Learning harder, for longer

By Matt Cornock

Opinion piece.

Open online learning has a huge part to play in addressing the skills and education needs of a growing population, a workforce requiring re-skilling and economies shifting as a result of technological developments. It is no surprise then that one of the topics of discussion at the FutureLearn Partners’ Forum, kicked off by FutureLearn CEO Simon Nelson, has focused on how open education can address the often cited challenges of a “global skills gap” and “global shortage of higher education”.

Indeed the idea of “lifelong learning as an essential need” underpins this whole movement. However, in order to be a lifelong learner you need the skills to a) identify your own development needs, b) locate sources to help you address that need, c) sustain your development over a long period of time. These are not skills that every person has. It could even be argued that as ways of learning change, through technology, the situation a learner finds themselves in, or the discipline in which a learner must develop, that those lifelong learning skills also need continual development too.

Higher education is often seen as a mechanism through which people develop independent, critical thinking and self-starting learning skills, but there is a majority of the population (both in the UK and worldwide) who have not had access to higher education, or have chosen different education and career routes. I am concerned that by addressing skills gaps only through forms of learning that require the self-efficacy to engage with collaborative, reflective, self-paced online activities, we are not going to truly address ‘education for all’. There is a missing step, which has to enable people to become effective online learners in the first place. This is something I am attempting to do in my small part for the teaching sector, but needs to be looked at more holistically by national education systems.

One of the stats shown at the Forum indicated over half the workforce will need up-skilling over the next decade. If online education is going to be the medium for providing this up-skilling, which makes sense considering the sheer scale of learners involved, then this needs to be both sustainable and available. The sustainability comes from capitalising on the high-value sector of business training, as a first step to fund broader goals. Yet, the majority of those who will require up-skilling, are not those in high paid roles and may even be within the public sector where budgets are continually under pressure and workload is inflexible. It will be important for the edtech and online learning providers to remember that in order to champion open education, sustainability must be met with responsibility.

Whilst the announcement of the Common Microcreditial Framework (CMF) provides a bite-sized route into degree-level study, there is still no common framework for the vast majority of the workforce who do not need masters-level qualifications to do their job (or up-skill to maintain their career). I am not denying the massive benefits that the CMF provides in terms of learners being able to develop their own learning pathways drawing upon the expertise of many different institutions, and earning recognised credits for it. However, the CMF prioritises the academic module mode of study, with 100-150 hours of work required, accredited by universities and endorsed by industry. This is a high standard to meet, and there are questions about whether informal, on-the-job, sector-based personal and professional development would better suit immediate and responsive needs. Another stat shared showed that career churn will be more common, so the need to either up-skill or re-skill repeatedly will be commonplace. That cannot surely only involve pathways that lead to degrees. We have to take responsibility to ensure that the whole workforce have access to lifelong learning, not just those with the money, time or learning skills to participate. Not least because as the ‘gig-economy’ rises, job security decreases, and the incentive for employers to invest in their people will equally decrease, the onus of development responsibility sits on the individual. In a sense, there needs to be a framework that recognises lifelong learning not just in terms of the courses completed, but the way that individuals demonstrate their own capabilities, within their own learning and professional contexts.

If we do not provide the opportunity for all to engage, as informed and inspired online learners, then we will continually fall foul of the problem of only reaching those who have the ‘educational capital’ to seek out and experience online learning. In effect, we will never break free of the issues of ‘build them and they will come’ development approaches, because as online learning designers and curators, we’re not conveying the fundamental need for becoming an online learner and developing the lifelong learning mindset in the first place.

As a side note, and not from a FutureLearn presentation I am keen to stress, but from an insightful keynote about the edtech sector overall from research undertaken by HolonIQ, I am equally concerned about the language being used that discusses the global south as a key opportunity area for growth in online learning (and by growth, most edtech businesses imply money). My concern is a view of the global north having the best approaches and ‘solutions’ about how to ‘reach’ (provide education for) the global south. This appears to ignore cultural distinctiveness; imposes, rather than understands a need; and feels more like digital colonialism than collaboration. Perhaps that’s too strong a term, and I appreciate that I do not fully understand the nuances of what edtech companies are proposing and how they intend to work in ‘emerging markets’. However, I still feel uneasy about the shift away from open education, truly open for all, that is also authentic and grounded in the learners’ context. It’s a similar point to the above about up-skilling a workforce. An understanding of the workforce needs, where they are now and where they need to be (as defined by their own context), requires collaboration, discussion and evidence. Whatever sector edtech companies look to expand in, there needs to be a real consideration of the learning context as much as the learning content.

To conclude then, I think that the work that open online course providers are doing to make education and professional learning open access, available and supported for as many learners as we can is really supporting the mission of enabling everyone to continue their lifelong learning process. Lifelong learning is integral to a successful society, but being equipped to be a lifelong learner is still a key area for the education sector to improve upon, Ultimately, we will all need to be learning harder, and for longer… but wouldn’t it be a great place to live if we all had the opportunity to do that?

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