The democratisation of learning

Written by: Alexa Robertson Posted: 05/02/2021

BLDigital_learningWith PwC predicting that 30% of jobs in the Channel Islands could be made obsolete over the next 15 years, organisations – as well as the workforce at all levels – are turning to online learning to reskill for the future. And technology is increasing access for all

Nothing chivvies along technological reform, it turns out, quite like a global pandemic. While transforming the day-to-day work of many, the widespread, unceremonious nature of Covid-19 and its consequences have also thrust learning and development into the spotlight. And many believe this is no bad thing.

By March of 2020, only weeks after the real threat of the virus had begun to be understood, online learning platforms were already seeing a rise in demand for online courses – amid a workforce clearly conscious of a rapidly changing skills demand.

“What we noticed was a change in the intensity of learning and a higher certification rate,” says Mike Freerick, CEO of Alison, a free online learning platform that to date has been used by 18 million learners worldwide. 

“From our statistics, we could see that in March and April 2020, people were genuinely concerned about reskilling, and what it meant for them. A lot of people understood that things were going to change, and change profoundly.”

Access all areas 

While online learning is nothing new – figures from the Open University place its economic impact between 2018 and 2019 at £2.77bn – the pandemic has forced organisations and learning providers into delivering learning in an efficient, effective, virtual way.

“There’s a lot of brilliant content available for free online, but the pandemic and lockdown has really increased the volume of what’s available,” says Leyla Yildirim, Chief Strategy Officer at PwC Channel Islands. 

“Maybe in the past, things that providers would have charged for, they’ve been willing to make available for free. We simply haven’t been able to do any classroom learning, so we’ve had to get good at delivering learning in a virtual way that makes it as interesting as possible.”

Lucy Kirby, Director of the Digital Greenhouse in Guernsey, describes this as a ‘democratisation’ of learning platforms. 

“What we’re seeing is that people from all walks of life, and from all over the world, are able to access qualifications, experiences, platforms and content that’s peer-led,” she says. 

“We’re seeing a real rise in platforms that enable people to learn from each other socially, as well as through formal programmes and formal courses. 

“The technology is becoming a really positive, facilitative platform, where people can share their learning. It’s as much about the real-life application of the skills as it is about the theoretical content.”

Profile pictures 

Improved technology and free online resources are providing a new gateway to knowledge for many. At the same time, advancements in data collection and analysis are enabling people at all stages of their career to understand their key strengths – and how they can be best harnessed for the future jobs market.

Alison – which offers a free service for professional and psychometric testing – has allowed for a more accurate picture of the “changing personality of the population”.

Freerick says: “Using that sort of data, with good intent, allows us to look at differences between skillsets in different regions of the world, and what sort of behaviour or capabilities are in demand there.

"We can advise on what peoples’ innate strengths are and look at what types of careers they might be best suited for. By providing that type of high-value skills analysis to everybody for free, it’s opening up a new chapter of people being able to empower themselves online.”

A hive of ideas

One of the undisputed benefits of technology – its ability to connect networks of people globally – is also helping forge a path towards a more collaborative, supportive and peer-driven type of learning. 

The Hive Learning Network is a peer-learning network aimed at connecting professionals across industries in order to share ideas, solve problems and facilitate more effective learning opportunities.

“A lot of research shows that the majority of people learn best in a peer environment where they’re able to access higher-order questioning, and higher-order thinking,” says Kirby. 

“In the Hive network, they’re really diving into the material, asking each other questions, thinking about how it can be applied and creating an experiential learning environment. It’s very similar to learning on the job.

“The technology brings people together with bite-sized content and draws you into good learning habits where you’re able to jump in and just spend a couple of moments each day picking up a small piece of learning and discussing it through the application.”

Kirby says this type of learning, along with advancements in technology, is a ‘game-changer’ for the Channel Islands, where previous professional development often required leaving the island and proved costly.

Moulding future talent

As part of PwC’s Hive Hack initiative, the idea is being extended to some of the islands’ youngest learners, with the aim of ensuring the next generation has access to learning that will be relevant for a new-look jobs market.

Launched in Northern Ireland, the programme has already been rolled out in Jersey and is scheduled to be launched in Guernsey in early 2021.

“What we wanted to do was go into schools and teach some of the digital skills we felt were essential for kids at various stages,” says Yildirim. “It’s about that readiness for the world of work.

“It also involved teaching teachers. A lot of teachers can be uncomfortable teaching technology subjects. They feel a little bit out of their comfort zone, so it’s about helping them become comfortable with these topics and to teach them. You’re leaving a legacy there of teaching staff who are able to continue the work.

“It’s not enough for us at PwC just to upskill our own staff. We need to be working in a community where we’ve got that pipeline of talent coming through. 

“As one of the biggest employers in the Channel Islands, it’s very important for us to be investing in the future.”

Into the unknown

While opportunities for free, easily accessible and effective learning are continuing to open up, how can organisations – and their employees – best prepare for a future in which at least some of the key skills required are not yet known?

For the Channel Islands in particular, Yildirim says there must be a focus on changing requirements within financial services, the biggest private sector employer in the region.

“Most of what we do in financial services is around managing and processing data,” she says. “We think financial services is, for that reason, one of the sectors that will be most dramatically impacted by technology change.”

She adds: “We can see very easily how that data management and processing might be either completely automated or replaced with artificial intelligence. We’re starting to see that already and I think that’s going to become even more heightened.”

While it’s a significant cause for concern and one that Yildirim says requires urgent action at both a local and national level, there is also an opportunity to tap into the Channel Islands’ strong reputation in order to create new, high-value opportunities.

“We already have a great reputation as a trusted jurisdiction around financial services,” she says. “Potentially we could extend that into data services, such as data security and cyber. I also think the Channel Islands could potentially become known globally as a centre for data ethics.  

“It’s about playing to our strengths and supplementing that with deep digital skills. We have to be innovative and come up with new products and ideas that will differentiate us from other jurisdictions. The onus on all of the stakeholder groups – government, business, education and the third sector – is to really get behind this with a sense of urgency.”

There is also, says Yildirim, a misconception that in the future everyone will need to be coders or programmers. What will be more beneficial, she believes, is a solid grasp of how technology can best be harnessed.

“Of course we’re going to need technical specialists – people who can design and build technologies specific to your business – but for the most part, what we’re really looking for is a workforce that’s comfortable with and understands the potential of technology. That’s where we can start to see how technology can fix problems and service clients’ needs.

“We cannot envisage what technology we’ll all be using in 10 years’ time, but if we’ve got the right mindset and agility to adapt to whatever tech comes our way, that’s going to serve us extremely well.”

Thrive to survive

Helen Hatton, Director, Regulatory, BDO Sator Regulatory Consulting, says the Channel Islands have a history of adaptability that should serve the region well in the coming years. 

But, she adds, the focus must be on making learning accessible and fluid. “The business model of Jersey and Guernsey has adapted well to the challenges since the global financial crisis of 2008 and demonstrated its resilience,” she says. 

“In a global knowledge economy, investing in people is more important than ever before. Jersey and Guernsey need a provider that understands the business models and people but brings global thought leaders to the discussion.” 

• This feature was first published in the Digital Edition of Businesslife in December 2020

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