For centuries, higher education has operated under a paradigm where its purpose was to create a theoretical foundation for future success. At best, students gained the technical skills for their future careers as part of their university studies — and it was assumed that upon entrance into the ‘real world’ after graduation, they would learn how to be a successful employee or entrepreneur.
In reality, this was a belief in two separate worlds with two separate learning outcomes: theory and technical skills in higher education, and soft skills in the professional realm.
However, current research makes it quite clear that these two worlds need to meet. And there are more pressures calling for change. The world is changing rapidly. Automation and artificial intelligence may be buzz words, but in fact these phenomena are starting to have a tangible effect on the lives of people in the working world — from self-driving trucks that deliver goods to AI machines that correctly diagnose eye diseases.
If made accessible to a wide audience, e-learning can empower disadvantaged populations that risk getting left behind during the 4th industrial revolution brought on by the wide adoption of information and communication technologies
Prof. Zeinab ElMaadawi
According to a McKinsey Global Institute report in 2017, up to 50 per cent of current work activities across the globe could be automated by 2030. So, those technical skills you learned at university? Chances are, machines will be far better at them than you are.
With increasingly capable machines, workers will need to adapt, and it will be the soft skills where they have the competitive edge: leadership, management, lifelong learning, innovation, complex problem solving, creativity, emotional intelligence, resilience.
The phenomenon of those ‘two worlds’ of technical and soft skills has been much discussed within academia. Philosopher Eric Hoffer said: “In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”
But the time for academic discourse is now up. Society can no longer afford to maintain the educational status quo. According to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs 2018 report, by 2022 “no less than 54 per cent of all employees will require significant re- and upskilling”, a big part of which will be soft-skills training.
Beyond the technical
The most effective way to catch up with the trend will be to address the problem at different stages.
Higher education needs to be rethought. Students should not only acquire up-to-date technical and digital skills, but those vital human skills — including active learning and different strategies that enable them to become agile learners.
In addition, educators and policymakers need to re-evaluate the added value of degrees. A degree does not guarantee employability, and many universities are recognising this. In response, they are starting to unbundle learning into credentials that demonstrate one’s ability to conquer well-defined skills and competencies. So instead of traditional degree, they offer professional diplomas (also called micro degrees).
Another pillar of a reformed system should be training on the job. Organizations need to invest in their employees’ professional development and build up a well-defined lifelong learning system. This requires both financial commitment and time commitment, but is the only way to maintain a competitive workforce in times marked by rapid change.
That change is closely linked to technology. Perhaps ironically, technology itself could also pave the way for such a transformation.
Technology-enhanced learning, with properly target audience-oriented or customised teaching and learning methodologies, can provide affordable, engaging, and personalised learning. E-learning courses, either in a stand-alone format or blended with other types of instruction and training, can efficiently close the knowledge and skills gap if combined with innovative pedagogy (teaching, learning and assessment).
One example of this is the flipped classroom, where students listen to a lecture online and then participate in a group discussion or project work.
Analytics and machine learning can also be used to generate a self-guided learning experience. This will also reinforce the mindset of lifelong and agile learning that is needed to tackle an uncertain future. Meanwhile, collaborative learning in an online social context would strengthen the values and skills needed for a team-based work environment.
If made accessible to a wide audience, e-learning can empower disadvantaged populations that risk getting left behind during the 4th industrial revolution brought on by the wide adoption of information and communication technologies. Innovation is not the privilege of the Western world.
Some of the big up-and-coming hubs for tech start-ups are in fact in Africa, and companies are increasingly interested in the untapped opportunities of African markets. It is here that the digital age, and with it technology-enhanced learning, can in fact serve as an equalizer that creates so far unseen possibilities.
More than anything, we should believe in the value of education, but simultaneously maintain that value by changing with the times. If we are willing to rethink our approach to higher education, learners will again inherit the world — and these learners might just be a lot more diverse than they were in the past.
Zeinab ElMaadawi is a professor & senior expert for e-learning at the United Nations University – Institute for Environment and Human Security. She has been featured as a ‘Techwomen Emerging Leader’ by the U.S. Department of State, an ‘Arab-American Frontiers Fellow’ by the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, and a ‘Leader in Innovation Fellow’ by the UK’s Royal Academy of Engineering. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @zmaadawi