Skills and Knowledge: An Imperative for Lifelong Learning in the Digital Age

By Bitange Ndemo

Today’s fast-paced and ever-changing world requires societies to adopt a culture of life-long learning. There is much the countries of the Global South can do to close the technology gap between them and the Global North, and capitalise on the many opportunities to empower people to be fit and ready for our future economies.

 

 “The capacity to learn is a gift; the ability to learn is a skill; the willingness to learn is a choice.” – Brian Herbert

 

Introduction

Never in the history of mankind has lifelong learning been such an imperative to sustain economic growth as it is in today’s digital age. The pace of technological change, at least since the invention of the Internet, has been phenomenal and few studies have attempted to capture its disruptive path and how best to adapt to it.

In the past, inventions took much longer to become obsolete. It took more than a century to imagine the demise of the internal combustion engine. Similarly, a child who was born at the dawn of the twenty-first century could hardly identify a rotary phone, which was a common household item barely two decades ago.

In 1965, Intel Co-Founder Gordon Moore predicted that the number of components per integrated circuit would double every 18 to 24 months for at least two decades. To date, this prediction has remained true far beyond the two decades he predicted. These types of improvements have disrupted industries. For example, in a short period of time, digital cameras replaced the film cameras that had been used for over a century. It is for this reason that digital advances are strongly linked to Moore’s prediction, including: quality-adjusted microprocessors,2 sensors, memory capacity, and even the number and size of pixels in digital cameras.3

Jobs have also been disrupted. The World Economic Forum’s Human Capital Index Report 2016 notes that there are jobs today that did not exist 10 years ago. It predicts that at least “65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that aren’t on our radar yet”.4 Further, the report predicts that the “pace of change is only going to get faster”, owing to rapid advances in such technologies as artificial intelligence, biotechnology, machine learning, the Internet of Things, sensor technologies, and more.

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The Capacity to Learn

Despite an individual’s particular areas of knowledge and skills, it is impossible to know what kinds of knowledge will be required to utilise the new technologies that await us in the future.

A key question for policy makers is thus: How do we prepare today’s school children for future jobs that we cannot fully predict and understand? One thing we can be certain about is that in order to acquire the skills and knowledge needed for these unknown future jobs, children must have the capacity to learn.

The “capacity to learn” is far too often an ambiguous concept. Perhaps the closest definition for it can be found in a 1998 quote by Seymour Papert, where he said, “All skills will become obsolete except one, the skill of being able to make the right response to situations that are outside the scope of what you were taught in school. We need to produce people who know how to act when they are faced with situations for which they were not specifically prepared.”

Perhaps in the past, the ability to do something well by using one’s own knowledge, experience, and aptitude could guarantee a lifetime of earnings, but rapid technological advances have changed that narrative.

Enhancing the capacity to learn is a complex process. Wald and Castleberry (2000) suggest that it should be collaborative, considering that learning demands that learners have an understanding of “themselves, their motives, and their thoughts and beliefs, as well as the motives, thoughts, and beliefs of others”.5 According to this view, the capacity to learn demands that individual interests be merged into collective aspirations. An individual cannot acquire the capacity to learn in isolation since society prepares young people to acquire knowledge. Thus it compels society members to have a sense of behaviour that creates a relationship of “trust, belonging, and purposefulness” that is often referred to as “work ethic”. This begins early in life so as to enable an individual to do sensible things while acquiring the necessary knowledge and skills with or without going through formal educational systems.

 

Acquiring the Right Skills

Perhaps in the past, the ability to do something well by using one’s own knowledge, experience, and aptitude could guarantee a lifetime of earnings, but rapid technological advances have changed that narrative. In the last couple of decades, it is common for an individual to acquire and reacquire different skill sets within a short time period. Therefore, the notion of permanent skills does not exist; rather, to be relevant for future jobs, one must embrace a continuous process of acquiring new, relevant skills. For this, society must embrace a culture of lifelong learning and collaboration, accepting that there is truth in Brian Herbert’s line that “the willingness to learn is a choice”.6

 

Knowledge for the Future

Knowledge can be described as the state of being aware, through either experience or education. Studies highlight the key knowledge areas of interest that new pedagogy must embrace to enhance understanding and readiness for future requirements (see Figure 1, below).7 These include: 1) foundational knowledge that incorporates digital literacy and core content, and is cross disciplinary; 2) humanistic knowledge that covers life/job skills, ethical/emotional awareness, and cultural competence, and 3) meta knowledge that focusses on creativity and innovation, problem solving, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration.

 

Figure 1: Key Knowledge Areas for Future Requirements

Source: Kereluik, Mishra, Fahnoe, and Terry (2013) What Knowledge Is of Most Worth: Teacher Knowledge for 21st Century Learning. Journal of Digital Learning in Teacher Education (p. 128). © punyamishra.com 2013

These critical areas have been tested in some private schools in Kenya; however, public schools, especially those in developing countries, still lag as they are typically more rigidly focussed on foundational knowledge. Often public educational systems face funding constraints and over full class rooms and as a result, devote little dedication to developing the skills future workers will need.

 

Policy Failure and Future Concerns for the Global South

Although policy makers everywhere should ensure that the right enabling environment is in place to enhance the capacity to learn and to develop futuristic skills and knowledge, several countries lag behind rich Northern ones, especially in those in the Global South. These countries lack a clear direction on how to close the North – South technology gap, a gap that cannot close until an enabling infrastructure is in place. For example, until 2009, Africa had no high-speed connectivity (see Figure 2). Virtually all countries accessed the Internet through expensive satellite links, which few people could afford. Today, the Internet has become a human-rights issue and a platform to enable lifelong learning. Kereluik et al.’s (2013) model suggests that digital literacy be part of the foundational knowledge for future of learning. Some African countries have embraced this need.

 

Figure 2: Africa’s Changing Connectivity, 2009 to 2012

Source: Oxford Internet Institute

Ndemo (2015) argued that clear and simple policy interventions did, indeed, make the difference in Kenya, where Internet penetration soared from barely 5 percent, in 2009, to 81 percent, in 2017.8 In the process, the country now has the highest number of mobile-money customers, and several apps have been developed to improve productivity in education, agriculture, healthcare, and several other sectors. Key areas of policy intervention have included building comprehensive infrastructures from both undersea cables and terrestrial networks; giving incentives to students to acquire enabling devices (for assistive technology); subsidising broadband for all institutions of higher learning (public and private; the removal of taxes on enabling devices; the certification of operators to develop last-mile infrastructure in rural areas; and the creation of digital centres in rural areas. Although it took some three years before there was widespread use of broadband, the results have been so phenomenal that, in some areas, the economy is leveraging on emerging technologies, such as big data, the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, and machine learning, so as to offer some of these new and inclusive products.

 

Lifelong Learning Mediated by Technology

In Ireland, lifelong learning has been a governing principle of educational policy since 2000. In Learning for life: White paper on adult education, by the Department of Education and Science, lifelong learning is defined as “ongoing, voluntary, and self-motivated”.9 While this policy document addresses adult education, the uncertain future of work means that one’s ability to constantly learn new skills and remain relevant in the job market is paramount.

The uncertain future of work means that one’s ability to constantly learn new skills and remain relevant in the job market is paramount.

The World Economic Forum’s Human Capital Index Report 2016 estimates that 65% of the children who are entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that, as yet, do not exist.10 This means that no specific skills exist that can prepare them for their future work. To fit into these non-existent jobs, these children will have to re-train, perhaps several times over, as the job landscape evolves.

It may not be possible to develop lifelong learning, for different people, without the use of information and communications technologies (ICTs). Stolterman and Croon Fors (2004) described our current situation as “the total and overall societal effect of digitalisation”.11 This interconnectedness and collaboration of people and organisations is being applied in every aspect of life, and education is no exception. Therefore, the future of learning will largely be facilitated by technology. Further, policy makers will have to create an enabling environment that meets these future demands, such as through lifelong learning.

 

Policy Recommendations

Evidence suggests that policy is key to the realisation of an enabling environment that supports the type of learning that is necessary for the future of work.12 This would include making broadband accessible and affordable to all, especially in the Global South. Lifelong learning that is mediated by technologies such as applications or “apps” will make it possible to minimise the cost of leaning materials and their delivery. As such, governments should consider removing or at least reducing taxes and duties on facilitating devices and systems, such as laptops, smart phones, and Internet usage. In order to leave no one behind, there is need for digital literacy training programmes, both in schools and in rural villages.

 

Future Research

The world is in a transformative stage, where new disruptive technologies are emerging almost on a daily basis. Some of these technologies will have far-reaching implications in the world we live in. Big data is already enabling nations to visualise the extent of such problems as poverty in ways we have never seen, and several inclusive products have emerged. Thanks to big data analytics, more people are gaining access to the types of finance and banking facilities that were hitherto not available to them. Future research should focus on the implications of the technologies that underpin digital transformation. These include but are not limited to artificial intelligence; the Internet of Things; machine learning, and other innovations, such as sensors and nanotechnology.

 

Conclusion

The future of work is uncertain yet inevitable and so too is the need for our constant learning and adapting. Strategies that will help us to successfully find and maintain employment include creating an enabling environment that encourages a culture of lifelong learning. The Global South should strive to close the digital divide between it and the rich Northern hemisphere. To this end, we must embrace David Miliband’s 2003 quote, “One of the core functions of 21st century education is learning to learn in preparation for a lifetime of change.”13

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About the Author

Bitange Ndemo is an Associate Professor of Entrepreneurship at the University of Nairobi’s Business School. Prof. Ndemo is an advisor and Board member to several organisations including Safaricom one of the leading telecommunication company in Africa, Mpesa Foundation, Research ICT Africa that is based in South Africa. He is a former Permanent Secretary of Kenya’s Ministry of Information and Communication where he was credited with facilitating many transformative ICT projects.

 

Notes

1. Herbert, Brian and Anderson, K. (2001). House Harkonnen. Spectra Books: New York.
2. Myhrvold, Nathan (June 7, 2006). “Moore’s Law Corollary: Pixel Power”. New York Times.
3. Byrne, David M.; Oliner, Stephen D.; Sichel, Daniel E. (March 2013). Is the Information Technology Revolution Over? Finance and Economics Discussion Series Divisions of Research & Statistics and Monetary Affairs Federal Reserve Board. Washington, D.C.
4. World Economic Forum Human Capital Index Report (June 2016) Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia 1-2 June 2016.
5. Wald, P.J., and Castleberry, M.S. (2000). Educators as learners: Creating a professional learning community in your school. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
6. See for example Bell, S., (2010) Project-Based Learning for the 21st Century: Skills for the Future. Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas, v83 n2 p39-43.
7. Kereluik, K., Mishra, P., Fahnoe C., and Terry, L., (2013) What Knowledge Is of Most Worth: Teacher Knowledge for 21st Century Learning. Journal of Digital Learning in Teacher Education 29:4, 127-140, DOI: 10.1080/21532974.2013.10784716.
8. Ndemo, E B (2015) Political Entrepreneurialism: Reflections of a Civil Servant on the Role of Political Institutions in Technology Innovation and Diffusion in Kenya. Stability: International Journal of Security and Development 4(1):15, DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5334/sta.fd.
9. Department of Education and Science (2000). Learning for Life: Paper on Adult Education. Dublin: Stationery Office.
10.World Economic Forum Human Capital Index Report (June 2016) Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia 1-2 June 2016.
11. Stolterman, Erik; Croon Fors, Anna (2004). “Information Technology and the Good Life.” Information systems research: relevant theory and informed practice. p. 689.
12. See for example Ndemo, E B (2015) Political Entrepreneurialism: Reflections of a Civil Servant on the Role of Political Institutions in Technology Innovation and Diffusion in Kenya. Stability: International Journal of Security and Development 4(1):15, DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5334/sta.fd.
13. David Miliband 2003 Speech Teaching in the 21st century.