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How Higher Education Can Learn from Corporate Training Practices

Updated: Feb 12, 2022

“Learning is no longer an activity that only occurs at specific stages in your life or career. Modern learning is continuous, on the spot, craved, a part of everyday conversations, two-way, crowdsourced, contextual, and vital.” - Crystal Kadakia & Lisa Owens

In response to a recent urgent matter at my college, a colleague said: “We need to move at the speed of business, not the speed of higher ed.” Everyone in the room knew what she meant, nodding in agreement that change is desperately needed, yet sometimes unattainable in our complicated bureaucracy. Acknowledging that business does indeed move faster than higher education, college educators can look to learning and development literature intended for the corporate world to understand some of the most cutting-edge teaching and learning theories currently being implemented. These resources for corporate training take into account how people want to learn and how they expect to encounter learning. If educators are willing to move beyond their initial apprehensions about what the corporate world may have to offer education, they will find modern approaches to learning that can be applied to the college classroom to create a transformative educational experience relevant to our times.

What is transformative learning?

In New Learning, Mary Kalantzis and Bill Cope describe transformative education as embodying “a realistic view of contemporary society” with the aim of approaching learning in a manner that is both relevant to the learners of today while actively contributing to authoring the future of learning. At its core, transformative education is an optimistic agenda to develop better learners contributing to the creation of a better society. Kalantzis and Cope identified eight key dimensions of education and outlined how transformative educational approaches differ from the modern past and more recent times for each dimension (Kalantzis, M. & Cope, B., 2012).

  1. Architectonic- the physical settings of schools, their buildings and the spaces in which teachers teach and learners learn.

  2. Discursive- the ways in which we communicate with each other using language in schools

  3. Intersubjective- the ways in which the teachers and learners relate, expressing their wills, motivations, interests and drives. How much space the learner has to express themselves, or comply with the commands of the teacher.

  4. Socio-cultural- the life experiences, social backgrounds and cultures that teachers and learners come from; the pressures exerted on them by school to be the same or the opportunities to build upon their diversity.

  5. Proprietary- patterns of ownership and control of knowledge involving teachers and learners.

  6. Epistemological- the ways in which we know.

  7. Pedagogical- the ways in which we learn.

  8. Moral- the values and social meanings that underlie our thoughts, words and actions.

Changing learning for changing times

The digital revolution has undoubtedly changed the learning landscape for both learners and educators. While this was certainly the case before Covid-19, the pandemic has only emphasized how much catching up is needed for education to meet the modern learner’s needs in an agile way. In Designing for Modern Learning, Crystal Kadakia and Lisa M.D. Owens propose a new model for training employees that focuses on a diversity of learning assets to meet individual modern learner needs. Their research for developing the model began by identifying the following seismic shifts in learning (Kadakia, C. & Owens, L., 2020).

  • When and where learning happens Historically, there were three primary ways of learning. People could read a book anywhere, at any time; they could find an expert to teach them; or they could participate in an in-person class. By comparison, digital technology allows learners in today’s world to learn whenever and wherever they want to.

  • Who creates and delivers learning In days past, experts had to be found and vetted before they were permitted to author and publish learning content or teach a course. The tools needed to create learning content were expensive and therefore exclusive to specialized businesses. Today, digital technology has evolved to the point of ubiquity, which allows anyone to create learning content using a smartphone and the internet.

  • How we find information Before the digital revolution, learners had to sift through dusty card catalogs at the library to find the information they desired. The search was limited, of course, by the collection of the library. By contrast, today, people can find information using powerful search engines on their smartphones.

  • How we ensure information is reliable There was a time when learners relied solely on experts to provide learning experiences. While this limited those learning experiences significantly, it also provided quality control. The possibility of misinformation naturally increased due to relying on one another to filter and review data.

Through surveying and research, Owens and Kadakia identified nine elements that learners look for in a modern learning experience. They also identified learning touchpoints (when learners come into contact with learning) which they categorized into three categories based on neuroscience research into how people learn.

  1. Social Learning Touchpoint- a learning experience where learners have interactions with other people.

  2. Formal Learning Touchpoint- a learning experience with a clear start and end point and a structured sequence.

  3. Immediate Learning Touchpoint- a learning experience that learners can access 24/7 without extensive searching.

In response to the shifts in learning, Owens and Kadakia have created the Owens Kadakia Learning Cluster Design model (OK-LCD) for workplace training. The model is comprised of five actions necessary for designing modern learning experiences.

  1. Change on-the-job behavior: Set the goal for the learning cluster.

  2. Learn learner-to-learner difference: Identify learner personas within the learner group to explore when, where, and how each persona will most likely need to learn.

  3. Upgrade existing assets: Apply the nine elements of modern learning to improve current programs quickly.

  4. Surround learners with meaningful learning assets.

  5. Track transformation: Identify qualitative and quantitative measures to determine the impact of the learning cluster. Use the results for further improvements.

The OK-LCD model addresses all eight of the key dimensions of education in a transformative way. The physical learning environment is flexible and encourages continuous learning. While the teacher is the designer of the learning environment, the social learning touchpoint ensures communication is horizontal. Learners are surrounded by meaningful learning interactivity. The learn action ensures inclusive and differentiated learning. The social learning and immediate learning touchpoints allow for collaborative learning, accessible from anywhere at anytime. Teachers design the pedagogy, while learners co-design knowledge and learning. This model creates learners who can navigate change, create and innovate.

It is easy to see how this model could transfer to higher education with little modification. In the change action, educators identify the learning objectives, and in the learn action, educators determine the needs of the students taking the course. The remaining three actions could be completed as written above. Though the vernacular is slightly different, the model is familiar enough for college educators to recognize while also offering a transformative approach to learning.

Learning as a social act

Social learning is vital to transformative education. You can’t improve society without manifesting learning as a social act, rather than one that is solely solitary. Leveraging collective knowledge to create opportunities for social learning, corporate trainers regularly implement the use of learning communities. While higher education is certainly no stranger to the concept, it can be argued that businesses have been more successful in their design and implementation of learning communities. Community theorists and psychologists David W. McMillan and David M. Chavis identified four key factors that define a sense of community (McMillan, D. & Chavis, D., 1986) :

  1. Membership: Members of a learning community must feel a sense of belonging to the group that encourages them to keep working and helping others

  2. Influence: Member activities must have a direct effect on what happens in the community.

  3. Fulfillment: Membership in the community provides the opportunity to satisfy particular needs of members

  4. Emotion: Members have emotional experiences by sharing knowledge, expressing personal opinions, and seeking help and information from fellow members.

The term learning community often refers to a specific group of people with shared academic goals and interests who meet regularly to support and expand upon their education through social learning experiences. While higher education is in and of itself a large learning community comprised of smaller learning communities, often, these communities aren’t leveraged to their highest potential. Though there is a community meeting to learn, their gathering is sometimes inconsequential to the learning, as it isn’t explicitly utilized to generate more learning.

With many college educators just dipping their toes into the waters of online learning due to the pandemic, there is still much confusion and skepticism about forming an online learning community in their web-based classrooms. In Design for How People Learn, Julie Dirksen explains why these initial misgivings are valid, acknowledging the futility of gathering people into an online forum and hoping a community will simply form. She explains that online communities are living entities like all communities; they must be tended to in order to thrive (Dirksen, J., 2016).

In Community Building on the Web, Amy Jo Kim explains how online communities can thrive when stewarded with the proper care and guidance. New community members need to be welcomed and onboarded to the functions of the community and given some goals. Regular community members need fresh content and new people to interact with. The master community members need exclusive activities and access to content and abilities that regular and new members don’t have. She also notes that as with all communities, each member of a community’s experience must evolve over time to be relevant to their changing needs (Kim, A., 2000).

Learning communities are commonplace in the corporate world. An early example of an incredibly consequential learning community is the Xerox Eureka project. A learning community organically formed around Xerox maintenance representatives as they exchanged repair advice informally over breaks. In the late 1990s, Xerox recognized the value in this social learning and developed the Eureka project, which formalized the learning community into a global network of representatives sharing repair knowledge on a larger scale (Seely-Brown, J. & Duguid, P., 2000).

The underpinning idea behind the success of learning communities and social learning at large is that sharing is good for learning. Both the giver and the receiver, who shift places back and forth, benefit from shared knowledge. In Show Your Work, Jane Bozarth argues that sharing work knowledge helps everyone, including the worker sharing, as their work becomes more visible and discoverable. She explains that it often feels foreign to share the fruits of our labors freely in a competitive society, yet showing your work isn’t new. For thousands of years, humans have freely contributed their knowledge to the collective of humanity. Consider a sailor returning from a voyage who mapped his journey for the benefit of other individuals, as well as the greater knowledge of geography. This is what showing your work means, sharing knowledge for the sake of wider understanding and thus the progression of knowledge (Bozarth, J., 2014).

Self-described 'accidental entrepreneur" Scott Stepper advocates for a similar approach to workplace learning in his book Working Out Loud. Stepper's approach also focuses on the personal and communal benefits of building relationships that support the achievement of big goals. The infographic below illustrates the five elements of working out loud (Harman, J., 2019).

Distinctions between corporate training and higher education

  • Context Higher education is primarily concerned with knowledge transfer and teaching students “how to learn.” Corporate training is concerned with competencies.

  • Focus Higher education tends to be more abstract since it teaches foundational concepts. Corporate training is more hands-on in its focus on the development and application of skills.

  • Timeline Corporate learning needs are much more immediate than that of higher education, which requires a far more significant amount of time for learning abstract concepts.

Criticisms Many of the criticisms of applying corporate training models to higher education stem from the already fraught tensions between business and education. One search of the term “business” on Inside Higher Ed will reveal countless articles warning against the intermingling of business with education. The majority of these articles argue that business and education are inherently different, and further, inherently opposed. Since business places the highest value on customer satisfaction and efficiency, when placed in an educational setting, it can lead to questionable outcomes. Examples include the sunsetting of an otherwise worthy educational program due to low enrollment, or evaluating teachers based on their popularity among students rather than the effectiveness of their teaching (Katopes 2006).

Conclusions The collaborative learning espoused by Bozarth is needed more than ever on college campuses. Not only by learners but by educators still learning the best ways to teach. The crossover between higher education and corporate training is already here. Colleges and universities have long partnered with the corporate world to offer training, reskilling, and upskilling. Still, in this partnership, higher education is providing its specialty of learning to business. It could be difficult to convince college educators that there is anything for business to teach postsecondary education about learning. Academics have long viewed the intermingling of the corporate world with higher education as a sacrilege that should be stopped at all costs. However, if that cost is the best and most relevant modern education for our students, we should all agree that that cost is too high.


Bozarth, J. (2014). Show Your Work. Wiley.

Dirksen, J. (2016). Design for How People Learn. New Riders.

Harman, J. (2019). Working Out Loud With John Stepper. Leading Learning, January 10th, 2021.

Kadakia, C. & Owens, L. (2020). Designing for Modern Learning: Beyond ADDIE and SAM. Association for Talent Development.

Kalantzis, M. & Cope, B. (2012). New Learning: Elements of a Science of Education. Cambridge University Press.

Katopes, P. (2009, February 16). The Business Model is the Wrong Model. Inside Higher Ed.

Kim, A. (2000). Community Building on the Web: Secret Strategies for Successful Online Communities. Peachpit Press.

McMillan, D. & Chavis, D. (1986). Sense of Community: A Definition and Theory. Journal of Community Psychology, Volume 14.

Seely-Brown, J. & Duguid, P. (2000). Balancing Act: How to Capture Knowledge Without Killing It. Harvard Business Review, May-June 2000.

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