Skilled for life


Digital disruption has swept through nearly every sector causing seismic change not just to business processes and customer expectations, but also the skills required by employers to adapt successfully. The speed at which technology has advanced, however, has created a shortage of suitably skilled talent, which Accenture predicts could cost the UK economy as much as £141 billion of GDP growth by 2028.

That figure was calculated before the coronavirus crisis, but the pandemic has only accelerated the need to transform and therefore exacerbated the digital skills gap. People who hadn’t already embraced online shopping or banking apps have had little choice and even the likes of GP consultations have had to adopt online alternatives. Businesses, meanwhile, have been forced to pivot to digital models to survive.

“We’ve seen this huge acceleration towards digital applications, and the skills supporting their use and delivery, both in terms of work and daily life,” says Justin Cooke, chief content and partnerships officer at FutureLearn, a pioneer of social learning and a digital education platform that connects people with the world’s best free online courses.

“Add the wider impacts of COVID-19, including the rise of unemployment, and the significant digital skills shortage that already existed is sure to widen even more.

“That’s the supply side. On the demand side, every organisation in the world has been through the effects of COVID and knows that adapting to the new normal requires new skills and a basic sense of how to continue business as usual in a distributed, remote-working environment. Many companies have had to adjust to being fully online, rapidly developing skills they never had beforehand to make that happen, purely out of need.”

A huge wave of upskilling and reskilling, particularly in high-demand areas like artificial intelligence, data science and cybersecurity, is required to address the skills gap before the wounds to the UK’s productivity and overall economy cut too deep.

According to the World Economic Forum, more than 1 billion jobs, over a third of all jobs globally, are likely to be transformed in some way by technology in the next decade. This means digitalisation is not only driving the creation of new jobs, but new skills for existing jobs.

To achieve the necessary upskilling and reskilling, government, industry and academia must actively work together to embrace edtech solutions and transform learning experiences across the country, with a strong emphasis on lifelong learning.

The traditional notion of an “education” – nursery, primary and secondary, possibly followed by higher education or an apprenticeship, then stopping – is increasingly archaic in a digital age where the pace of innovation and change continues to accelerate.

“Learning is just a complete misnomer now,” says Cooke. “There is an urgent need to reskill or upskill hundreds of millions of people around the world, whether that’s due to economic change or industrial automation, or simply to get them out of poverty, and that need will continue as technology evolves even faster.

Education is ripe for digital transformation and right now edtech is having its Spotify moment

“Going into COVID we saw the demand for adult education was rising significantly, with 14 million new students expected every year from now until 2030, which would require an additional 13 new universities every week. That’s just not going to happen. Ultimately, the future is digital.

“We really see this need for learning to be accessible, which means it must be flexible. It needs to fit into our lives, delivered through whatever device we want to use, whenever we want it, bite sized to fit around our life or work style. And it needs to be really focused on career and progression. That skills element should be front and centre.”

Employees and jobseekers alike require an essential digital toolkit to adapt and develop their skills successfully. FutureLearn, which was founded by the Open University in 2012, has been working with government and industry to build a digital skills stack to fulfil this need. Its courses, supported by the Institute of Coding, were included in a skills toolkit of online resources launched by the Department for Education in response to the pandemic. FutureLearn pull stat

Working with Accenture, the organisation has also helped prepare more than 400,000 young people for the job market with digital training ranging from understanding what artificial intelligence means in the workplace, to digital marketing and web analytics.

FutureLearn is particularly keen to challenge the assumption that all young people are naturally ingrained with the digital skills that businesses want and need. Somebody who uses social media extensively doesn’t necessarily know how to apply those skills in the workplace. Since the start of the lockdown in March, FutureLearn has seen traffic to its platform increase threefold, with the majority of individuals who are interacting with its online resources, many of which are free, already in employment.

“Education is ripe for digital transformation and right now edtech is having its Spotify moment,” says Cooke. “Education has reached a tipping point, a moment of great disaggregation. Supported by partnerships with government and industry, digital platforms can assist students and employees in learning new skills, and help employers urgently tackle their digital skills shortages.

“FutureLearn is leading the charge, breaking down traditional models of education into much more flexible and targeted offers and products to learners, which can be delivered not just at a national but a global scale.

“As the leader in social learning, we’ve built this incredible pedagogy that fits the way people want to learn. The way they consume media, the same principles apply to learning and we combine that with really high-quality content. We have more than 25 per cent of the world’s top universities as partners and some of the biggest brands in the world working with us to create this really engaging education.

“We are one of the fastest-growing, most exciting edtech startups in Europe, and we’re working with governments around the world, as well as businesses, universities and even job seekers, to ensure tech is integrated in the way they approach teaching and upskilling.”

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