The future of education: Lifelong, flexible, skill-based learning after COVID-19

Pre-pandemic, education hadn't changed much in 50 years. Using lessons from remote learning and a rapidly evolving workplace, big changes are coming.

Office workers sit in front of monitors

Campbell Foster

October 22, 2021

min read
  • The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted traditional classroom learning experiences and brought about a rapid shift to remote learning.

  • The disruption has unequally impacted children, with K–12 students being an average of five months behind in math and four months behind in reading. Children in Black and lower-income schools saw greater disparities.

  • US manufacturing is currently facing a $1 trillion skills gap, as more than 600,000 trained workers are needed during the next eight years to fill jobs.

A woman teaches a remote class from her home office.
Remote learning will continue to improve as it integrates with developing digital platforms, cloud collaboration, and automated systems.

In today’s fast-moving, tech-heavy landscape, take a moment to ask yourself an important question: How does your degree and formal education impact what you’re doing in your work life?

Each year, the ground under that answer shifts dramatically, as academia and industry realign what’s expected of the traditional education model. Indeed, the in-person classrooms of today and 50 years ago are giving way to models centered around remote learning—virtual and expansive in their reach. In this world powered by ubiquitous information, the future of education can be built around collaboration and innovation, not standardized tests and rigid curricula.

For better or worse, the COVID-19 pandemic hastened many of these changes, but its effect on education today and tomorrow are only just being felt. The systemic shifts borne of necessity in the pandemic’s earliest days are yielding transformed and flexible education systems beyond the K–12 classroom and into postsecondary and advanced education.

COVID-19’s disrupting effect on education

Despite technological and philosophical advances in education during the past 50 years, the classroom of today looks remarkably like the classroom of decades ago. Instead of card catalogs and thick encyclopedias, students can turn to the Internet and search engines. Their curiosity and demand for information can reach far beyond textbooks or physical resource materials. But the physical and instructive environment has remained largely unchanged—as have most schools’ capacities to develop skill-based student cohorts, responsive lesson plans, and emotional or mental support.

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the established standard for how K–12 education works in the US was flipped on its proverbial head. Seemingly overnight, classrooms became virtual spaces, and educators were forced to adapt their skills to unfamiliar online learning platforms.

Despite the heroic efforts by many school systems to make remote learning successful, COVID-19 has disrupted education—and not always equally. McKinsey & Company reveals that students were, on average, five months behind in mathematics and four months behind in reading by the end of their first full academic year of learning with the practices adapted for COVID-19. That disparity is not constant across the board, as students in predominately Black schools were on average six months behind in unfinished math learning; students in low-income schools were seven months behind.

Older children and young adults did not escape COVID-19’s disruptive impact on their education either. High-schoolers during COVID-19 were more likely to drop out, especially those in low-income families. They were also less likely to enter postsecondary education.

This compounds a problem laid out by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, which reports that the percentage of high school graduates enrolling in colleges and universities is already falling. In 2020, only 62.7% of high school graduates went on to a college or university, which is down from 66.2% in 2019.

McKinsey & Company revealed what these education losses and months of unfinished learning can actually mean: loss of income. Indeed, by 2040, when the majority of today’s K–12 students are in the workforce, the potential annual GDP loss as a result of pandemic-related unfinished learning could total $128 billion–$188 billion.

Business leaders, makers, and innovators are called to address this moment—to codify the shift in educational practices and align them with the needs of today’s businesses. While it’s true that much of education still focuses on set disciplines and skills, the future of education could better encourage lifelong learning and reskilling, instilling the importance of finding new ways to adapt to changing professional norms of knowledge and qualification demands.

This need has become increasingly acute as the pandemic has fundamentally disrupted how businesses operate. But the importance of digital platforms, cloud collaboration, and automated systems is critical to operational success—as well as the ability to navigate the shifting architecture of traditional work. Fortunately, the same digital platforms also present opportunities for self-paced, flexible skill building that mutually benefits employees and organizations.

Flexibility is the future of education

Female engineer in discussion with coworker while testing program on augmented reality headset in computer lab
Technologies like mixed, virtual, and augmented reality, collectively known as XR, can help personalized learning systems flourish.

Learning should be a fundamental obligation for everyone, but the educational system alone is not equipped to tackle this challenge. It’s true that jobsites have always been better than classrooms for learning skills to increase teamwork and collaboration. The latest patchwork of third-party educators, while important for pushing innovation, can help take on the true scope of this educational challenge only if it’s part of a larger, codified system of instruction. With cooperation between academia and industry, education in 50 years will reflect these realities. Ultimately, this shift lays the foundation for an educational renaissance, one representative of industry realities and flexible to innovations in skills and technology.

Here again, the foundation for this shift in the education sector has been fortified by the demands of the COVID-19 pandemic. Elementary and secondary schools have had to develop flexible curricula; teachers and paraprofessionals have had to radically realign their practices. As a result, the rapid uptake of technologies like remote learning and even virtual reality have helped students and teachers rapidly develop their skills. In fact, a December 2020 survey from Education Week found that 87% of teachers reported that their ability to use technology grew by “a lot” or “a little” during the pandemic.

That hands-on, fast-paced need for flexibility reflects a future many educators and business leaders have been projecting for years. Indeed, many educators have already called for a more flexible system based on specific skill sets to replace four-year degrees and liberal arts curricula. Often referred to as “badging” or “micro-credentialing,” this approach lets students and workers in transition pick up design and manufacturing skills, such as:

  • 3D printing

  • Human-centered design

  • CNC programming

  • Robotics

  • Nanotechnology

  • Artificial intelligence

Allowing a stackable, personalized approach to acquiring skills helps students at any level prepare for specific jobs much more quickly than traditional classroom learning. Taking the badge metaphor one step further, think of a scout accomplishing different tasks. Generative learning systems and intelligent learning systems can also steer students toward the skills and classes they’ll need to evolve and succeed, creating a constantly improving curriculum and a path for lifelong learning.

Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) push these personalized learning systems forward in a way unimaginable in pre-pandemic days (much like augmented reality art). While the K–12 education system is developed around age-specific milestones, students’ ability to gather in virtual classrooms or learning spaces from nearly anywhere expands the limits of traditional cohorts. The results of skills-targeted testing, for example, could be used to group students who need advanced instruction with similarly minded students from their entire region, not just their school. They could also be taught by an instructor with specific knowledge of that subject. This takes the burden off a school or district to employ individuals with narrow fields of expertise and broadens the possibilities for classroom and vocational instruction.

Likewise, those test results can help “shape” education choices for students. If the traditional four-year college model doesn’t make sense for students, they can be directed toward a model of learning that catapults them into a career and continuous learning.

Advancements using AR and VR are not meant to replace teachers. Instead, they can—and should—support educators as they develop and define the future of flexible education. Goals for technology in education can include reducing inequalities, fostering directional learning, and closing the skill divide that has opened across the US corporate landscape in recent decades. Currently, US manufacturing faces a $1 trillion skills gap. Within the next eight years, more than 600,000 trained manufacturers will be needed to fill these empty jobs.

To that end, Autodesk Certification recently launched a new, single-destination learning platform, offering industry-aligned credentials for emerging or seasoned professionals to keep pace and anticipate what they’ll need to learn next. Such credentials could validate the tools and skills required in today’s job roles and also help professionals advance in specific technological applications for their roles, like a command map for future-skilling.

Autodesk Certifications include:

  • Autodesk Certified Professional in AutoCAD for Design and Drafting

  • Autodesk Certified Professional in Revit for Architectural Design

  • Autodesk Certified Professional in Revit for Structural Design

  • Autodesk Certified Professional in Civil 3D for Infrastructure Design

  • Autodesk Certified Associate in CAM for 2.5 Axis Milling

  • Autodesk Certified Professional in Inventor for Mechanical Design

Certification and “badging” programs are also more affordable than traditional higher education. This is especially important for students who come from underserved communities, where the costly threshold into colleges or universities may be a deterrent.

The average in-state student at a four-year university can expect to pay $25,615 for one academic year, according to That totals more than $100,000 for a four-year program. Comparatively, a credentialing program may cost several hundred dollars to a few thousand. Even if a student explores several accreditation programs, the total cost would fall significantly short of the four-year college price tag.

A renewed focus on skill-based education in the Future

The US Census Bureau shows the mean differences in income associated with various levels of education.
The US Census Bureau shows the mean differences in income associated with various levels of education. Image courtesy of the US Census Bureau.

The need for immediate skills training creates a huge opportunity for community colleges and vocational schools—as well as workforce training centers, such as Autodesk Certification partner Humanmade. The Obama administration made significant investments in this underutilized sector of the educational system, spreading the important message that four-year degrees aren’t the only path to success. As Georgetown University points out, most of today’s jobs require some education beyond high school; during the Great Recession, employment of people with more than a high school education increased by 11.5 million jobs while employment for workers with a high school education grew by 80,000 jobs.

Community colleges already provide strong vocational education. They can use this as a starting point to teach the next generation of technologies. The changing economy underscores this point, and these schools may finally be recognized for what they can become in the US: true centers for lifetime learning.

The long-term impacts on a student’s income potential are very real, too. According to the US Census, people who have a high-school diploma or GED equivalent make between $2,400 and $4,900 per month while people with bachelor’s degrees or higher education make approximately $6,300. McKinsey & Company already expect today’s K–12 students to fall behind in earning potential as a result of unfinished learning in the pandemic years, so this gap may be filled by helping students complete credentialing programs that match their interests and skills to the business world’s needs.

The students at Humanmade are a case study in what certifications can mean for earning potential. Students with Autodesk certifications find job placements that make on average $5 an hour more than people without the certification. And they’re getting hired faster—30% of CNC trainees, for example, were hired before they graduated the program.

Despite the focus on technical skills and technology, a shift toward skill-based learning doesn’t mean abandoning liberal arts. Rather, as many point out, it highlights the value of problem solving and critical thinking—skills traditionally fostered in a humanities-centered education. The rise of complex and interrelated systems will require more systems thinking. Moving from big, heavy, physical products to a world of subscriptions, cloud-based services, and continual evolution requires constant engagement and a higher degree of problem-solving savvy.

This also highlights the growing need for systems that better address mental health. As with realignments in work and education priorities, the pandemic has brought to the fore the need for better mental-health solutions—in micro-settings like offices and workplaces and macro-settings like virtual and physical communities.

There’s no easy answer for such a big shift. But industry and academia can begin to establish new frameworks and partnerships and start directing workers toward lifetime learning, beginning in elementary school. Organizations such as the Lumina Foundation have already put forward potential models for lifetime-learning systems, and the conversation needs to continue. Colleges and universities will always be places for learning higher-order skills and meeting new communities of colleagues. Going forward, with the right systems in place, those skills become a bridge to continuous learning.

Today, choosing a field of study or a degree is much less important than committing to finding ways to expand your thinking and continually improve your skills to respond to the current market. Tomorrow’s professionals must be nimble enough to solve an unceasingly new set of problems, which, as the COVID-19 pandemic’s rapid demands for flexibility and technological transitions have shown, can’t always be anticipated.

This article has been updated. It was originally published in August 2017.

Campbell Foster

About Campbell Foster

Campbell Foster is vice president of marketing at Synthesis AI.

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