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Serving the Needs of the New "Fluid" Learner

In our new book, Transforming for Turbulent Times, we talk a lot about the rapidly transforming Knowledge and Learning Ecosystem and its potential to disrupt higher education. Our discussion views the Ecosystem from the institutional perspective, but we also note that the new learners need much more choice and flexibility in their options for higher education. We also emphasize the learner gaining new knowledge and skills throughout a lifetime, participating in what we call the 60-year curriculum. But we are still searching for new descriptors that evoke a clear feeling for the different ways in which learners will interact with higher education in the years ahead.

In a recent opinion piece (Higher Ed Dive, August 15, 2022), Anne Khademian, executive director of the Universities at Shady Grove located just outside of Washington, D.C., proposes the concept of the “fluid student,” building on the “fluid sports fan” concept recently advanced by the Sports Innovation Lab. We think she’s on to something.

The “traditional fan” is a dedicated follower of a sports team who holds season tickets, purchases team merchandise, follows the team on traditional media and passes on the tradition to future generations. On the other hand, the “fluid fan” tracks individual athletes on social media on their cell phone and is as interested in what the athlete stands for, sometimes over winning. They are open to change; empowered digitally to choose, they frequently change preferences as new content and experiences become available. The challenge for the sports business is to have the agility to adapt to these changing fan preferences.

Khademian sees a similar challenge before higher education to serve the “fluid student.” Increasingly students are flowing in and out of jobs and education, rather than pursuing traditional two- or four-year degrees. They are more likely to focus their educational effort on personalized career opportunities, while stacking and banking credentials and experience into degrees. They study virtually, in person, and in applied experiential settings. They are much more interested in the career opportunities following their studies than in institutional prestige and rankings.

We believe that Khademian’s ideas about the “fluid student” are well worth exploring and that they resonate with much of our thinking about the learners of the future. It is imperative that we begin to construct these new concepts of students so that we can target our transformation efforts on the right things—driven by the needs of these increasingly “fluid” learners.


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