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The Digital Age and Education of the Future

For some years I hear people discuss that education needs to transform and adapt to the Digital Age. In one way education has: I am told that so called MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses, are a huge success. Classes from lecturers at (top) universities are freely available online. But this is traditional education distributed and made accessible in a modern form. The debate ought to focus on education for the jobs and skills of the future. There are a few issues that come by in the discussion on education:

  1. The Internet industry demands courses that are not readily available for the jobs on offer;
  2. Teachers are not trained to train the pupils on digital skills;
  3. Young teachers are demotivated and leave schools for other jobs;
  4. Children are more involved with social media and Netflix and (too) easily distracted in class.

This post is not claiming that it has answers to any of these issues, but I will try to come back to each point, with a main focus on the first two.

In the meantime

Since I started writing on this post nearly two weeks week ago, a deluge of messages on the topic has reached me through different media, which I’ve tried to incorporate or mention. To name a few. Liberal party D66 published a report on the need for better digital education. The Economist published an article on post-graduate digital education. A high school student organisation gave off a message that 20% of the students think the digital skills of teachers are below par (with me hoping that the other 80%‘s demands are met but dreading that they do not realise the lack of knowledge). The announcement of an intermediate professional school starting a cyber track.

Classroom/school ethics

What surprised me is that the news seems to be that teachers (and parents) have given up on the use of the smartphone in class. “The parents demand it” as the child needs to be reachable or so is the argument I hear. What for, if they are in school? You can reach them in times of distress through school, can’t you? The world may come to face a generation that is not used to not be on social media, not not watching Netflix series any time, not having a distraction every few seconds and not gaming on whatever devices for a lot of time on end.

How hard is it to have a general prohibition of phones in the class room? If that is the problem? If no kid in any classroom has a smartphone on him, the problem is solved. We will just have to wait and see what the end result of children always online and permanently distracted is when they enter higher education and after that the workforce.

The advice seems so simple. A prohibition on phones in the classroom for all. That is including the teacher.

New jobs

More interesting, for me that is, is the debate around new jobs. What are these jobs, I wonder? They tend to run in the millions within a few years, or so I always read. Looking at it from a one dimensional view: If I walk around a data centre I see endless rows of servers connecting something to someone, but what I hardly see is people, excluding the people of the cleaning service. Just machines with lots of lights and loads of wires. Once in operation, it seems people are no longer necessary. Looking broader there is a need for software developers, cyber security experts, system administrators, etc. But how many exactly are we talking about and what are demands called for? And what are these new jobs? Another recent publication gives some answers.

The World Economic Forum published a top 10 for jobs that did not exist ten years ago. The top three being: app developer; social media manager and Uber driver. At least two of the three are there because of the surge in technology that smart phones brought to the world. Some claim that 65% of children in school today will end up in jobs that do not exist today. (Note the difference in educational requirements!)

The need to transform education

These facts and figures attest to the need for change, although, interestingly enough, all these jobs came into being without specialised training and education. As demands will change, in numbers and specific requirements, adaptation by educational institutions is called for. This comes with an important question that policymakers have to answer: What is hype and what is not?

Recently news came out that intermediate professional schools in The Netherlands are pumping out game designers by the thousand and then some more a year, while the industry needs something in the order of 10 (ten) a year. All after a hype started by someone from within the branch. Need and hype have to be looked into seriously before education tracks are developed. The answer to the question ‘what are the new jobs of the future?’ is important to get right for several reasons.

The same goes for higher education programs. Coders, developers, security, lawyers, marketers, etc. For some, education already exist or need some amendment, for others perhaps not yet. It is important to define that need as explicit as possible. That way policymakers and schools can set up new education programs that fit demand and numbers.

Impact on the general public

What is obvious is that within a decade it has become virtually impossible to live without accessing the Internet. Even if it is only to do business with your bank or the government. Internet access has become a necessity. In general, there undoubtedly is a need to prepare the general public (of the future) for a life with the Internet and all its pleasures and dangers.

There is another aspect and this was an important part of the debate that was held in Workshop #48 that The Netherland’s IGF (NLIGF) organised at the Internet Governance Forum in Brazil in 2015. Several major concerns were voiced here around education. Artificial Intelligence and robotisation will impact society as a whole and bring changes to jobs and job demands. With that comes difficulty to predict what people need to be trained for, while at the same time it is obvious that several lines of education will become unnecessary soon. Simply because jobs disappear. Higher end jobs as well as skilled labour jobs. Will these people fall by the way side or is there an ambition for re-training them? In comes skilled teachers, again.

So, where to start?

The better children are prepared for the Digital Age, the better. This goes for elementary background information as well as basic training in skills like e.g. building a website and basic online security. I think coding should be one of the languages offered. Children usually do not learn these things as a user. They seem adapt to an older generation because of their gaming skills and speed of typing in messages on the smartphone, this however is not the same as working with the tools on offer. Most are users.

On average these classes would prepare them better for the Digital Age. At best these lessons interest a sufficient number of the pupils to take up tertiary education in this direction and make a career in the digital realm.

These lessons need teachers and they are not trained as well, perhaps even more behind when they are more advanced in age. Can a society afford not to offer its teachers courses here and thus train the new generation? I think it is already long overdue.

A new role for industry?

Is there a role for industry here? Yes, in several ways.

  1. Formulate demands – Industry needs to be very specific in what they expect from schools and universities. Only then funds that are scarce can be used most effectively to train the future workforce.
  2. Teach – People working in industry may be needed to give some very specialist classes in these education programs.
  3. Fund – Industry is able to co-fund education. An example is Cisco that funds a two year cyber security education program with US$ 10 million. There is, claims Cisco, a “digital skills gap” in general and in cyber security more specifically.
  4. Identify explicitly – So here it’s possible to identify one specific need for industry (and society as a whole), cyber security.

    As said, industry needs to be more specific in its demands on education and could play several roles itself. This is a different way forward than what The Economist reported on post-grad cyber boot camps re-training graduates for universities. The point is not, should these commercial companies providing the bootcamp be financed with government money, no, it shows just that what universities fail in: training students properly for their future. Liberal Arts and ICT? Why not?
  5. Teach some more – why not assist in training the teachers needed in the classrooms?

There are several important ways industry can work with governments and schools to assist in closing the skills gap. All sides need to be open towards transformation of education.

To conclude

With incredible speed we have moved into the Digital Age and may be just at the start of major disruptive developments that change the way we look at our lives, our work, our pastime and thus our education programmes. The developments are not waiting for us to catch up.

How to proceed? From what I hear, there are a lot of chicken egg type discussions going about. For industry, it all starts with knowing yourself/your organisation and your needs. From there a dialogue is much more focused and choices easier to be made. Why wait if you know what you need? For government, find out what demands are and facilitate education and, do not hesitate with training teachers so that the curriculum of children in school and universities aligns with expectations. For schools set smartphone rules, now. And teachers, demand a better education for yourself on digital skills from your school and society. Our future depends on your assertiveness and on that happening.

By Wout de Natris, Consultant internet governance

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