At a crossroads: the intersection of higher education and corporate training – Chief Learning Officer

Posted: April 13, 2021 at 6:43 am

The stark lines between higher education and corporate training in the e-learning space are starting to blur. The philosophies, methodologies and objectives for teaching and training are vastly different, and, as a result, the technologies that support each have also diverged with very little cross over. Now, corporate training and higher education are discovering there are benefits for both sides when they partner to offer cross-training solutions and share content.

The increased presence of digital learning that has risen during the past year, combined with the need to develop (and redevelop) a skilled workforce, presents opportunities for higher education and corporate training to work together. The challenge is bridging the technology gap, as the systems that support these distinct learners have never had to work and play nicely together.

Distinct approaches

Higher education focuses on teaching foundational concepts and tends to be more abstract, whereas employee training provides hands-on, practical experiences that go beyond having knowledge of a subject. While the two are quite often complementary, learning is more theoretical while training is about practical application and skills development.

In order to understand the technological variances between higher education and corporate learning management systems, its helpful to review some of the primary differences that have contributed to the dramatically disparate digital platform designs that underpin each.

Learner intent

For higher education, content and technologies are developed with the requirements of the student learner in mind. Traditionally, it was assumed that learning and education were a students top priority, with longer periods of time spent learning and focusing on developing the foundation of knowledge. Learning occurs primarily in a classroom setting with textbooks, assignments, papers, assessments and exams. LMSs that target higher education were specifically designed to supplement in-class lectures or to resemble the in-person classroom model in course duration and learning style.

Corporate learning needs are typically more immediate and must fit into an employees existing work schedule. In most cases, training is more specific in nature and is centered on a particular skill set. Corporate learners often require just-in-time training to perform their jobs and to answer questions as they arise. Learners dont have time to acquire critical skills over the course of months or even hours, and corporate LMSs were designed specifically with these limitations in mind. Microlearning is a great example of just-in-time, on-the-job training that doesnt translate well in the academic world.

The definition of a course across the higher education and corporate audiences illustrates this distinction well. College courses span multiple weeks and consist of a variety of modalities and assignments while courses in the corporate world are discrete activities assigned to employees with the expectation that completion will take anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours.

Measuring success

Another clear difference between the two is that corporate training doesnt usually evaluate employees course completion in the same way that universities grade students. Going back to the objectives of both, we can understand how the metrics of each will differ.

Success for a student learner would mean passing the semester-long course, which consists of multiple activities within it that roll together to determine a final grade. Activities might be scored individually (think assessments), but the collective participation is what ultimately determines a final grade or completion.

On the corporate side, metrics are captured at the specific activity level with the goal of reporting on who has taken what courses, whether they passed a course and even how much time was spent on the activity. These metrics facilitate reporting and measuring the impact training has on employee performance and the overall business. This can also take the form of audits for compliance training or skills-based training for better job performance.

As a result of these unique needs, the majority of available LMSs cater to one audience only. In many cases, the LMS that a university uses to educate its students is not the same system used to train its employees and staff.

The technology divide

Its not an accident that the LMSs and platforms that support higher education and corporate training are designed so differently. There are distinct goals that drive the architecture of each type of system.

Lets return to the course example. A professor builds a course in the higher ed LMS that includes multiple components and activities, many of which might be elective or supplementary to the overall course subject. Some components of the course might be assignments or assessments that are graded, but the course within the academic LMS is designed to act as a container, housing multiple types of activities that students access over the course of several weeks. Higher ed LMSs are intentionally designed to support the idea of a long-running, instructor-led curriculum, with a final total grade as the measurement.

On the corporate side, an LMS administrator might build a course by uploading a single piece of content, like a file or video asset, and assign it to employees to complete within a very narrowly defined timeframe. The concept of a course is more transactional and discrete in this case. Corporate-centric LMSs are designed to support this model with built-in authoring tools, content library integrations, and reporting and analytics to track and measure the impact of each individual training activity.

Specific standards

Not only are the LMSs for higher education and corporate training architected differently, the standards used for each audience are not the same. E-learning standards are an important detail to consider as they allow software, content and systems from independent vendors to function well together without custom work for each combination of systems. The standards make it easier to know which content and systems will be compatible with one another.

For higher education, Learning Tools Interoperabilityis the most commonly used standard. LTI helps to standardize connections between LMSs (known as Platforms or Tool Consumers in the spec) and learning applications or content libraries (known as Tools or Tool Providers). LMS and learning tool providers use LTI to handle the launch and authentication requirements to securely and seamlessly connect learners from an LMS with external services and content. If you want to provide your content to higher education institutions, its highly recommended that you consider using LTI to integrate or share your courseware.

On the corporate training side, SCORM emerged as the de facto standard, with SCORM 1.2 being the most universal and basic version, but xAPI and cmi5 are gaining traction due to their flexibility and robust reporting capabilities. To provide your curriculum to corporations, you will want to ask what standard their LMS supports and consider ways to make your courseware compatible.

Currently, these silos and artificial distinctions between the various learning applications and the different types of content are beginning to break down. Ideally, every platform would be able to deliver every type of training in every standard, but that isnt currently the case. Corporate LMSs have generally shied away from supporting LTI, but there is evidence that adding this support could go a long way in bringing valuable higher education learning activities into the corporate space. Likewise, corporate training initiatives will have a better chance of success with higher education institutions if they present content as LTI or another supported format.

Working across the divide

Its becoming increasingly critical to have partnerships and resources available on hand to easily provide the skills and training that both corporate and student learners require. No one has time to build out a full-blown curriculum, and why should they if they can leverage one that already exists?

Benefits for corporations

Corporations are starting to see the value in offering product training and technical certification programs to students as a means to train or preskill their future workforce. Additionally, companies are realizing that they can look to higher education institutions to help supplement the ever-growing need to reskill or upskill employees as job roles shift and technologies change over time. In fact, higher education is uniquely suited to offer corporations pieces of their curriculum as short training courses, such as technical competencies, computer program training and other soft skills that are in high demand.

By partnering with higher education institutions to offer certifications and training, organizations will be able to tap into a skilled workforce that is ready to start working more quickly with less on-the-job training, skilled in the roles theyre applying for and equipped with the specific experiences the company is looking for in new hires. Companies will also be able to more easily reskill and upskill their current staff as needed, meaning theyll have the right candidates knocking on the door and the ability to continually train current employees, which is key for retention efforts.

Benefits for higher ed institutions

Universities will also see big benefits in fostering these partnerships. By collaborating with businesses and organizations in their area, they will better understand employer needs and can create and offer courses and programs to meet future workforce goals. Higher education institutions will also know what courses they offer that can be used to reskill or upskill employees who are working for their partners. To do this successfully, universities will want to discuss with their partners what career pathways employees take and how they can provide courseware to meet those needs.

Universities who offer curricula that include relevant job skills and certifications that employers desire in new hires will provide their graduates with a strong foundation for entering the workforce. In many cases, these programs will help recent graduates secure higher starting salaries as they come in with valuable professional certifications and more practical knowledge early on. Ultimately, students choose to pursue higher education as a means to find good jobs that they enjoy and to become gainfully employed shortly after graduation. Students who reach those objectives are more likely to be happier, well compensated and think positively about the university that helped them reach their goals.

Partnerships in action

Several large organizations have already started breaking down the silos and reaping the benefits of partnering with universities. A great example is AWS Academy, which supplies professors at higher education institutions with free cloud computing courseware to assist students in earning certifications and gaining technical skills needed to find in-demand technology jobs. The content is available via LTI to institutions, making it more accessible for instructors and educators to incorporate into their existing curriculum.


With the ongoing pandemic and the way we learn and work changing, there will certainly be new challenges and opportunities for both higher education institutions and corporate training partnerships. These changes have already caused universities to consider virtual learning on a larger scale and shifting to online formats as a longer-term strategy, both of which have future growth potential. Similarly, many organizations had to quickly pivot and adapt to using online technologies at a much higher rate than ever before, including for onboarding, continuing education, reskilling and upskilling due to workplace disruption.

Organizations can use their content to form partnerships with universities, and universities can leverage this content to supply those organizations with future employees who are equipped with the in-demand skills and certifications for which those companies are actively recruiting. The future demands higher education and corporations work together to shape a more skilled workforce. The challenge is breaking down the technology barriers that have developed over time in order for this to become a reality.

Tammy Rutherford is the managing director at Rustici Software, which helps e-learning companies work well together by compliance with specifications such as SCORM, xAPI and cmi5. She has spent more than 13 years in the e-learning space. To comment, email


At a crossroads: the intersection of higher education and corporate training - Chief Learning Officer

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