Should education move at the speed of life, or provide an escape from it?

28th August 2009 at 01:00
Comment: Raj Patel

Today, most of us are caught up in lives that are too fast. Remember when people had time for simple things like a conversation over lunch? Or, as Franklin D Roosevelt once said: "Never before have we had so little time in which to do so much."

The world of learning and skills has barely woken up to the challenges that result from our hectic itineraries. On one hand, it creates an increasing demand for fast-paced learning and condensed programmes that are delivered by technology. On the other, learning could offer the antidote to hurried lifestyles by providing space to reflect and look at the bigger picture.

There is plenty of evidence that we are living in an age where things are changing rapidly. Karl Fisch, a teacher in the US, says there are more than 3,000 books published every day and new technical information is now doubling every two years. The US Department of Labor estimates that today's learners will have undertaken an average of 10 to 14 jobs by the time they are 38. Change is also apparent in the UK, with the number of small to medium-size businesses up from 2.5 million in 1980 to 4 million, indicating how many of us are now working in more fluid environments.

In these changing times, our lives may seem out of control and this is manifesting itself in many ways. We're even walking faster. Psychologists measured the speed at which people walk in 32 countries and have shown this has increased by an average of 10 per cent over the past two decades.

Many agree that this rapid pace of life is having a real impact on society and contributing to a growth in mental heath and wellbeing problems. It is estimated that one in six employees suffers from a common mental health problem including stress, anxiety or depression. Of course, only some of this is caused by our lifestyles.

In turn, mental health problems are having an impact on our economy. In 2007, healthcare charity The King's Fund estimated that mental health problems cost pound;48.6bn in England alone, while other estimates go as high as pound;77bn. Employers are also bearing high costs, with lost productivity and time off work said to be about pound;26bn.

Is this faster pace of life affecting young people? Guy Claxton, author of What's the Point of School?, argues that young people are increasingly stressed and not immune from the uncertainty, complexity or pace of life. With little influence over this environment, they are much more dependent on their own knowledge, skills, resources and ability to cope with everyday challenges.

We already know of the increased demand for fast-paced learning - condensed, bite-size programmes. The rise of coaching is another example of the way education has changed. According to research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, coaching is now used by 69 per cent of its member bodies. This kind of action learning provides a modern solution as it is flexible enough to fit in with a busy lifestyle and regular enough to contribute to a person's professional development.

New forms of learning can only grow with the increased use of technology, social media and social networking. In the UK, two-thirds of us now use the internet daily, while a study across 16 countries found 28 per cent of us spend almost a third of our leisure time online. With this comes a digital "always-on" generation. It's no surprise that employers are moving away from whiteboard and PowerPoint training to pioneer more interactive ways to help employees develop their skills.

Schools, colleges, universities, work-based learning providers and employers cannot get started soon enough on making learning work in these fast-paced and changing times.

The Learning and Skills Network (LSN) can take some credit for leading the way on this by developing the Mobile Learning Network (MoLeNET) in partnership with the Learning and Skills Council. Now in its third year, MoLeNET is one of the world's largest mobile learning initiatives, helping post-14 education and training providers unleash the potential of handheld and pocket-sized technologies such as mobile phones, MP3 players and gaming technology.

The programme shows how they can be used to enable people to learn at a time and in a place that suits them. But technology doesn't always have to be cutting edge. Simple ideas can be equally effective, such as the online "pay as you learn" continuing professional development package recently launched by LSN for college staff, which enables them to develop their skills at their desks in any downtime.

The education and training system could also develop learning opportunities that act as an antidote to people's busy lives and enable them to make sense of the change around them.

One initiative in the US is doing this already, and perhaps provides a blueprint for another way forward. Based in Silicon Valley and backed by Nasa and Google, the Singularity University brings together a mix of students and business people to provide courses on solving society's big problems. According to Salim Ismail, one of its founders, graduate education allows you "to go down deep, but there's no place that lets you step back, look at the big issues and think". This, claim its founders, is the time to offer crash courses and cross-pollination of knowledge. With more than 1,200 applicants expressing an interest in attending its course of just 40 places, they might be on to something.

How could further education, with its specific pioneering tradition of vocational and continuing education, rise to this challenge of empowering learners to be able to slow down? One answer lies in looking at individuals who are able to thrive in a fast-paced environment. They essentially deploy three strategies: change their own behaviour, select another environment or master the ability to shape the environment around them. Their adaptive skills set them apart; they don't live with problems but solve them; they don't get pushed into answering questions but reflect before responding.

The growing focus on employability provides a chance to develop some of these skills, but learning providers need to think more radically. Overall, they have an opportunity to find two unique positions. On one hand, they can provide fast forms of learning that keep up with people's lives and feed an ever-expanding appetite for development. On the other hand, there is an opportunity to develop approaches that enable people to stop, take a step back and retreat into learning for a short time, which might just provide the desired step-change.

  • Raj Patel, Assistant director of research and policy, Learning and Skills Network.

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