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For a long time, higher education was more or less confined to learners in their early twenties. Children learned from very young ages that almost everything they did in and out of school would eventually add up to a college admission. Once there, choosing the right major and minor were of paramount, lifelong importance.

Traditionally, it took four years of attending classes, taking exams and writing papers before earning a degree that also came with a good amount of bias. Alumni usually ended up sharing much of the socio-political mindset that prevailed in that particular institution.

While this way of doing things worked flawlessly for decades, recent developments in the workplace call for a more flexible approach to formal learning and to learning in general.

The focus moved from institutions to individuals

Recent times have seen a radical shift of power from the institution to the learner due to emergent developments in free online learning. These managed to provide the learner with a greater autonomy and a wide range of choice. It’s a significant step towards what may be called a decolonization of education and organizations worldwide are faced with the challenge of majorly transforming their recruitment policies.

Read more: Recruitment crisis or retainment crisis? Which is companies’ biggest pain?

In this new model the CV doesn’t belong to an alumni who completed all the necessary steps to get a qualification but to a lifelong learner who is free to come up with a personal learning mix. This can be made up of formal education, local wisdom, volunteer work, job experience and various online training.

MOOCs – the real game changers

Much of this big transformation is due to several prestigious universities that decided to offer free Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). It has acted as fuel for some rather impressive learner-centric innovations at every level of the educational process.

Whether we are talking about course development and design, recognition of acquired knowledge, collaboration, diversification of content and presentation methods and mediums, all have suffered major changes.

Furthermore, there is a spectacular rise in self-organized learning communities through social media, forums and live meetings online. It’s no coincidence that the most popular course in the world (according to Forbes), is Barbara Oakley’s “Learning How to Learn”. It has millions of enrollments and an enormous success in spite of it being filmed in a do-it-yourself studio in the neuroscientist’s basement.

Corporate learning is at a turning point

L&D specialists are aware of the major shift and are constantly trying to find ways to align corporate learning with the realities of the market. The greatest challenge is acknowledging the highly informal part of how today’s employees choose to get an education. Because it is almost impossible to identify, quantify and squeeze into a pie-chart or bulleted report, informal learning is still very much overlooked.

Read more: 8 Best practices to facilitate informal learning

Even companies that claim to be all for the empowerment of the employee and promotion of a continuous learning culture often fail at truly incorporating the numerous aspects of modern learning into their strategies. The impending need to calculate the ROI of all training and learning done within the organizations constantly hovers over any efforts to generate a casual and democratic learning environment.

Freedom can also be confusing

The main issue with all of this is (besides the obvious difficulty in generating reports and calculating business results) that even though people are now in charge of their own learning and really engaged to some extent, it’s not enough for them to make it in today’s constantly changing world.

Most adult learning is still mainly based on trial and error and even when it comes to selecting the online courses it is sometimes a lottery as the quality and applicability cannot be quantified from a title and some user reviews. Few have managed to individually upgrade their skills and competencies and learn how to learn in order to have no trouble dealing with ongoing change, new environments and fundamentally different challenges every day.

It’s crucial to teach employees how to learn

The focus of L&D professionals should move from setting up the optimal formal programs to managing a multitude of educational materials and mediums, all the while acting as guides (rather than teachers) to the learner.

There are a lot of pertinent voices asking for the ‘unleashing of the learner’ and even though it does sound like a wonderful, long awaited for liberation, it is only going to be effective if people actually know how to use that newfound freedom to their advantage. Complexity of skills is surely necessary to cope in the modern workplace but going in too many directions will never sum up to an advantage.

Learner-ability should be the number one competency in any development plan. Only learners who are able to assume a full and empowered learning stance will bring sustainable results and a positive ROI of L&D activity.

Author: Raluca Cristescu is a Faculty of Letters graduate with over ten years of experience in corporate training, focused mainly on soft skills for customer service and direct sales.