A Dark Day and a New Dawn -- The Evolution of Higher Education and Workforce Learning

03/10/2015 04:10 pm ET | Updated May 09, 2015

Without most people noticing, last week contrasted two events that, I believe, offer an alternate future for learning and higher education.

One happened in the bucolic shadows of the Shenandoah Mountains in rural Virginia. From the picture-postcard campus of century-old Sweet Briar College -- a respected, women's liberal arts college -- came a startling announcement:

"We are closing." Out of the blue.

Despite an $84 million endowment, gorgeous grounds, and dedicated alumnae, the board said the school simply had no future. Declining enrollments regardless of a marketing push, high tuition discounts, and the failure of efforts to develop other forms of education just left no path to a sustainable future. In the end, not enough young women wanted what Sweet Briar so beautifully offered -- a four-year, residential, traditional liberal arts education.

While any reader of mine knows I have long advocated for new forms of education, nobody can rejoice at what happened at Sweet Briar. I offer sincere condolences to the faculty, staff, students and alumnae who will feel the loss.

For traditional higher education generally, this was a major earthquake. Colleges close and merge, but that this happened so quickly to a school of such standing was a disturbance of a different dimension.

But if Sweet Briar was a glimpse of one future for higher education, I got a look at an alternate future in Oakland.

I was invited to talk at a meeting held at Kaiser Permanente's Sidney R. Garfield Health Care Innovation Center. We had come to discuss the future of health care and health care education, an area the workforce strategies team at College for America at Southern New Hampshire University has explored and researched.

Picture the center as a mini film studio where Kaiser models the patient-centered healthcare of the future. It has prototypes of emergency rooms, NICUs, single-care patient rooms and patient home environments. They even have a smart car with new healthcare technology. The whole place is devoted to preparing the health care workers of tomorrow to use rapidly-evolving technologies to deliver better patient care and satisfaction. Kaiser uses the center to run through simulations: For example, an older patient with heart issues who has an episode in a car, or a pregnant woman with a family history of gestational diabetes. How should they be treated in tomorrow's world? What skills will workers need? Who will do what?

The goal: Blueprint Kaiser's future patient handling using the science-fiction-like technology already at our disposal, but not yet widely deployed. It's R&D of the most practical sort.

It was a glimpse of all our futures. Forgive the kid in me, but it was so cool. But, what was cooler was the group that had invited me: the best kept secret in American workforce development.

It is called the Healthcare Career Advancement Program (H-CAP), a national healthcare labor and management organization that promotes innovation and quality in health care career education.

H-CAP has been around for 10 years, and it's affiliate labor/management training funds serve 1,000 employers and make training available to 600,000 workers. Here's the best part: Business and labor are in it together and have negotiated an annual budget of close to $80 million to support worker training and education. Talk about putting your money where your collective bargaining is.

The Kaiser facility challenged us to think about how to evolve education to develop the competencies required for when health care workers need to read and respond to a patient's vital signs transmitted in new ways -- maybe through a smart watch or via technology in a car in which the patient is suddenly having difficultly breathing. The implications of what we say and what it will take to prepare tomorrow's health care workers for a new order of patient care were head spinning. But what was clear was that what is offered today will not be enough.

So as existing educational institutions face ever-mounting challenges, Oakland offered a view of the future and a vision for reimagining education so we can rise to the challenges and possibilities that Kaiser demonstrated are already here.