Lifelong Skills Development: Signature of Quality Education for the Digital Future

Published on 9th July 2019

Drops of skills in an ocean of academic qualifications

The world’s largest and deepest ocean, home to the unrivalled Mariana Trench sitting along the cataclysmic Ring of Fire, and the breeding ground for powerful hurricanes, the Pacific Ocean is illustrative of the growing challenges facing formal education in this evolving digital era. There is growing evidence that formal education has been an enterprise in mass production of academic qualifications at the expense of the work-ready skills needed to adapt to the rapidly evolving era of digital transformation. Allegorically, educational models which are lean on Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) yield a sea of qualifications with hardly any meaningful stock of solution-oriented skill sets for the marketplace. Metaphorically sitting on the “Ring of Fire” is any country which is unprepared to equip her growing youth population with relevant and resilient skills, for which she will have to contend with the fiery consequences of a youth bulge. Woe to such a country, because the unstoppable wave of labour market transformation borne out of the digital revolution will be nothing less than a sweeping hurricane.

The global garment of a digital destiny

The Pacific Ocean gives a shared oceanic identity to the small island states whose populations are in the order of thousands. Not spared the common challenge of a growing skills gap, the Pacific island states responded by holding high-level discussions at the Inaugural Pacific Skills Summit on “Innovation and Sustainable Skills for the Blue Pacific” at the University of the South Pacific, Suva, Fiji, 25 – 26 June 2019. The universal observation was that if left unchecked, formal education without emphasis on developing talents and skill sets will leave the countries deprived of the key workforce required to adapt to the unstoppable wave of digital transformation and the eventual Fourth Industrial Revolution. On a special invitation by the Australia Pacific Training Coalition (APTC) and the University of the South Pacific (USP) to be a speaker, I attended and presented on a systems approach to nurturing skills for the digital future. I was also a panelist in the session on “Going Digital: Pacific Skills and Literacy for Thriving in a Digital World” (follow #PacificSkills2019 on Twitter for more on the summit).

Examining the subtle geography of the Pacific island states and the mutuality they share, I could not resist beginning my message with a quote attributed to Martin Luther Jr. on a “single garment of destiny”: We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Despite their 1963 origin, these words are as relevant now as then. They fittingly describe the compelling mutuality in which countries are interwoven by a borderless digital destiny, each an integral fabric of the global garment. The countries in Africa also need to learn from this mutuality and focus on the big picture while utilising comparative advantages. Like Africa, the Pacific region has enormous natural resource potential and a growing youth population.

Digitalisation promises to open new frontiers for innovative ways of integrating nation-states into the global value chain. Rapid evolution in computing is already influencing a new distributed networking paradigm for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. As a key example, this evolution is already dimming the appeal of cloud computing while illuminating the more attractive capabilities of fog computing using distributed devices. I believe that  the new era requires learners to reach beyond the threshold level (digital literacy) and move on to the arena of consummate digital experience, and from limited territorial citizens to what I call “borderless global netizens.” Influence in the new era will draw much energy from a democratised online environment as technology converges otherwise distant physical horizons. Based on this observation, the “islandisation” of the Pacific economy and any inward-looking protectionism would be hostile to regional competitiveness.

Progressive education and leadership legacy in a new era 

Boasting of a third of the global youth suicide rate, the Pacific region is representative of the foremost responsibility for the welfare of the youth which current political leaders must bear. Adequate and relevant skills development for the youth is part of the enduring legacy and intergenerational responsibility of modern leaders.

The International Labour Organization’s Global Commission on the Future of Work, keen on ensuring social justice in the 21st-century labour market, recently distinguished universal entitlement to lifelong learning as its foremost recommendation. There is a broad consensus that the workforce of the future will increasingly be under the powerful influence of four main drivers: technology, demographics, globalisation, and climate change.

Dynamic adaptation of skill sets, labour mobility, and changing labour market demographics are key points to address in the face of these new realities. The Education sector is poised to experience the most dramatic impacts as technological convergence takes root in the era of Convergence 2.0 – in which engineering innovations have to learn earnestly from the efficiency of biological systems. The preceding era, Convergence 1.0, also realised the critical contribution of the education sector through research in universities and research labs which produced solutions that seamlessly integrate physics and engineering.

Quality education for the digital future must, therefore, equip youth with work-ready skills which are also adaptable and transferable. To be viable and sustainable, proposed skills development models must effectively assure youth of active participation in decision making, long-term partnerships, and the power of self-determination. The so-called gig economy is here with us, effectively reducing the appeal and era of permanent jobs with permanent name tags on office doors. Anticipatory skills development should be a key strategy of modern educational governance models. There is an urgent need to institute a new culture of regular, participatory, adaptive, strategic and predictive skills development models to replace the old culture of sporadic, exclusivist, rigid, short-lived and reactive responses to changes in the global technology marketplace.

Privileges and penalties of engagement models in a new era

In the face of any transformation, managing trade-offs is an essential coping strategy. Several privileges and penalties will accompany the foreseen, sure and sweeping hurricanes of the digital transformation. Notably, technological innovation is the only pillar of global competitiveness which does not run into diminishing returns. Technology is neither an absolute friend nor an absolute enemy to the future of work but is more to the point a frenemy; it all depends on the coping strategy and response to its impacts. Adaptability is key, as is the growing importance of economic complexity in adapting to market changes and labour mobility.

New and exciting jobs utilising skills in data science, the creative industry, and even hospitality are among the immediate beneficiaries of technological advances. Perspectives will have to change as talent migration becomes routine. Governments will have to engage new perspectives on the diaspora and brain drain in order to tap into their rich skills and talent pool irrespective of physical distance. The hyperconnected digital world is not limited by physical borders. Governments must regard the diaspora as a legitimate component of any robust homeland development equation, their influence amplified by innovative engagement models. They need to establish institutions and policies which promote borderless collaboration and create viable incentives for tapping into the skills of the diaspora, e.g. through virtual collaboration platforms. Accounting for the diaspora’s contribution as a mere column of remittances in the GDP table is insufficient.

The liberating elixir of lifelong learning and a full dosage of quality education

Lifelong learning is the liberating elixir, a must-have daily dosage for remaining resourceful, relevant, adaptive, and resilient in this fast-evolving era. Solution-oriented skill sets are, rightly so, the axis of transformation and fast lane to reaching the homegrown critical mass required to achieve locally impactful and sustainable development. The digital transformation can be seen to be lowering the barriers to entry into the global arena of knowledge-led influence. While this observation gives hope for societal transformation through quality education for the digital future, it challenges governments to enhance efforts to bridge the wide digital divide in most developing countries. The conclusion to my presentation at the Inaugural Pacific Skills Summit carries a key reflective message for all stakeholders in the education sector as they seek to harmonise standards. Closer home, it conveys key lessons for Kenya’s ongoing education reforms and the entire East African bloc of which the country is a key member. 

Going digital also implies going borderless, but key public policy questions on ensuring a just, inclusive, and sustainable transition in the fast-evolving labour market of the 21st century must, for policy coherence and operational integrity, be addressed collectively by all the governments.

By Nashon Adero

The writer, a lecturer at Taita Taveta University, was an invited speaker and panellist representing Africa at the Inaugural Pacific Skills Summit held at the University of the South Pacific in Suva, Fiji, 25-26 June 2019.

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