existential crisis with significant challenges to the traditional approach and efficacy of the four-year, residential-based, high school graduate-centric, “need a degree for a job” model. However, progressive institutions are disrupting and challenging the model. From Western Governors’ competency-based learning models to Southern New Hampshire, ASU, and others going big for online offerings and corporate partnerships, the institutions that win have quickly adapted and transitioned with the market and the changing nature of work. 

Pivotal, Vital Place in Overall Education Ecosystem

Universities have a pivotal and vital place in the overall education ecosystem. Still, it is too simplistic to think that they alone can do it, or that without them, the sector, community, and students will prevail. The moment is ripe for the industry to continue its evolution and adopt new ways of operating. Higher education will always have a place in our society — but the hard part is figuring out how to grow, change, and adapt to an evolving market, not against it.

The changing nature of work is the primary concern facing both institutions and students/learners and must be top of mind when institutions form their go-to-market and product market fit strategies. The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report reveals 44% of worker’s core skills are expected to change in the next five years, 60% of global organizations anticipate the skills gap as a barrier to industry transformation, and 62% of businesses expected ROI on the investment into employee skill development to happen in less than a year. Deloitte’s 2023 Higher Education Trends report calls for institutions to look at their business models, core offerings, and overall responsiveness to market changes in order to remain viable.

Best Path Forward Amidst Challenges

Leaders must champion new solutions to efficiently and effectively meet the evolving needs of their students and learners, corporate partners, and the overall labor market. The best path forward is developing content that is aligned with the demands of their respective student and learner segments. Adult learners are very conscious about ensuring the programming aligns with their lifelong learning needs, specifically reskilling or upskilling. This is particularly imperative in the tech space as new domains are created (cloud computing), others rapidly evolve (AI), and others sunset (word processing). These consumers are sophisticated and selective. They interrogate the many variables on the path to a decision for their learning options: the cost, ROI, duration, outcomes, and the fit of the institutional brand.

Unfortunately, developing content and student/learner acquisition strategies is complex, expensive, and difficult. To name but a few challenges: developing cutting/bleeding edge content and keeping it current, acquiring and retaining sophisticated consumers, and driving to clear outcomes are all difficult from a resource, technology, and process perspective. Even purpose-built departments, namely extension or professional/continuing education units, are challenged by the speed, scale, and sustainability of tech-focused offerings.

The Future 

Holon IQ’s Education in 2030 report highlights how service-centric, mentor-based, and peer-to-peer learning is the future of academic and developmental interactions. To navigate this environment, institutions have the option to “build or buy.” As the academic community has evolved over the last 25 years, partnerships (the “buy” model) between private or public organizations and traditional academic institutions have become a common, effective, and sustainable option. 

The online program management (OPM) space has advanced since the early days of online education and partnerships. From newer models like Coursera, which was originally for short courses and/or MOOCs to broaden access, to EdX/2U and Springboard “bootcamp” (non-credit certificate) partners focused on tech-related upskilling and reskilling content, there are proven models available to meet the needs of your unit, university, and student/learner community. In the bootcamp space, the partnership focuses on quickly (under 9 months), affordably (typically under $15K), and effectively (completion and placement rates to be cited) reaching adult and professional learners to allow them to secure new employment opportunities, retain their current roles with improved skills, or secure a promotion by having the latest knowledge and skills. 

The need for upskilling and reskilling is clear from both a corporate/organizational perspective, and the discerning but real interest from the population/employment base is clear. The benefits of these offerings serve both corporate and personal/professional interests, and institutions that have been able to capitalize on the ability to go to market with these offerings have reached new segments, continuing to fulfill their missions and mandates in a responsible manner. 

By expanding offerings, higher education leaders create optionality for learning and development that will supplement workforce needs. With an economy and labor market that is changing, institutions must reflect on whether students are truly provided with the options they need to succeed. 

Colin Lumsden is VP Business Development at Springboard, the online learning platform preparing students for in-demand technology careers through mentor- and instructor-led programs. Previously he was VP, Partner Relations at ApplyBoard serving over 1,700 partners and almost 140,000 programs. Colin also served as VP & Program Lead at 2U, where he was GM-level responsible for the holistic oversight of the Data Bootcamp. He held additional roles at Academic Partnerships, York University, and Pearson. Colin holds a bachelor’s degree from Toronto Metropolitan University and earned his MSc in organizational leadership from Norwich University. He is also on track to earn a Ph.D. in higher education / higher education administration from the University of Toronto. Colin is based in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.


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