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Education 4.0: Future of skills and the credential economy

Elliot Gowans, senior VP International, D2L
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#GigEconomy #Globalisation #AI #Automation #100YearLife – The workplace has experienced a prolonged and complex period of great change, education needs to keep up #Ed4_0 

Globalisation has led to fierce market competition; a demand for experience, knowledge and talent, while the rise of AI and automated technologies are on the verge of replicating even the most sophisticated tasks – not just the repetitive or the mundane.

The population is also living longer. Those early into their careers can expect to work longer into their lifetimes and given these tumultuous times and the rise of the gig-economy, they may need to adjust or jump between jobs more frequently – perhaps even between sectors.


Amid Industry 4.0, education and workforce development sectors have a responsibility to prepare individuals for both the jobs of today and tomorrow. Faced with a global skills crisis, educators, government and businesses must now search for the best ways to nurture a sustainable pipeline of skills and talent.

According to a 2017 report by McKinsey, it is likely that 800 million jobs will be automated by 2030 alone. With the skills gap worsening, the disciplines required to succeed within the workplace and ensure a career, whether obtained through college or university, are experiencing a far shorter ‘shelf-life’. The future workforce will need to upskill and reskill; ‘learning’ will become a constant in employees’ and students’ lives.

Collectively, these challenges highlight not only a need for more ‘durable’ skills – which means the education sector will need to adjust its metrics and content to cater for them – but that ‘lifelong learning’ will be born out of necessity.

Desired skill sets will likely evolve and change as technology progresses, and we as individuals must become champions of our own personal growth. Workers and students will need to overcome the idea that learning concludes after formal education. They will need to adapt to the changing demands of the market to secure their future and manage the transitions they can expect throughout their careers.

Skills development is essential

As suggested in the UK Government’s ‘Future of Skills & Lifelong Learning’ report, given the nature of the labour market, skills development is essential. This does not simply mean improving qualifications, but, in fact, ensuring students are equipped with the right combination of technical expertise and abilities that fully prepare them for the future. Knowledge can be ‘acquired’ through primary, secondary or tertiary education, but that doesn’t necessarily prepare them for the workplace, especially in these changing times.

In fact, according to a recent survey by the UK Commission Employment and Skills (UKCES), many employers feel that new hires, whether school leavers or graduates, aren’t necessarily ready for work and lack common workplace skills[1]. Another report by McKinsey ranks the UK rather low in terms of ‘workplace preparedness’ across nine major countries[2].

Clearly, there is a mismatch between traditional education and workplace readiness. Therefore, identifying desirable attributes is the first step to solving this, but how do we go about establishing a culture for lifelong learning?

Curriculum needs to evolve – content needs to change

Put simply, education needs to change, and curriculums need to evolve. Academic institutions have traditionally focused on equipping students with ‘hard’ skills, with a particular job or sector in mind. However, now the education system will need to be forward-thinking. They now must consider the longevity of those skills, the likelihood that the sector will change, and that the job itself will be redefined or perhaps become obsolete. Future curriculums, whether within a secondary school, apprenticeship or higher education, will need to offer durable skills and talent. Students will need to be able to work alongside emerging technologies – meaning courses will naturally become more digitally-focused – and of course, develop the skills that are not easily replicated by machines – soft skills, such as communication, leadership and problem solving, all of which will become essential in the digital economy.

However, these behaviours are difficult to nurture and teach. Learning will need to become far more granular. It will require far more comprehensive educational models with modern learning platforms that effectively assess current skill sets. Only through using sophisticated data analytics, enabled by machine-learning – where behaviours are quantified, and skill progression is accurately detailed from end-to-end in accordance with set metrics – can educators effectively assess ‘skills’ development and accommodate for continuous learning.

To account for the volume of students and complexity of skill-criteria, courses will need to be data-led, as every stage of each student’s learning and development profile will need to be accounted for. With sophisticated analytics tools and AI diagnostics, we will begin to see behaviours quantified; lecturers and teachers will have insight into real-time student data, their individual strengths and weaknesses, ensuring each learner’s education cycle is accounted for, enabling course leaders to identify where a particular student may be struggling, and establish the best solution.

There will of course be a dramatic shift to competency based education (CBE), whereby students can build a base layer of knowledge and the flexibility of the course will enable them to rapidly proceed through programmes and spend more time ‘learning’ and putting their knowledge into practice. Traditional three or four-year programmes will be made of micro-credentials, brief technical micro-courses each differentiated by skill and expertise, with more and more content moving online as lessons will become more practical, focusing on the ‘rehearsal’ of skills.

Education 4.0: lifelong learners and intra-industry skills

In the future, industry will be a partner in both the design and execution of courses and programmes. Alongside faculty, they can ensure desirable skills are embedded within the curriculum and across all courses. In doing so, educators can ensure that their content is aligned with the current needs of the market, and regularly updated in accordance with the trends and challenges industry leaders are experiencing. This will require flexible learning programmes and eventually the integration of interdisciplinary programmes to allow students to build skills across multiple courses, to ensure they are agile and fully prepared for Industry 4.0.

It is likely that technology will continue to disrupt and redefine the workplace. Therefore, educators will also need to design programmes that cater for ‘lifelong learners’. There needs to be a flexible and open structure that allows ‘older learners’ and current employees to easily re-enter the education system periodically to refresh or attain new skills. Universities should form partnerships with SMEs, or larger enterprises to offer short-course reskilling programmes for the workplace.

In this instance, a ‘sit and learn’ model will no longer be viable, as these individuals will likely need to study around work and their family, so they may not be able to live on campus or have the freedom to schedule in-person classes and appointments. Remote learning enabled through modern learning platforms, applications and cloud technology will become far more prevalent, with content consisting of video, audio files, and potentially augmented for virtual reality as skills become quantified.

Education will need to be a ‘marketplace’

Only by restructuring education in this way, essentially credentialing skills and behaviours, can we tackle the skills shortage and effectively prepare for the future of work. With regards to nurturing intra-industry skills, this partnership between enterprise and education will become ever more important, but government needs to be onboard too.

There needs to be a dialogue between all parties involved, with government having the power to act as the convenor bringing employers and education leaders together. In doing so, they can collectively establish a national skills framework, that tackles the skills gap from all angles. A national strategy that would be synced to independent labour market needs.

Through education technology, we will start to see the democratisation of learning and the continuous development of students and workers alike. By instilling a culture of life-long learning, individuals will be both encouraged and empowered to take charge of their own educational journey. Only then can we provide the skills development necessary for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the Fourth Education Revolution.

Elliot Gowans, Senior VP International, D2L

[1] UKCES, 2014b. Employer Perspectives Survey 2014: UK results, Evidence Report 88, Wath-Upon-Dearne, UK: UK Commission for Employment and Skills.

[2] Mckinsey, 2012. Education to Employment: Designing A System That Works. New York, NY, USA: McKinsey & Company, Inc.

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