Secret Lecturer: Digitalisation dilemma

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Artificial intelligence (AI) was a key theme at last month’s educational technology show, Bett 2019, in London. A busy timetable kept me away but seeing an online press release about one product, in particular, made me wish I’d gone. It described one of the centrepieces of the four-day event – a ‘living’ AI classroom with pupils showing how a learning and teaching platform installed in Streetly Academy, Sutton Coldfield (one of scores of schools and eight FE colleges) used AI and neuroscience to help improve their learning – and allow teachers more time to actually teach.

There were some quite bold claims in the release, but a 30% increase in pupil understanding of maths, English and science and an average six hours saved per teacher each week largely in marking and planning peaked my interest. 

Is AI an answer to the problem of GCSE resits?

Is AI a partial solution to the bottleneck produced by mass GCSE resits at college and the consequent pressure on FE teaching time? Time will tell. In a sector under great financial pressure, AI is a typical example of new and innovative technology that can provide some answers.

Bett always brings together the latest most innovative, forward-thinking developments in teaching technology and never fails to come up with something mind-blowing when I’ve attended. Britain is, after all, still supposed to be one of the leading nations in the field. But things could change. 

The lack of young people studying the technology – and the other subjects that make up STEM (science, engineering and maths) and entry to careers in manufacturing and heavy industry – is a worry. Research by the National Stem Learning Centre, based at York University, shows 89% of UK Stem-related businesses have found it difficult to recruit staff with the necessary skills over the past year. The shortfall is now more than 173,000 workers – an average of 10 unfilled roles per business. 

How to reverse the trend of diminishing digital skills

The big question is how long will UK businesses be able to afford a current £1.5bn a year to fill the gap in a workforce suffering a diminishing digital skills base; it’s a huge price to pay for extra recruitment including hiring at lower levels, temporary staff, inflated salaries and extra training.

In a report, last September the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) said 28% of graduates in England had jobs that did not require a degree, the second highest percentage in the world behind Japan and twice as much as the average for OECD member countries. 

Speaking at last November’s annual AoC conference, Andreas Schleicher, OECD Director for Education and Skills, singled out the danger of UK industry falling behind in digital skills unless lifelong learning takes centre stage in our businesses and education sector.

‘Safer as a technician than a machine operator”

“Digitalisation is seeing routine tasks disappearing and technology-intensive tasks increasing. Exposure affects some people much more than others – you are much safer these days as a technician rather than as a machine operator. Your skills and the vocational base has a huge influence on your future.”

He found people often feared digitalisation as a risk to their jobs, and yet in a digitalised workplace “you are far more likely to keep up to date and become a really good problem-solver”. Conversely, workers could quickly get out of touch if their employer did not embrace digitalisation wherever possible.

“The more interconnected our economies become, the less money we will make in the actual production stage but more money during the pre-production stage, such as in research and development, design, and post-production in the service and marketing phases.”

One in five workers digitally workplace-ready

Britain’s workforce is still better placed than those in many countries, says Schleicher, but we dare not remain complacent. Only one in five UK workers are prepared for the world we live in today. People argue back that young people are all digital natives and so the problem is solved. Yet still, only 40% of 16- to 24-year-olds are digitally prepared for today’s world. In Singapore, for instance, the figure for that age group is 66%. Britain and other European countries are lagging behind because digitalisation has got so much faster elsewhere. The key, says Schleicher, is investing in people’s skills continuously across their lifecycle.

The question is how to foster lifelong learning. “Learning is the easy part; it’s much harder to unlearn and relearn – being open to novelty and new ways of thinking. We have to be willing to keep learning in the belief that learning will transform our lives.” 

This where FE colleges have a key role to play. We trust in degrees yet employers are desperate for skills; they are now much better at figuring out what digital and other skills potential recruits actually have at interview rather than believing they will quickly pick up the skills they lack.

UK degree structure discourages lifelong learning

In fact, England is a good example of a system heavily biased towards traditional universities and entrance exams to universities reflecting school priorities. We also have a degree structure that discourages people from learning throughout their lives if all that matters is a formal degree.

But things are changing. In Finland and Sweden, learning has become a very granular model where people decide how what, when and where they learn. Some 40% of Sweden’s workforce in participating in sustaining learning that is not just the current job based but helps progress their career. 

This is where we as colleges have to lobby even harder for recognition of our strength in building skills in a granular way. It’s about changing the mentality of schools, universities and politicians to embrace the FE approach to lifelong learning, and publicising the success stories from sustained learning in Scandinavia and elsewhere, the new T-levels, and the national apprenticeship drive.

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