Perpetual Learning as a Revolutionary Creation
Donald M. Norris
Strategic Initiatives, Inc.

In Transforming Higher Education, Michael Dolence and I presented the thesis that learning will become a growth industry again in the knowledge age. But traditional approaches will prove inadequate to the needs of learners. To be successful in the twenty-first century, learning must be available any time, any place, any where, and any how. It must be fused with work, recreation, entertainment, and personal development. In short, learning must become perpetual.

Perpetual Learning
Perpetual learning is much more than lifelong learning on steroids. The basic patterns, cadences, and assumptions of perpetual learning are fundamentally different from those for lifelong learning.
         Lifelong learning is an industrial age metaphor. Lifelong learning extends the traditional learning metaphor over the individual's lifetime. Individuals are expected to achieve their basic learning foundation, then periodically retool when their skills become diminished. Or they may learn for personal development on a continuing basis. Lifelong learning is periodic and episodic. While some lifelong learning for personal development is integrated into the individual's life, most lifelong learning is experienced on a time-out-for-learning basis.
         Most lifelong learning uses traditional courses and degrees. Much of it is based in classrooms or in an extension of the classroom to remote locations. Lifelong learning is administered through continuing education units, extension centers, or other units of traditional colleges and universities that are often seen as second-class citizens in the institutional pecking order. In corporate learning environments, continuing learning is organized as a staff function that supports learning through "corporate universities" or through human resources staffs.
         Perpetual learning is a knowledge age metaphor. Many educators have difficulty imagining the concept of perpetual learning. Surely nobody would choose to participate in learning all the time? How onerous that would be!
         By industrial age standards, perpetual learning is onerous indeed. But the architects of perpetual learning refuse to be bound by industrial age conventions and assumptions. They are building on the delivery of high-bandwidth learning tools to the desktops of employees in leading-edge organizations. Over time, these tools will be available to every desktop, home entertainment center, school, business, and community learning center.
         In this way, we create a pervasive atmosphere for perpetual learning so that learners will be able to dramatically reduce the "coefficient of friction" of learning. We can facilitate flexible interactivity between individual learners, teams, and learning mentors. We can shape learning into customized experiences that are fused with work, entertainment, recreation, and personal development.
         Perpetual learners will learn every day, in productive learning careers of fifty or sixty years—or more. One's basic acquisition of learning and critical thinking skills will be accompanied by the precept that skills and competencies must be perpetually refreshed. Basic learners will develop knowledge navigation and critical thinking skills and the expectation that they will be learning every day for the rest of their lives. The mentor relationships established during the basic acquisition of learning and navigation skills may continue throughout learners' lives.
         Perpetual learning will not require taking time out for learning; it will be integrally fused with work and other life activities. The seamlessness of perpetual learning tools will eliminate the energy drain involved with current approaches to lifelong learning.
         Perpetual learning is used not just to build human capital, the traditional result of learning, but to add immediate value to the individual and organization through application to problem solving. Both individuals and teams will use perpetual learning in this way. Perpetual learning and collaborative learning will become redundant terms.
         While one uses lifelong learning to reskill after becoming obsolete, perpetual learning enables one to avoid becoming obsolete. It is key to lifetime employability. Perpetual learners will take responsibility for their own learning careers. Even those learners working for the most responsible and farsighted employers will take responsibility for their own learning agendas and futures.
         Perpetual learners will seek formal degrees and certification of mastery at various stages in their careers. The patterns will depend on individual circumstances and needs. However, much perpetual learning will be performed independent of formal certification. Successful application and problem solving will be certification enough. Perpetual learning will be practiced throughout our organizations, not just in learning or human resources units. Perpetual learning will be a line function, supported by staff.
         Perpetual learning will be driven both by individual demand and by the needs of learning communities that are developing in the workplace. These "communities of reflective practice" will be powerful learning communities. Their emphasis will be on application of insights from learning by both individuals and teams. In the world of perpetual learning, the metaphor of "educational delivery" will be replaced by "interactivity." The development and expansion of robust learning communities outside academe will herald the new age.

The Birth of Perpetual Learning
Perpetual learning is gestating in leading-edge organizations today. But it is not being developed in colleges and universities, or even in the learning units of businesses. The development of perpetual learning is occurring on the desktops of knowledge workers who are exploring the potentials of fusing work and learning. This is the new frontier.
         These knowledge workers begin by using their organization's information systems, intranet, and groupware to access the organization's knowledge base and apply it to their work. Piece by piece, new elements are added: just-in-time learning elements for employees new to the organization or newly promoted, new marketing materials and competitive intelligence, new learning materials focusing on core competencies for the employee and the organization. Networks are used to facilitate interaction with faculty experts, distinguished practitioners, and other mentors. Over time, these learning tools are augmented by powerful search engines and learning agents, by learningware developed in partnership between the organization and colleges, universities, or other learning providers, and finally, by snippets of learning, Web-based learning materials, and other examples of learningware that are made available for customization by learners everywhere.
         That day will come sooner than we think. While perpetual learning will first emerge among knowledge workers in leading-edge organizations, it will quickly be discovered by learners everywhere. The atmosphere that sustains perpetual learning will pervade and support every desktop, home edutainment center, and mobile digital device. It will happen without asking the permission of any educational leader, faculty senate, or policy maker.
         Perpetual learning is not just about virtual learning on the Internet. Current models for virtual universities are a transitional stage, on the way toward perpetual learning. Nor is it only a network metaphor. Perpetual learning's atmosphere for interactivity and community building will dramatically reduce the coefficient of friction for learning and interaction. It will be used by millions of knowledge workers, reflective pracititioners, and team-based learners—and by plain individuals who discover its potential.

Perpetual Learning as Revolution
By its very nature, perpetual learning must be revolutionary. By crafting a revolutionary vision for perpetual learning, and by creating perpetual learning in that image, we will position perpetual learning for success and rapid deployment. Moreover, leaders of learning enterprises that aspire to succeed in the knowledge age must be guided by strategies that comprehend the revolutionary nature of perpetual learning.
         Traditional approaches to learning will not disappear. Choice will be a defining characteristic of the knowledge age, and traditional learning will remain popular with many learners, especially during the transition period. Many of our early efforts at change will prove to be transitory. However, as the atmosphere for perpetual learning emerges, it will prove attractive to many learners who today choose traditional learning. Moreover, even traditional learning enterprises will modify their offerings, using the tools of perpetual learning. No learning enterprise will escape unaffected.

Strategy as Revolution
Most learning enterprises have taken the strategic out of strategic planning. Their planning is formulaic, routine, and predictable. To successfully prepare for perpetual learning, learning enterprises must develop the capacity to craft strategy, to form a vision, and to prepare for success in any of a number of future scenarios that are not extrapolations of the past.
         Gary Hamel of the London School of Economics is a renowned strategic planner, internationally recognized for his capacity to help industries and enterprises focus on the future. In a recent issue of the Harvard Business Review, he identified nine facets of revolutionizing organizations in the face of knowledge age opportunities and competition. The following description illustrates how the perpetual learning industry can be revolutionized in the process of being created. These principles should guide educators as they position their learning enterprises for success.
         1. Radically improve the value equation. What is value in the traditional system of higher learning? The knowledge or learning value of individual learning and its integration by the learner? Or the certification of mastery contained in course and degree credit? Or the application of learning to problem solving and application? In point of fact, the value equation varies dramatically for different learners. Individual choice is therefore critical. Our current learning system systematically limits learner choice by providing few options.
         The perpetual learning enterprise must recognize these facts and improve the value equation in several ways. First, by making it possible to learn any way, any time, any place, any how. Second, by enabling learners to acquire and process information in many ways and by focusing learner-faculty- mentor interactions on high-value-added activities. Third, by enabling the fusion of work and learning so that learning can add value immediately through application and problem solving.
         Learning enterprises must assess with steely-eyed honesty the value they add for individual learners, as compared with other learning providers. Then translate that assessment into their learning offerings.
         2. Separate function (core benefits) and form. The current academic approach to learning bundles form and function together inextricably. The core benefits from learning are provided by a mixture of faculty activities—discovery research, synthesis, teaching, and improvement of practice.
         Perpetual learning will separate form and function and focus on learning outcomes (benefits). Perpetual learning can accommodate a wide range of learning forms and venues, ranging from desktop to classroom. Form and function will be fundamentally separable in perpetual learning enterprises, causing us to examine the relationships of form and function in traditional learning offerings as well.
         3. Achieve ease and joy of use. The patterns and cadences of traditional learning are designed to satisfy the needs of providers, not learners. Moreover, traditional learning primarily focuses on the development of human capital, rather than on application and improvement of practice. Perpetual learning must be easy to achieve if it is to be fused with work. But ease of use is not sufficient. Customers are moving beyond convenience to satisfaction, even joy, of use. Learning to solve problems and address personal needs can provide genuine satisfaction and even joy to the perpetual learner.
         The most vibrant communities in the knowledge age will be communities of reflective practitioners using the tools of perpetual learning.
         4. Push the bounds of universality. Traditional learning clusters learners and providers into groups. Its organizational principle is discrete levels and types of learners (for example, K–12, undergraduate, and master's, doctoral, and postdoctoral students) and institutions (for example, major research universities, comprehensive universities, private liberal arts colleges, community colleges, corporate universities). Different market segments are created by the convergence of types of learners and types of institutions.
         But perpetual learning can appeal to learners at all levels, in all disciplines, and in all settings. It can appeal to learners at all stages of their lives. It can be universal in its coverage, yet personalized in its nature.
         5. Strive for individuality. Traditional learning is packaged for mass market segments by level of learning and type of institution. The level of individualization within these segments is limited.
         By its very definition, perpetual learning must be mass customized. That is, it must be customized to the need of every individual. Both the product and the delivery must be tailored to individual needs and preferences.
         6. Increase accessibility. Traditional academic offerings are bound by place and by the dictates of the traditional academic calendar. Even existing efforts to transform traditional learning into cyberspace are bound by traditional academic calendars and units of learning.
         By its very nature, perpetual learning must be available any time, any place, and by a variety of means. Its accessibility must know no bounds—geographic or temporal. New units of learning and certification of mastery must be developed to further expand the standards of accessibility to meet the range of needs of knowledge age learners.
         7. Rescale the learning industry. Traditional learning is limited in its scale and scope by our units of organization—courses, degrees, and institutions. Even when developed to curriculum and syllabus standards, each course is a cottage industry, crafted by individual faculty to personal standards and preferences. Learningware components typically are not shared in a widespread and meaningful way. Faculty are collected within institutions, and although those institutions are often arrayed within systems of institutions, these arrangements do not create real economies or advantages of academic scale with any substantial effect on classroom learning.
         The perpetual learning industry will exhibit both upward and downward scaling. Perpetual learning will be global in scope. Particular units or modules of learning or learningware can enjoy a national and even global market. Some perpetual learning providers will capitalize on global economies of scale, often in particular areas of excellence.
         On the other hand, downward scaling will be achieved in several important ways. First, mass customization will tailor learning to individual needs by crafting learning experiences tailored to personal needs. Second, modules and snippets of learning will need to be integrated and given meaning by the faculty serving as mentors, navigators, and guides. These roles will assume even greater importance to learners in the knowledge age. Learners may retain an ongoing and frequent relationship with mentors throughout their learning careers.
         Most individual learners will benefit from both the upward and downward scaling effects of perpetual learning.
         8. Compress the value chain. The traditional value chain involves students and faculty acting together in the classroom and in classroom-stimulated outside learning activities. These occur within the framework of traditional courses, degrees, and calendars.
         For many perpetual learning activities, teachers or faculty or providers will be supplanted by learners acting as their own agents in acquiring information. Or other agents, learners, or parties will substitute for faculty for some learning activities. Collaborative learning groups will flourish. But for the learning functions that really count—navigation, mentoring, providing judgment, and certification of mastery, faculty will remain essential. Indeed, both the percentage and amount of faculty time involved in high-value-added activities will likely increase.
         Successful learning enterprises in the knowledge age will solve the puzzle of compressing the value change and facilitating the availability of faculty for high-value-added activities.
         9. Drive convergence. The traditional learning industry is distinct and separate. Primary and secondary schools are separate from postsecondary institutions. Colleges and universities are autonomous scholarly organizations. Even corporate learning enterprises are typically separate organizational units. Collaboration between these components exists, but it is not profoundly influential.
         Will perpetual learning converge with other industries? Entertainment? Marketing? Performance assessment? Quite probably. The shape and form of the new organizations that will emerge is yet unclear.
         Will the traditional learning industry be isolated from the emerging perpetual learning industry, which will merge and converge with the rapidly changing entertainment, marketing, and performance assessment industries? Only time—and the strategies of leaders of learning enterprises—will tell.

Restoring Strategy and Vision
The time has come to make our vision of the future of the learning industry strategic. This requires inclusive, expansive, inquisitive, inventive, and iconoclastic strategic thinking—and less so-called strategic planning.
         Every campus and learning enterprise should reverberate to the sounds of the debate on the key issues of today and tomorrow. What will learning be like in the knowledge age? What must we do to develop the competencies necessary to compete in that new environment? How do we begin—today?
         Many of our leaders are ill equipped to catalyze and lead such a debate. Many seem determined to steer into the future by gazing into the rear-view mirror. But the capacity to successfully participate in strategy- and vision-building ventures exists in all learning enterprises. It is time to mobilize those resources and move forward to meet perpetual learning in the knowledge age.

Dolence, M. G., and Norris, D. M. Transforming Higher Education: A Vision for Learning in the 21st Century. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Society for College and University Planning, 1995.

Hamel, G. "Strategy as Revolution." Harvard Business Review, July–Aug. 1996, pp. 72–73.

Bibliographic citation for the paper copy of this article:

Norris, D. M. "Perpetual Learning as a Revolutionary Creation." On the Horizon, 4(6), 1996, 1, 3-6.