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3 Ways to Disrupt Education and Help Bridge the Skills Gap

B Kalyan Kumar, Corporate Vice-President and Chief Technology Officer, HCL Technologies Ltd

World Economic Forum, August 17, 2021
  • By 2025, 85 million jobs may be displaced by a shift in the division of labour between humans and machines.
  • Education systems, and the lives of millions of young people, are in danger of being left behind by this pace of change.
  • Here are three key ways educators can prepare students for the future of work.

Alarmist headlines on the skills gap are incessant: 50% of all employees need reskilling by 2025; Digital skills emergency; Employers shift focus from education to skills; Don’t get left behind in a digital future!

As a technologist, I see the glaring skills mismatch every single day. As a parent, I am cautiously hopeful that our schools will help bridge this gap.

Last month I spoke to a group of 13-year-olds in my son’s school on the future of skills from a tech perspective. A LinkedIn post wrote about it garnered huge interest – I was asked these three questions: Do you have bitcoins? Are you a billionaire? Will robots replace humans? The questions reflected the pop culture image of the tech industry in Silicon Valley. But they also revealed the dire need to help an intensely curious, acutely aware, and aspirational generation, bridge the gap between hype, fear, and reality.

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It got me thinking about how we guide this brilliant brigade waiting impatiently for us to lead them to the future. Are we doing our best to prepare them for the rapidly changing landscape? Are we helping them build the right skills to succeed in a largely unknown world?

These are critical and urgent questions that must be asked. I do not have all the answers, but I do wonder if we need a broad shift in mindset. Are we focused more on our achievements in history than the challenges of the future? We need to collectively question the existing approach in skill development to prepare for an unknown future.

The future is knocking at our doors

Let’s look at the scenario ahead. According to the Future of Jobs 2020 report by the World Economic Forum, 85 million jobs may be displaced by a shift in the division of labor between humans and machines by 2025, while 97 million new roles may emerge that are more adapted to the new division of labor between humans, machines, and algorithms – that’s just over three years away.

The fact is that nearly half the jobs face potential automation, and 65% of children in school today will end up working in completely new job types that don’t yet exist. Existing jobs may not go away but will certainly be different. For instance, banking will go almost entirely virtual, and core professions like medicine will exist but with an extensive technology filter.

The future of jobs.
The future of jobs.Image: HCL Technologies Research & Intelligence

Furthermore, 84% of employers are set to rapidly digitalize working processes; and 94% of business leaders report that they expect employees to pick up new skills on the job. In fact, in what is being coined the “Upskilling Economy”, companies across the world are investing billions of dollars to reskill their workforce. Clearly, the future of work has already arrived for a large majority of workers.

Our education system is in danger of being left behind by this dizzying pace of change. If teenage students are wondering about cryptocurrency, should we be teaching them about blockchain? If they’re curious about robots, at what point should we open the doors to automation, artificial intelligence (AI), or machine learning?

The “what” and the “how”

To borrow a thought from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Curriculum (re)design now’s the time to dig deep into the “what” and the “how” questions for education. One important lesson that the pandemic taught us, is that our educational institutions and policymakers can move very quickly in response to a crisis. The question is, why wait for a crisis? There is no denying that we need change. It’s time to open our minds to the opportunities and challenges ahead and how the education system must respond to prepare students. I’d like to lay out three major shifts for a potential jumpstart.

1. Disrupt the legacy curriculum

This is not a simple one-step curriculum change, not an add-on subject in computer science, but an ongoing journey in transforming the processes, the experience, even the purpose – opening the doors wider to technology. This is not to undermine the need to focus on history or the arts.

These are undoubtedly valuable. In fact, it is fascinating to see that programs like the International Baccalaureate offer a vast variety of options such as Philosophy of Religion and Ethics, Social & Cultural Anthropology, Ancient History & Classical Civilization, even languages such as Latin. I do not question the role these play in a student’s development. But, looking ahead, we need to balance this with an equally sharp focus on the future where digital literacy, data science, and new-age technologies will play a key role in determining success. It is about making cloud and AI an intrinsic part of learning.

The argument is not so much about a scrimmage between subjects. It is about building skills for inquiry, analysis, and interpretation. It is about tech intensity, about investing in a horizontal layer of technology and allowing it to cut through the entire spectrum of the education journey. It is about reimagining the curriculum and reassessing foundational literacies and competencies for the future; moving beyond the 3Rs (reading, writing, and arithmetic) to embracing the 5Cs – critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, communication, and coding.

2. Disrupt the role of the teacher

Our educators need to build the courage to lose control. To let go, to join in and embrace automation, robotics, and algorithms. Parents are the sandwich generation – born in a different era, we need a human touch and are apprehensive of algorithmic interpretations. But teachers need to lead the change in the classroom. To quote Professor Erica McWilliam, they need to move from being the “Sage on the Stage”; they even need to give up being the “Guide on the Side” to become the “Meddler in the Middle” – a collaborative co-learner in the thick of the action.

We also need to break down the artificial boundaries within the curriculum and help find solutions to real-world problems – taking a leaf from the phenomenon-based learning approach adopted by Finland in its national school curriculum, which mandates a multidisciplinary module based on 21st-century skills.

3. Disrupt the pace

There is no time left for generational handovers. The pace of innovation and change in technology is furious. We see it all around us. Moore’s law has become redundant and as the famous futurist Ray Kurzweil said, “There’s even exponential growth in the rate of exponential growth.” And our kids are hungry for this change. Not surprisingly, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit report Driving the Skills Agenda, 58% of teachers agree that their students often have a more advanced understanding of technology than them. Our students are already in the fast lane. We need to join them there and help them develop the skills they need.

A need to reconfigure the future

We are responsible to create the framework for success in a future not yet known. As the OECD stated in The Future We Want, “In the era of digital transformation and with the advent of big data, digital literacy and data literacy are becoming increasingly essential.”

To address these essentials, we need a goal-based approach in a continuing journey – equipping education to reconfigure the future. This will demand fundamental shifts from control to engagement, from rigidity to agility, and from power to partnership. The first step, as a young student suggested to me, might be getting 50-year-old leaders to acknowledge that they don’t know it all.

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