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Originally published Thursday, July 11, 2013 at 4:47 PM

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Upskilling with MOOCs for reinvention, reinvigoration

Lifelong learning is no longer a luxury of the intellectually curious, writes Lynne K. Varner. Technology and globalization mean we should all be looking to reinvent, or reinvigorate, ourselves.

Times editorial columnist

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“Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.”

— Henry Ford

Nearly a decade ago I was one of 18 U.S. and foreign journalists awarded a John S. Knight Fellowship at Stanford University, a midcareer breather that allowed me to hang up the phone and pick up some books.

Now I’m headed back to Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. — not for a year but for a few days. Fellows from every year since the fellowship began are returning to the intellectual thick of things.

I’m not alone in taking the occasional trek into the classroom. Adult learners now make up nearly 40 percent of the college-going population, according to the American Council on Education. Many of them have a degree and are looking to learn new skills or enhance old ones. The migration back to school has coined a term: upskilling.

Washington’s Legislature eased the path for local upskillers by sparing higher education from budget cuts this year. Lawmakers added extra money so two-year and four-year institutions could freeze tuition for next year.

That’s fantastic because lifelong learning is no longer a luxury of the intellectually curious. Technology and globalization mean we should all be looking to reinvent, or reinvigorate, ourselves.

Previously at Stanford, I studied the evolving political dynamics of African Americans and Hispanics, America’s two largest minority groups.

This time, I’m taking a brief but deep dive into the world of higher-education innovation.

Stanford President John Hennessy will discuss MOOCs, or Massively Open Online Courses.

These college classes are not the future, they’re the present. A single instructor can design a course serving an infinite number of students without costly setups such as classrooms.

MOOCs will not replace labs or other classes best taught up close and personal. There is also much work to be done better aligning these kinds of online classes with industry needs and ensuring they have rigor. But the idea of reaching more students with affordable, or free, content is not just about efficiencies but also about boosting higher ed’s impact.

Hennessy is also a pioneer of computer architecture, giving him a bird’s-eye view of higher education’s role encouraging research and emerging industries. Cutting-edge examples exist in our state, for example Walla Walla Community College’s renowned enology and viticulture program. There’s agriculture, energy and global animal-health research at Washington State University and medical and biotech innovations at the University of Washington.

I’ll spend a day at Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, known informally as the The school’s founder and one of its professors, David Kelley, created design thinking, a way to build ordinary objects by designing behaviors and personality into products.

You’ve been touched by his genius if you’ve used an Apple mouse, clicked on the thumbs-up/thumbs-down button on your TiVo remote control or passed through airport security. Kelley’s company, IDEO, also helped design the ideal home for wounded soldiers and a mobile app to help Elmo teach kids good behavior.

But I’m especially interested in his biggest project, transforming the educational system of Peru.

I want to also visit Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes, home of the respected CREDO studies that tell us charter schools are improving their performance, in many cases outperforming traditional schools.

It’s tough to get away from our everyday responsibilities. But the world and the job market is changing. Returning to the classroom every now and then is critical.

Indeed, this is the other societal value of higher education, beyond handing out degrees. Universities and colleges are incubators of ideas, new skills and energy. Take advantage of them.

Lynne K. Varner's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her email address is Follow her on Twitter @lkvarner

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