August 29, 2014

European report on the future of learning

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Redecker, C. et al. (2011) The Future of Learning: Preparing for Change Seville Spain: Institute for Prospective Technological Studies, JRC, European Commission

What the report is about

From the preface:

To determine how education and training policy can adequately prepare learners for life in the future society, there is a need to envisage what competences will be relevant and how these will be acquired in 2020-2030. The report identifies key factors for change that emerge at the interface of the visions painted by different stakeholder groups and arranges them into a descriptive vision of the future of learning in 2020-2030. In a second step, the report discusses future solutions to pending challenges for European Education and Training systems and outlines policy options

The vision

From the executive summary:

Personalisation, collaboration and  informal learning will be at the core of learning in the future.  The increased pace of change will bring new skills and competences to the fore, in particular generic, transversal and cross-cutting skills….

With the evolution of ICT, personalised learning and individual mentoring  will become a reality and teachers/trainers will need to be trained to exploit the available resources and tools to support tailor-made learning pathways and experiences which are motivating and engaging, but also efficient, relevant and challenging…

Most importantly, traditional E&T institutions  – schools and universities, vocational and adult training providers – will need to reposition themselves in the emerging learning landscape . They will need to experiment with new formats and strategies for learning and teaching to be able to offer relevant, effective and high quality learning experiences in the future. 

Policy implications

The visions presented in this report are not necessarily new or radical….. but to reach the goals of personalised, collaborative and informalised learning, holistic changes need to be made (including, among others: curricula, pedagogies,assessment, teacher training, leadership) and mechanisms need to be put in place which make flexible and targeted lifelong learning a reality and support the recognition of informally acquired skills.

Some of the challenges the report tries to address

  • an aging labour market in Europe
  • need for a higher proportion of knowledge workers and decline in jobs requiring minimal education or training
  • high youth unemployment associated with lack of appropriate educational qualifications and lack of jobs for unskilled/trained workers
  • immigration and multiculturalism

Implications for education and training

  • technology enabled lifelong learning (from cradle to grave, any time anywhere)
  • shift of focus from institutions to individuals: Institutions will need to re-create themselves as resilient systems with flexible, open, and adaptive infrastructures, which engage all citizens and re-connect with society
  • a shift from public to private funding based on individual rather than institutional needs: the responsibility for the provision of individual education will increasingly move from the state to the individual and family groups. While state involvement in early years’ educational provision will remain central, the influence of the private sector on curriculum and policy will continue to grow.

Comments

First, this is a very important, interesting and stimulating report. It raises fundamental questions about the nature of learning and of the institutions that support learning. It warrants careful reading in full by anyone concerned about the future of learning.

As the report itself notes, ‘the visions in this report are not necessarily new’, but its recommendations are a major challenge – indeed I would say threat – for existing educational institutions, and in particular, for universities.

There are parts of this report with which I strongly agree, and other parts where I think there are some fundamental misunderstandings about the nature of learning, particularly at a post-secondary level. I agree with setting an ambitious and broad general vision for the future of learning – it’s just that I disagree with or don’t like some elements of the vision.

What I agree with in the report

I agree completely with the need to make learning more relevant, more engaging for young people, and more heavily dependent on the intelligent use of technology for teaching and learning. Lifelong learning is essential, and so is the need for major institutional change to adapt to the learning needs of the 21st century. We are heading for disaster socially and economically by failing to meet the needs of young people who are increasingly being shut out of the labour market at a time when the workforce is aging. Part of the reason for this is external: globalization, and a particularly short-sighted and uncontrolled version of capitalism. But part is also due to the failure of our institutions to adapt to the changes in society, in particular the technological revolution and the changing nature of our students, and thus far too many young people drop out or underqualify because formal education is not seen as relevant or motivating.

More specifically I agree that technology offers the potential for the personalization of learning and this is highly desirable but the reality of making that happen on a mass scale is another matter. Collaborative learning is also critical for the future, but although I accept the importance of informal learning, I will argue later that it does not meet all learning needs.

What I disagree with or missed in the report

The first disagreement is with the assumption that all levels of education will require the same changes and the same vision. First we need a multiplicity of visions because predicting the future is fraught with difficulties and it would be foolish to put all our eggs in one basket. Also there is not a universal set of needs for learning for the future. There will need to be different goals and different solutions. I would prefer to have seen a document that looked at different markets or needs for education and training, that dealt with a diversity of learning needs.

The second is more an omission. The report is very weak on the infrastructure or organizational changes needed to implement the vision. For instance, take the personalization of learning and particularly the goal of individual mentoring. How would this be organized and paid for? It is one thing to set a vision; it’s quite another to find sustainable ways to pay for it. How would or should institutions respond to this? I understand that the important thing about a vision is to define it, but there also has to be some suggestions about how it could be realised.

Although I fully agree with the need to emphasise the development of ‘soft’ skills such as problem-solving, communication, critical thinking, reflection, I disagree that these are generic, transversal skills (what an ugly Europeanization of English). Problem-solving is not the same in medicine as in business, for example. Not only is the knowledge base (the information needed to solve a problem) different, but so is the method (one is science-based and deductive, the other is more intuitive and with more willingness to accept risk). These skills need to be embedded within a specific domain (although I do agree that we need more interdisciplinary studies, which is not the same as developing transversal skills).

Lastly, I do wish people would realise that there is a difference between scientific or academic knowledge and everyday knowledge. Academic learning is about generalization, abstraction, hypothesising, testing and critical thinking. It is about questioning and challenging, based on logic and evidence. I am not arguing that this is more important than everyday knowledge, but it is different and there is a strong need for academic learning, because it takes us into areas that would not imaginable otherwise. The report does not deal with this issue, assuming that all learning needs in the future will be the same.

And this brings me to my concern about an over-emphasis on informal learning. Informal learning will be increasingly important in the future, but on its own it will not meet all learning needs. Learners often need a structure and guidance, feedback and assessment, to know what standards of learning are expected, etc. This means the demand for formal learning will still be there in the future (although its provision may/should be very different). The real challenge is whether we should combine both formal and informal approaches or whether they will be more effective if kept separate. This decision has major implications for how our institutions should be organized. (It would also help if we had a less ambiguous and more detailed understanding of what we mean when we talk about formal and informal learning respectively).

Above all, this report should force our universities to think very carefully about what their core values and beliefs are, to what extent these can or should be modified to meet changing needs, but also what they should not give up or lose, because those values or principles are critical for a free, open and knowledge-based society based on reason and evidence.

Conclusion

Despite these criticisms, this is an excellent report. It should stimulate a really useful debate about the future of learning, and how educational institutions need to change, or whether new models of organization that may not be institutionalized will need to be developed. Although it is set in a European context, the issues it raises are common across developed countries and also relevant for developing countries. I just wish it had come up with some concrete proposals or models for how these forms of learning that they are proposing would be established and sustained.

Note

For those of you with a LinkedIn account there is a discussion of this report at: http://www.linkedin.com/groups/Future-Learning-3960155.S.78957225?view=&gid=3960155&type=member&item=78957225&trk=eml-anet_dig-b_nd-pst_ttle-cn


 

 

 

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