From education to employment

Human learning

To learn is to be human.  For humans to keep up with our changing world, our education institutions and systems must also adapt and find new relevance.    

For humans to keep up with our changing world, our education system must also adapt and find new relevance. To learn is to be human, and this very human element of learning must take centre stage as we move away from the old and envision the new.   This article explores some of the reasons our education systems seem stubbornly resistant to change and considers how we might revive some of the ancient models of learning that could be highly relevant for our future world.

Industrialised learning

Over the centuries, education has become increasingly formalised, with great institutions of higher education dominating the landscape and shaping our models of learning. Methods of organised and institutionalised instruction have existed in various forms since ancient civilisations, such as Greece, Rome, Egypt, and Mesopotamia, where schools were established to teach philosophy, religion, reading, writing, and mathematics. In more recent years, we have witnessed education becoming increasingly ‘industrialised,’ and access to learning has exponentially increased.

While this is fantastic, one of the downsides of this ‘industrialisation’ has been a slow adaptation to respond to a rapidly changing world. Many attempts have been made to disrupt the status quo, but few have resulted in significant changes.

Reluctant adaption

During the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly all educational institutions were forced to embrace significant changes.  Online learning has surged worldwide. In an interview with CNBC, Anant Agarwal, founder and CEO of edX, claimed, “We saw a 15-fold increase in the number of new learners registering on edX during the month of April 2020,” not just a 15% increase. According to Global Industry Analytics, ‘online learning is the fastest-growing market in the education industry, with a 900% global growth rate since the year 2000.’ Furthermore, ‘America’s online learning industry is projected to be worth $687 billion by 2030.’

While for some institutions, putting content online and offering distance learning has been perceived as a radical shift, the reality is that, in many cases, these online programs are either built around unchanged educational models or have not received the attention and investment required to become effective. Many of our institutions, schools, and colleges quickly reverted to the old ways. The online learning that remains in place has widened access but often falls short of providing an enriching, impactful, and inclusive experience.

The emergence of generative AI threatens to cause a new disruption, yet many have viewed AI as a threat rather than an opportunity. Knee-jerk reactions and concerns about plagiarism have dominated discussions, with little attention given to how AI can enhance the learning experience and our educational models. In the quest to protect the integrity of our education systems, there is a significant risk that legacy educational models are becoming a drag anchor on progress, rather than leading the way.

What we learn, not just how

However, it is not only learning methodologies and the use of technology in our education models that need consideration. What we teach is also a significant issue. The ‘best-quality’ school education worldwide is largely governed by examining boards, which now dictate what our school students learn. While the exams they set may set a bar for academic excellence, the curriculum is slow to change and is currently not reflective of the future world our children will grow up in. The relevance of the examination process itself must increasingly be questioned as an effective model for assessing educational progress. It is unclear whether Ofqual (in the UK) or our examining boards and awarding bodies can provide what we need. With revenues driven by examinations and the purchase of vast amounts of curriculum and textbooks, where do these large organisations find the motivation to adapt and change?  These organisations set the agenda for what we learn. Without fundamental changes what once defined excellence in education may soon be left printing certificates that no one needs.

Beware of the Gap

There is already a recognised gap between what tertiary education produces and what industry needs.  The rapid changes in society and technology are likely to widen this gap further. New entrants to the workforce are changing roles more rapidly than ever, and by 2030 over 60% of roles will involve significant levels of automation. So, while, for instance, attempts are being made to ensure MBA programs better reflect the demand for businesses to have social not just economic impact, these adjustments are unlikely to be sufficient. It may be premature to declare that our educational institutes must adapt or die, but new models, such as the London Interdisciplinary School are slowly gaining traction and are just one of many new emerging players.

A return to the ancient?

Long before our great halls of wisdom and libraries of knowledge, people learnt.  From learning a trade while working alongside your father, to living as a disciple of a ‘master,’ to the Socratic approach to learning.  Education was never solely about professional educators passing on knowledge to secure exam results or earn academic badges. Learning was intertwined with real life as people learnt from each other and with each other to develop competencies and skills relevant to their society. The desire to improve our world and understand ourselves brought great thinkers and their disciples together to wrestle with ideas and their practical applications.  As we look to the past, we also see a much broader range of human development was valued. The curriculum was broader, character development was seen as a core purpose of learning and societal relevance was vital.

Whilst access to formal education has been expanded beyond the elite and knowledge is no longer just for the powerful, today’s technology offers an opportunity to go even further and rebuild a wider range of highly relevant learning models on a larger scale.  And as we consider new models, the past may well have much that can inform the future of human learning.  

Human driven learning

Online education is one example of a change which is clearly here to stay.  However, even that must continue to adapt if it is to really succeed.  Online educators must increasingly focus on using technology to amplify student interactions through balanced and collaborative approaches, such as Peer-to-Peer learning that allow students to bring their context into the learning programme.

The tools and technology of the next decade will provide even more amazing opportunities to support a much wider range of learning models including those from the long-distant past.  In the future education will be able to offer highly individualised, collaborative, and immersive experiences that place human needs back at the centre of our educational philosophy and outcomes.  But will our revered education institutions and systems adapt or resist?   This is a serious question that will directly impact the ability of humanity to thrive in our fast-changing world.

By Ben Pike, Director of Knovia, Paragon skills, MasterStart and MD2MD

FE News on the go…

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Ben is a director of a number of education businesses including Sovereign Capital’s recently launched vocational education business Knovia, as well as Paragon Skills, MasterStart and MD2MD.  He spent over a decade at QA where he led the apprenticeship business which took 25,000 young people into tech and digital roles. He passionately believes in education as a key to social mobility and that significant transformation is needed in the education sector to keep pace with our fast-changing world.

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