How lifelong learning could end snobbery in education

For the workplace of today and tomorrow, modular, flexible, work-focused learning is of greater value than letters after your name

Julia Taylor

Lifetime Skills Guarantee: The government has announced 400 free courses for adults

The world of work is changing – and education needs to broaden its reach in response.

According to a 2018 World Economic Forum report, incoming technologies are transforming business models and job profiles, meaning the skills required by jobs will have shifted significantly by 2022: 54 per cent of all employees will require re-skilling and upskilling. 

Some see this as a threat, worrying that increased automation could render now-familiar jobs obsolete – and we’ve long since accepted that there’s no such thing as a job for life anymore. Says who? If education embraces evolution, we have a real opportunity to reset the clock, grow with the changes and conquer new skills as required. For previously overlooked, under-represented and hard-to-reach learners, in particular, this new approach could be a game-changer.

I believe that the successful colleges of the future will be those that look at the broadest wave of delivery, offering adaptable and scaleable programmes with different outcomes for different audiences. That isn’t a pipe dream: at the education and technology not-for-profit Jisc, we support colleges and universities to explore new ideas and emerging opportunities, supporting them to deliver digital skills that can bring people into employment and support workers’ growth – whatever their skills, circumstance and previous experience might be.

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Bite-sized learning

Technology makes it ever easier for colleges to do this, responding to individual learners rather than the homogenous class; delivering skills that are relevant, useful, right for them – and more transformative than letters after their name or a famous institution on their CV.

Modular courses and microcredentials represent steps in the right direction. Such bite-sized learning is available via different modes of delivery – online, distance, blended – and can provide different points of pick-up. We need more of this, and we need to push further. Rather than thinking about a year-long course or a three-year programme – 20 per cent of which might be of no value or interest whatsoever – wouldn’t it be great to start with "I’ve got 10 minutes", or "I’ve got a quiet week"? With the time available, a learner might dip into positive psychology, German literature, genomics. That starts to create a culture in which education is for everyone.

Flexibility is everything. Curricula are often designed for the benefit of the people marking assignments, not for the students – so learners sometimes end up with three assignments that all need to be handed in around the same time. If that just so happens to be when a learner is trying to settle their child into school, say, those assignments are unlikely to be completed on time, if at all.

So, rather than being prescriptive – saying learners have got to complete a certain number of modules at a certain time and within a certain number of weeks – digital delivery means those studying around work or other commitments could access the precise education they need at times that suit them. And if institutions design a course – which might be quite heavyweight – and put all modules online from the get-go, learners also have the opportunity to do just the specific section that addresses their skills need. That can make a bit difference to their success in the workplace and their future employability.

There are hurdles to overcome. As things stand, what often happens when people from underrepresented groups engage with skills training is they fail to complete the course because of other pressures in their life. Did you notice the word fail? Probably not, because we use it so casually.

We need a shift in vocabulary, mindset and purpose. We talk about students’ failure to finish – but do they always need to? Even with short courses, we still place value against completion rates and presenteeism. If we instead focus on the broader benefits of engaging with education, normalising the idea of learning throughout our life and career, could we reassess what success looks like? Using technology to increase access and track learner progress, it would be easy to award some record of achievement no matter where learners jump on or off a course, so there’s always a tangible benefit. That could remove barriers that can affect a learner’s sense of achievement as well as their outcome, because recognition for effort put in can make a real impact.

Embracing the changes we see in the workplace

Some of the reasons we haven’t significantly shifted our modes and approaches in education are about habit – but frankly, it’s also about snobbery; maintaining the idea that certain types of learning, certain types of institution, certain subject areas are "better" than others. As industry 4.0 emerges and we look again at the needs of our learners and our employers, we can address these outdated views. Education 4.0, then, becomes less about letters after your name or the overarching reputation of your institution and more about how each individual is able to progress as a result of their learning.

Tinkering at the sides of our existing structures isn’t enough. If we embrace the changes we’re seeing in the workplace, we can use technology to support education that’s ongoing, user-led and ever-changing – both for learners and for employers. Flexible, lifelong learning not only has the potential to deliver the skills we need in industry, it could and should bring an end to snobbery in education, too.

Julia Taylor is a subject specialist in inclusive practice at Jisc, the UK’s leading education and technology not-for-profit. Working with member colleges and universities, Jisc is dedicated to supporting the development of skills for the workplace of tomorrow

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Julia Taylor

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