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Thursday, 1 September 2011

It's Education, Stupid !


It’s that time of year when I spend much of my time reading the books that have been nominated for the FT/Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year. It’s a judging duty that is both a pleasure and a pain. The pain is the sheer amount of time it takes to wade through thousands of pages.  The pleasure is reading books that would not necessarily cross my path. This year, as with the last, many of these books are written by economists and, understandably, focus on the state of the world economy. It is interesting to read how many agree that education and training are crucial to long-term economic success, for individuals, companies and countries. I made a similar argument in my most recent book The Shift, focusing in particular on the types of education and training that create specialization. Here are the two reasons why it has never been so critical to become educated:

  • Rampaging connectivity – will see at least five billion people around the world using some form of mobile device to download information, access knowledge and coach and teach each other. Some will have the intellectual capacity and motivation to really make something of this extraordinary opportunity, wherever they happen to be born. These people will want to join the global talent pool and, if possible, migrate to creative and vibrant cities. By doing so, this vast crowd of talented people will increasingly compete with each other, continuously upping the stakes for what it takes to succeed.

  • The technological revolution – brought mobile devices to billions, and is now transforming how work gets done. Robots are taking the place of unskilled and semi-skilled workers, while business analytics, modelling and collaborative technologies are taking away much of what has traditionally been the role of the middle manager. However, while technology may be replacing the mechanical aspects of work, it is not replacing the more complex, skilled work that involves creativity and innovation. That’s the high value piece that remains, and it is once that requires education and training. 

As high quality education becomes more of a premium, we can expect the sector to begin to transform itself even more rapidly. Just what this transformation will look like is difficult to predict with accuracy. But here are two emerging trends that I believe will shape it over the coming decades:

The Gutenberg Project: the race is on to digitalise many of the books and articles of the world, while the professors of academic institutions such as MIT are making their key lectures available on the web. Combined with hyper connectivity and the potentially global reach of the Cloud, this means that knowledge and wisdom will be available to anyone with access to the Internet. This could see the development of new ways of educating that leapfrog those of normal educational institutions, creating more fluid, virtual and vibrant networks of learning. 

Virtual Schools and Universities: there has been a great deal of research over the last decade focusing on how people learn. This has looked at e-learning, face-to-face teaching and over-the-phone coaching. What has become clear is that none of these on their own are the best; it’s the combination of all three that has the greatest impact. This is important for educational strategies since at least two of these processes are virtual, and F2F can largely be substituted by video conferencing. I saw the speed of this transformation recently when I visited UOC (Universitat Oberta de Catalunya) in Barcelona. Its sleek headquarters are the hub of a virtual university that has 60,000 students (and growing) taught by a faculty of over 3,000 virtual educators. Using simulations, games and collaborative environments, the institution is building deep expertise in supporting education across the world.

Some have argued that, of all the institutional forms, education has changed least over the past few decades. It looks as if the need for deeper knowledge and rapid advances in learning technologies may change all that.

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