Certifications Education Educational Formats Tech and Politics Workforce Development

The Tragic Reality of 4-Year Degrees

The modern-day education system may be at the end of its vaunted run as a pipeline for employer talent. I’m never one to declare something dead before its day, but the way things are going, workforce development companies like my own are metaphorically preparing to attend a funeral. I’m going to ask readers to prepare with us as we take a hard look at some of the topics the education system refuses to address, demanding a legitimate response from those who are holding the line for four-year universities. As a workforce development company, some may consider my opinion bias on the matter, but the argument is nearly flawless in its execution and may leave you pondering the question that’s on everyone’s mind. Is a degree still worth it?

Past Their Prime

There’s no shame in admitting when something has outlived its usefulness. Kids outgrow clothing, cars break down, and the needs of a society always change. Some tools are built for a specific time and purpose, and most scholars would agree, the education system was built when factory jobs were the greatest source of prosperity in America. Because of this fact, you often hear the term “factory-model education,” or “industrial era schools,” to describe the foundation of the education system put in place in the mid 19th century. Some argue that there isn’t a direct correlation between the industrial revolution and modern education, but that’s not exactly relevant to the argument that the system is outdated.

During the peak of its usefulness, the education system was a way to guarantee anyone completing the requirements emerged with a baseline knowledge level that would benefit almost any employer. These benefits were all but guaranteed because the lack of diversity in occupations left most Americans with very few choices for a path to a better life. According to the 1920 Census, manufacturing and agriculture jobs accounted for almost 60% of active occupations. The U.S. also saw a four-fold increase in manufacturing jobs between 1880 and 1920 according to a research paper by Charles Hirschman and Elizabeth Mogford, published by the National Institute of Health.

So whether or not you believe the term “factory education” is meant to describe the purpose-built nature of the education system or the methodical way in which it produces learning outcomes, it doesn’t change the fact it’s essentially a one size fits all model. At no fault of its own, a one size fits all model was the only way for the education system to scale to its current size, but it may no longer be useful for today’s population, and retooling it for the demands of the modern workforce is proving to be a daunting task.

False Advertising

Manufacturing Jobs Chart
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

The remnants of the Industrial Revolution have long since faded in the U.S., with the majority of manufacturing shifting to offshore, and the population of workers currently employed in the manufacturing sector dipping to 8% of nonfarm payroll in 2018.  The promise of higher standards of living and pay associated with these kinds of jobs also disappeared, as Zip Recruiter reports the average annual salary of a factory worker is ~$27,000, placing them ~$5000 below the U.S. median income level. 

Interestingly enough, the education system adopted similar marketing points to factory jobs during the Industrial Revolution, and even though the manufacturing sector has moved on from those talking points, the education system has not. A quick internet search for the benefits of higher education almost always returns the same talking points:

  1. More freedom to choose a career path
  2. Higher average income
  3. More advancement opportunities

The summation of their talking points is a “better life.” As someone who has spent a significant amount of his career in the marketing department, I applaud the length of time the education system has carried on touting outcomes they cannot directly control. In a traditional situation, we would call this false advertising. 

Even if at some point the statistical data proved these outcomes likely, an indirect correlation between the two is a best-case scenario, and a shift in employment needs was bound to separate inputs from desired outcomes at some point. As the type of employee organizations desire shifts from those with generalized knowledge to those with highly specialized skill sets, individuals burdened with student debt and a lack of employment opportunities definitely have a reasonable claim for false advertising.

The Demand for Skills Increases

The widely advertised benefits of higher education have been taken on faith for the last couple of generations, prompting parents to steer their children away from trade schools, artistic pursuits, and jobs that involve creating things with their hands. The result has been a generation with the highest college graduation rate in history, leaving the U.S. with a shortage of skilled workers to fill many of the highest-paying jobs still available. The most notable of highly-skilled sector jobs that remain available are those in the Technology sector, which is leveraging their disproportionate labor/income ratio to monopolize desirable occupations.

As the demand for tech workers increases, the sector is beginning to create its own workforce pipelines with certifications for Salesforce Admins, Google IT, CompTIA Security, etc., and it’s creating a divide between job seekers and traditional education. Considering the higher costs, longer duration, and lack of security offered by pursuing employment through traditional education, the perceived value of a college degree is disappearing by the year, month, and hour. So where does this leave the role of universities? Is a college degree still worth it? These are all valid questions, and ones that I can’t answer in 1000 words or less.

What I can tell you is that RTR Digital is open to finding a method to work with the educational institutions to develop a way for learners to acquire skills and generalized knowledge at a single location. Right now, those graduating with a college degree are offering employers no discernable way to gauge their skill set outside of customized assessments. To be honest, it’s probably going to have to be educational institutions that find more flexibility in their processes, as their leverage in the situation continues to disappear. As long as the financial burden imposed on those who took the traditional path continues to be a main topic of discussion, the demand for society to still view higher education as a source of positive outcomes will fall on deaf ears

Education Educational Formats

The Death of Microlearning

In 2009 Jay-Z released a single titled, D.O.A., capitalizing on the double entendre of the medical acronym for “dead on arrival,” to announce the demise of the frequently-employed Auto-Tune feature. Auto-Tune, introduced in 1997 by AntaTechnologies res Audio, was originally a sound processing feature meant to correct the pitch of studio recordings. By the mid-2010s, the technology was being used as a sound effect to distort voices in almost every popular song. Jay-Z’s D.O.A., or Death of Auto-Tune, was designed to spark a movement in the music industry to move away from the pitch-correction technology as a primary method for producing vocals. Just slightly over a decade later, I find myself empathic to Jay Z’s plight. I don’t have a catchy tune to announce my general ill wishes toward the continued existence of microlearning, but this article is the first shot I’m firing in my campaign to kill it, or at the least the term.

The Rise of Video-Based Learning

The eventual emergence of microlearning can be traced back to the meteoric rise of video as an educational tool. Video has always been a supplemental learning resource, as most of us can recall the days of having to watch the movie version of popular required readings in English class. It was only a matter of making it to the Friday after we finished The Outsiders before I could sit back and enjoy Francis Ford Coppola’s take on gang violence in rural Oklahoma. While those days were fun, watching a movie was never considered the primary learning method in H.S., and it wasn’t until the financial success of a couple of key organizations that video was crowned the “savior of education,” changing the narrative around the format.

In 1995,  Lynda Weinman, a special effects animator and multimedia professor, founded a digital arts school. Eventually, she and her husband would begin offering video versions of their classes through their website, would eventually be acquired by LinkedIn, which was subsequently acquired by Microsoft, resulting in the integrated version of the service we see today. The initial price tag associated with the sale of was reported as a whopping 1.5 billion dollars. That’s enough money to make anyone take up an interest in online education.

In 2006, Salman “Sal” Khan began privately tutoring one of his family members using digital tools, before eventually making the tutoring sessions public on YouTube. By 2014, Khan’s video-based service was receiving attention from major investors, culminating in the launch of Khan Academy. Khan Academy, a non-profit organization, would go on to acquire major donations from AT&T, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as Elon Musk. Sal Khan’s personal net worth is estimated to be 1.5 million dollars, not too shabby for a guy who used to teach math on YouTube.

Instructional Material vs. Reference Material

Image by Anastasia Gepp from Pixabay

After the widely advertised success of the aforementioned organizations, there was an increased focus on video as a primary learning tool. The increased focus on the format eventually became laser, and resulted in the production of the smallest increments possible, also known as “microlearning.” As a derivative of long-form video, the concept was solid, the goal being to retain the successful learning outcomes of long-form videos, but lower the requirements for attention span and duration for the average learner. Much like Auto-Tune, microlearning had humble and well-intentioned beginnings, but its adoption would come with a number of unforeseen downsides.

In the case of microlearning, the switch to short form, from long-form, inadvertently changed the category of learning material from instructional, to reference. Throughout modern learning’s history, educators have always drawn a line between instructional and reference material, understanding one was always used to support the other. The books we use in school are instructional material, providing the core informational resources we require to teach a new subject.   

“Instructional Materials, also known as Teaching/Learning Materials (TLM),[1] are any collection of materials including animate and inanimate objects and human and non-human resources that a teacher may use in teaching and learning situations to help achieve desired learning objectives.”


Learning materials tend to be in long-form, in contrast to reference materials, which tend to be less substantive. Reference materials provide background information and offer reinforcement of primary learning. Most of us are familiar with this use case through writing reports. All of the theories we spewed in writing assignments were useless to teachers without citations of our background information. The practice of reference citations is something that is now more important than ever, as it has become apparent we can’t trust everything we read on the internet.

When the world decided to switch video-based learning to a microformat, we also switched its material type, from learning, to reference. It should come as no surprise, but we probably shouldn’t be touting ourselves as a plumber after watching a 3-minute video on unclogging a toilet.

Not Learning at All

If anything, we aren’t learning at all by leveraging microlearning. Without foundational knowledge, the odds of us retaining the information we witnessed is low, as evidenced by the absurd number of hits those videos receive on platforms. If there is one aspect that truly classifies microlearning as reference material, it is the frequency at which we need to access it because we haven’t learned it.

In contrast, learning through instructional materials is something we don’t normally forget, as proven by the number of times we reference elementary math books to remember how to add. I would argue that when people Google and YouTube something that they’re not learning at all, and if you been following along to this point, I’m imaging you feel the same.

I’m not saying reference material doesn’t have its place in the learning process, because I made that point obviously clear, I’m just saying maybe it would be in our best interest not to coin the term “microlearning” for something that’s not learning at all.

Feel free to comment on this article in the section below. For more information on RTR Digital’s learning services, visit our home page here. RTR Digital is a professional and management development company specializing in interactive digital content. We create digital workforce development programs that support organizations through the entirety of their employees’ lifecycle and offer educational services to assist our clients with building their own digital learning infrastructures.