The digital futures of education and work are areas that, whilst increasingly important to economic development and individual prosperity, have seen the collection of very little primary data. Fortunately, between 8 and 14 June 2020, Pearson held their second annual Global Learner Survey, a collection of global data from over 7000 individuals between the ages of 16 and 70. The survey concerns questions relating to the future of education, employment and technology, and the degree to which the three will become more linked going forward. Pearson previously conducted the first of these surveys in 2019, and so the results offer an insight into the ways that perceptions have altered and shifted as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. The full report can be accessed on their website. This article will look into the implications of the survey data on these two key areas – the future of education and the future of work, both of which will examine the growing use of technology and the implications of this trend. Whilst the survey did not single out European citizens in its results, the global averages will be used as an approximate indicator and, as such, hold true for the EU also.
Future of Education
There is no doubt that education has changed dramatically in the immediate aftermath of the coronavirus, with schools being shut and university classes being moved online. A little less clear, however, is whether the changes that resulted from and were established in order to combat the pandemic will continue to affect education in the medium to long term, and what effect this will have on current and future students. Globally, and where technologically possible, classes and education provision has been moved online, with some universities even declaring that their next academic year will be conducted virtually in its entirety. This could be an indicator of future change, as 3 in 4 of the survey respondents believe that education will be fundamentally changed as a result of the pandemic, with online learning forming a key component of a future education, at all ages. Interestingly, there seems to be confusion over whether this will encourage a greater uptake of higher education or increase the barriers to entry. Some believe that the economic uncertainty stemming from the pandemic and subsequent economic downturn will encourage more people to upskill and reskill to ensure greater job security, whilst others think that the pandemic will mean that fewer people are able to afford university or even choose to undertake a degree level qualification. However, the majority remain positive that education can continue to represent a force for prosperity for young people, and consequently are “show[ing] a growing faith in education to deliver results and opportunity for this generation”. This has resulted in an increase, possibly as a result of Covid-19, in the percentage of people that believe their native education systems work well for the current generation, from 52% in 2019 to 56% in 2020.
The greater utilisation of technology in education, whether to supplement or substitute physical learning in schools and universities, offers great opportunities to make valuable education more accessible to a wider audience. Indeed, in Figure 1, survey respondents were asked the extent to which they agree that online learning will give people more access to quality education, with a global average of 78% believing it to be so.
However, further implementation of technology does present risks that could jeopardise facets of modern social progression. A high 87% of those surveyed agreed that not everyone has access to the required technology to learn effectively online, and 82% believe that a greater emphasis on online learning will worsen inequality for those without access to technology. 84% believe that Covid-19 has already inflamed the digital divide and yet, 88% of the respondents argued that education should take advantage of technology to maximise the learning experience. This adoption can be mindful of potential inequality-wideners and when asked where additional funds for public education should be allocated (Figure 2), the modal response was to “provide additional computers or technology for underserved learners”, as this would help to reduce the growing disparity between those with access, and those without.
Future of Work
Education is only one aspect, although a crucial one, in preparing this and future generations for the future of work. Learning is a life-long process, and people in work often find that they need to learn new skills and procedures in order to adapt to the changing environment. An indication of the speed at which Digital 4.0 is changing the modern workplace is reflected in the survey data, with the two primary reasons for why people in work had found themselves in need of further education the result of needing a skill not taught in school or university (46%), and the requirement to use a new form of technology or software in their existing job (41%).
Even within the last 5 years, 87% of those surveyed believe that the skills which people need for work have changed due to a higher use of use of internet, word processing, and social media. If, like 82% of people globally suggest, more people start teleworking on a permanent basis following the Covid-19 pandemic, the same inequalities that are being affected by the adoption of technology in education could appear in employment, further disadvantaging people without digital access. Those without the physical or financial means to access technology could be prevented from achieving better-paid roles (up to 36% higher than national averages), thereby creating a kind of digital threshold.
Evidently, technology is becoming intricately linked with the future of work and the UN estimates that 9 out of 10 jobs will require digital skills in the future. Accordingly, digital skills like virtual collaboration, communication, data analysis and remote management are now on par with soft skills such as critical thinking, problem solving and creativity in relative importance to the workplace. It will be fascinating to see whether these perceptions are reflected in the hiring behaviour and practices of the industry, or whether there is a disconnect between how employees and employers; digital innovators and ordinary citizens, view both the future of education and work and the role that technology will go on to play in the area. Nevertheless, consensus does exist on the shifting emphasis from the collective to the individual in taking personal responsibility for directing one’s own learning or upskilling for jobs, with results displayed in Figure 3.
It is apparent that whilst the emphasis is moving more towards individual responsibility in digital education and work, this will need to be paired with political policies that ensure education continues to be made available; and with industry efforts to hold workshops to provide educated people with the right set of soft and digital skills to succeed in the future of work. The former could include providing economic support packages for universities that will struggle with low student intakes in 2020-21 and the latter could involve further technological improvements to bring the price (and barrier to entry) of technology down. If this can be achieved by all parties, people in the EU, and indeed globally, will be better equipped to respond to the rapidly changing workplace. In many ways, the boardroom is out, the chatroom is in, and it is up to everyone to prepare for the future of work, a process of which the need has been greatly accelerated by Covid-19.
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Biggins, E. (2020) Teaching and Technology: Lessons learnt from the global learner survey, IDRN, 14 Aug. Available at: https://idrn.eu/migration-identity-and-individuals/teaching-and-technology-lessons-learnt-from-the-global-learner-survey [Accessed dd/mm/yyyy].