Learning is not one of those childish habits we should outgrow. If we close our minds to new perspectives, skills and experiences, we stagnate – and in this world of ever more rapid change, of job-stealing algorithms and the rise of the gig economy, stagnation is fatal.
Formal education surely has a role to play if we’re not to be left behind, yet it remains overwhelmingly something we do when we’re young. Yes, there are the training courses our firms send us on, but if you were to tot up all the things you’ve learned over the last three years that have made you more effective at your job, more marketable as an employee or just a wiser human being, how many of them came in a classroom?
It’s not that training isn’t valuable, exactly, it’s just that few of us are able to invest the time required for it to have an impact (MBAs and professional qualifications being a notable exception). Moreover, the training we get in one firm often isn’t transferable to the wider jobs market.
There is hope, however, that education technology (edtech) might give our ongoing learning a 21st century upgrade.
The rise of edtech
‘If you look at other sectors the first thing that tends to change is the delivery capabilities. Then with those come a whole slew of new products and services that fundamentally change consumption patterns and behaviours. We’ve seen it in the media, where industries were turned upside down. I think we’re at that point now in education where the old guard is about to be fundamentally changed.’
Those are not words of doom from within the educational establishment. They come from David Bainbridge, a man intimately familiar with both digital transformation (he oversaw the launch of the BBC iPlayer) and the edtech sector (he’s the founder of Knowledge Motion, a start-up that aims to transform teaching and training by connecting education providers with video content producers).
‘Having ridden the media transformation wave and during that time acquiring far too many children for my own good, I was completely struck by the fact that the means of delivering more engaging content were in place, but the content itself was little different from when I was at a school,’ Bainbridge explains.
Knowledge Motion is one of a growing number of edtech start-ups to have emerged in the UK over the last few years, hoping to take a slice out of the $6tn global education sector.
These include several e-learning companies like Proversity, which aims to give candidates the soft and professional skills they need before applying for a specific job, Fluency, which offers free employability courses, and AVADO, which provides bespoke online training programmes for firms. All of them are hoping to emulate the success of e-learning market leaders Lynda (now owned by Microsoft, via LinkedIn) and Udemy.
It is in the ongoing learning space that education technology perhaps has the greatest potential to change the status quo. The higher education sector is in some ways a bureaucratic, conservative place, populated by government ministries and centuries-old universities, where the pace of change is slow. Business is generally far more receptive to adopting new technologies in order to get an edge.
You can see it in the way traditional training providers are wholeheartedly embracing technology. John Yates, new ventures director at City & Guilds Group and director at its subsidiary ILM, says learning technology is increasingly at the core of his firm’s strategy. In the last 18 months alone it’s acquired or invested in e-learning start-ups Digital Me, Filtered, Nine Lanterns and e3Learning.
Of course, it’s easy to be cynical about the transformative power of online learning. Remember MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses)? Back in 2012 they were all the rage, but their credibility has been undermined by frankly dreadful completion rates (roughly 7%). They just didn’t have the real-world impact that was promised.
This is in fact one of the key areas where new technologies can make a difference, Yates says. Ed tech is a lot cleverer than just video lectures and pdf textbooks.
‘With learning analytics, machine intelligence and learner record stores, you can see how much people are engaging with their learning and how they’re applying it. Rather than just measure whether people have been on a course and whether they’ve completed it, you can start to understand the impact.’
At the same time, online learning connects to several important secular trends among young people in particular. One is the rise of video – ‘if you’re a millennial, your world has been completely changed over the last few years by video. It’s become the lingua franca for a generation, their primary means of sharing information among themselves’, says Bainbridge.
Another is social media. ‘Young people are comfortable with the idea of sharing online, they’re much more prepared to submit things for peer review,’ says Yates. ‘Corporates can use this as a way of engaging their trainees for a longer period of time.’
Encouraging the sharing of tips and progress effectively keeps people involved in the learning process after the formal training has ended, rather than attending the course and forgetting about it after two weeks.
Online learning has a lot going for it. It’s more engaging for younger employees, and unlike face-to-face programmes, it’s something you can do on the train home or before you go to bed – it doesn’t have to interrupt your working day. The trend is towards a ‘blend’, Yates says, whereby people acquire the basic knowledge online in their own time, then discuss and share in a mix of face-to-face and virtual classrooms.
All this is enough to make it increasingly popular with learning and development managers. But the biggest potential impact of technology is less about the delivery of training, as how it’s seen.
The fundamental problem with doing a training course at work is that it’s not easily transferrable within the job market. Recruiters know what a degree is, and therefore what it tells them about a candidate. A training course – online or otherwise - is a much vaguer thing. Is it specific to that company? How rigorous is it? What’s the benchmark?
This is where digital credentials come in: a personal record akin to an academic transcript, containing externally accredited evidence of all the training you’ve done, and how it relates to real world practice. Yates says by the end of this year all of ILM’s qualifications will offer them.
‘Part of the reason we’re so keen on them is that they’re portable, they’re not just something you’ve acquired from your company. It could have a massive impact on talent management, exposing where competence gaps are in organisations and helping individuals understand their own career development,’ he says, pointing to the growing trend of employees investing in their own training.
In the gig economy, accredited, transferable, largely online courses could allow people to retrain and prove their skills, largely from the comfort of their own home, without having to go back to university.
The potential is great then, but as is often the case, the main barrier is probably cultural rather than technological. You can’t make people value a course or a qualification. But the more we do e-learning, the better it gets, and the easier it is to benchmark, the more likely we are to value it in others when we recruit. It might just happen.