A Competitive Economy Requires Lifelong Learning

Chris Yapp

So much has been written about lifelong learning over the past few years that trying to separate the aspiration to lifelong learning from the substance of the concept and creating policy frameworks to guide implementation is increasingly difficult. What I wish to argue is that no country in the world has an education and training system that is fit for the future.

It is a truism that the world is changing rapidly and unpredictably. For any nation, it is recognised that the quality of education and training is key to long-term competitiveness. Far from being a frightening outlook, I believe that humanity is facing a historical opportunity for development on a global scale. In building the Global Information Society, so long as we are bold and imaginative we can create a new renaissance with learning at its heart.

Transition to an information society

Rapid developments in information and communications technologies (ICTs) are facilitating globalisation of an increasing number of industries, of which financial markets and airline travel are two visible examples. This combination of technological development and globalisation is leading to the restructuring of supply chains and the location and organisation of work. What this means for the individual, for communities and indeed for nations is that the minimum skill set needed to earn a living wage in the global economy is growing fast.

In the aftermath of the second world war, the economic reconstruction led to a period of relative stability. For those approaching retirement or now in retirement the conventional life pattern was a linear progression from education to training or apprenticeship, to work and retirement. For a significant proportion of the adult population, the skills acquired in youth and early adult life were adequate to secure employment over a working lifetime. The aims and objectives of public policy were to secure a skill base for full employment.

By the late 1960s, authors such as Peter Drucker in The Age of Discontinuity and Donald Schon in Beyond the Stable State were pointing to the breakdown of this pattern. Certainly, since the oil shocks of the 1970s, we have seen an emerging pattern of parallel and episodic life patterns. In this new model, life starts in education and moves into training and to work, but then to sustain employability individuals need to reskill themselves from time to time.

The half-life of skills

We are witnessing a reduction in the period for which a particular skill set is adequate to sustain productive employment, a reduction in what we might call the shelf-life or half-life of skills. In the ICT industries, this rate of obsolescence is such that the shelf life of some core skills is now 23 years. That is to say, an individual faces 10 bouts of skill re-training to sustain a working career. This is not confined to ICT. In some areas of the biotechnologies and pharmaceutical industries similar or maybe even greater rates of change can be observed.

For those who lose their jobs, we have witnessed an increase in the period of unemployment and the scale of unemployment, certainly in Europe, over the past two decades. Optimism over the creation of a leisure society in the 1970s has been replaced by the co-existence of increasing demands on those in work in terms of hours and an increasing pool of workless.

Alongside these changes we have witnessed changes in society, with increased divorce rates, more single parents, an ageing population and increased female participation in the workplace. While these changes are of major importance, I believe that the reorganisation of work is a factor of greater strategic significance. The days when 5,000 men (it was mostly men) would enter the factory gates and work on a narrow range of tasks have gone. The truth is that the unit size of workplaces has declined and a common factor in new jobs, firms and industries is the significance of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) as engines of economic growth. Big organisations have downsized in terms of direct employment, frequently by 50% or more in many industries and most notably in telecommunications.

Combine this with general trends to casualisation, increased self-employment and portfolio careers and the complexity of the changes is fully apparent. What is clear is that the optimum aim of public policy is now to secure full employability as jobs for life and full employment become harder to sustain.

ICTs and re-engineering education

It is now 50 years since the creation of the first modern programmable computer. What we have learned in that period is important to reflect on before attempting to build a solution. First, ICT blurs the boundaries between what were previously discrete departments within an organisation, and then continues to blur the boundaries between different organisations and then between distinct industries.

Second, when looking at what separates organisations that win with ICT from those disappointed with the outcomes, we see an important pattern. The key benefits of investment in ICTs come from increased organisational effectiveness, doing things differently, rather than just efficiently, and doing things better. This in turn leads to the observation that successful deployment of ICT is about organisational change management, not simply implementing ICT projects.

The buzzword to describe this process is re-engineering. To cope with the turbulence outlined in the above section I believe that the challenge that we face is not to connect every school to the internet, or to get a computer for every teacher or pupil, but rather to re-engineer education to support lifelong learning. What exactly does this imply?

There are four key characteristics of a system of learning, fit for the information society:

  1. The creation of a culture of lifelong learning
  2. Access to lifelong learning on a socially inclusive basis
  3. Content and services to support the lifelong learner
  4. A social context for learning

At its heart, learning is a social and a socialising experience. My own observation is that ICTs greatly supplement and extend good teaching and learning practice. The role of the teacher changes, certainly, but ICTs do not replace the skills of a good teacher. My argument in favour of a socially inclusive approach is because of the need to raise the minimum skill set to cope with the consequences of globalisation.

What I have described in terms of a learning system can best be described as a system of learning on demand. Perhaps a little disingenuously, I could characterise the traditional organisation of education and training as the last bastion of Fordism in the modern economy. A study of on-demand, user-driven systems, such as just-in-time in manufacturing, shows some important characteristics: first, the ability to mass-customise products and services. In the context of the UK, I would describe a move from a national curriculum to a national framework for personal curricula based on international standards.

Second, team-working in teaching and learning. I foresee groups of teachers, lecturers and paraprofessionals working together to create learning environments optimised for individuals facilitated by ICTs.

Third, a move from supply-side quality measures to user-driven quality measures. The current examination systems and quality frameworks are there, I would argue, to meet the needs of the system rather than those of the learner.

Finally, administration is built-in, not bolted-on, to the core processes of teaching and learning. ICT can be of particular benefit here.

Community learning networks and a National Grid of Knowledge

If we are to apply ICTs appropriately to learning then what I foresee is the emergence of community learning networks. In these, the boundaries between the different social institutions of learning, such as schools, colleges and public libraries, are blurred by the technologies to create access networks for learning on demand from cradle to grave at the community level. I believe that this community approach can overcome the problems of the loneliness of the long-distance learner and create an environment for increased access to learning.

The problem arises when trying to scale up the community learning network to provide universal service at the national level. Four years ago, in trying to develop an approach to building community learning networks, I came to the conclusion that we need to see the information superhighway as a set of information utilities, and to see the universal provision of this new infrastructure as an intellectual challenge similar to the provision of water, gas and electricity networks.

What I believe is needed is the creation of knowledge utilities. The concept of a National Grid for Knowledge provides the policy framework, a means to facilitate the sustainable growth of community learning networks on a large scale. Experience from other utilities demonstrates the need to deploy both public and private investment and to build open and competitive markets for provision, which I believe to be desirable goals in an open and democratic society. How might a national grid or knowledge utility work? The conceptual model is outlined below.

A utility can generally be separated into three core components: the customer premises, the distribution network and the power stations. We also have experience of the regulation and development of utilities, so the policies for competition, conditional access and vertical integration, for instance, are well understood.

The customer premises for a knowledge utility would inevitably start with schools, colleges and libraries, though there is no reason why home and other access points could not be developed. The distribution network needed to cover urban and rural areas can be composed of multiple technologies such as fibre optics, satellite and microwave links.

What this creates is an electronic distribution channel for learning content, which in this model is supplied by learning power stations.

It has been argued that this will ultimately be solved by the internet making government policy unnecessary. However, in discussions with publishers, broadcasters, museums and galleries I have found that the economics of the development of interactive learning materials, particularly the up-front costs, are very different and higher than for traditional materials.

We have observed with ICTs in education that there is a vicious circle that needs to be overcome. In particular, you cannot justify the investment in infrastructure without interactive learning materials, but you also cannot justify the investment in learning materials without an adequate infrastructure.

I believe that an entirely bottom-up, market-driven approach via the internet is unlikely to break this vicious circle and to deliver universal access to learning rapidly enough.

Learning Power Stations on the National Grid

In the way that the electricity grid is supplied electricity from various sources, such as coal-fired, nuclear and hydroelectric power stations, different computer servers would provide different services to the national education grid.

For instance, different servers could support online dictionaries, virtual museums and galleries, interactive encyclopaedias together with courseware, teacher notes, and access to virtual environments. Alongside these, administrative systems, including assessment, accreditation and planning tools, would provide a rich and supported learning environment.

There are a number of issues that need to be addressed in developing the processes and business models for educational content in the digital era. The creation of multiple media and multimedia environments is frequently described in terms of technology convergence, but my own experience is that it looks more like a collision of different worlds.

The skills needed to create materials in the new digital environments come from different industries with different values, behaviours and processes. Film, music, animation, publishing, broadcasting and the software industries have very different business processes and economics. Attitudes to authors and publishers rights and the economics of each industry are very different.

It seems to me that the pace at which we can create groups with a digital culture and develop appropriate processes for the new media will determine the pace at which the grid can deliver educational value-added rather than the provision of the infrastructure.

The added values of electronic learning

Before the printing press, human-kind had a largely oral and visual tradition. The transmission and development of stories and music evolved in the telling and performance; there was no definitive version. With the coming of the printed word, the film and the music disk we have seen a move to a product that is complete and definitive. We have the book, the song, the film. We moved from an evolving to a fixed entity. With the new technologies I believe that we are creating a new hybrid that can have both a fixed and a developing component.

This is important because in looking at the development of an electronic equivalent, there is frequently an assumption that a complete product has to be created to be useful. In fact, one of the ways in which the world wide web differs from the book is that both as a whole and in parts it is an evolving medium.

In addition, with a book there is a clear separation between the author and the reader, but in the new media the reader can be a participant in the creation, rather than just a recipient. It is this that has a major part to play in the creation of personalised learning and the empowerment of the learner.

None of this implies the death of the book. For me the book is still the most successful example of information technology in human history and probably will remain so for many years, certainly for the linear novel. We have already seen that in reference works and in non-linear materials, CD-ROMs and internet technologies have advantages over the printed book.

Nevertheless, the real issue for those who wish to create power stations is to identify the key educational value-added features of the new technologies that need to be exploited so that a CD-ROM or website is more than just an electronic book. I have already referred to the technologies as participative. In the trials I have observed, the educational value of the new learning technologies comes from giving the learner tools to manipulate material and create their own contexts for learning as much as from contexts created by the author.

It is also commonly reported that individual learning styles and preferences can be accommodated by the new technologies. Consider, for instance, the ideas embodied in neuro-linguistic programming (NLP). In NLP three clear ways of learning are defined: some people process information better from auditory, others from visual and others from kinaesthetic sources. Imagine a text on a computer as opposed to in book form. One advantage of the digital medium is that a visual learner can read the book in its paper or electronic form, and an auditory learner can use technologies for turning the text into digital voice output.

Secondly, consider some of the difficult concepts in science and mathematics. The creation of rich simulations with which the learner interacts can help abstract concepts come alive. We know from the biographies of some great scientists that they were often visual thinkers. For some people the formulaic notation of mathematics (and indeed music) can be quite hard. The ability to create visual representations of mathematics can help overcome some difficulties. Einstein, for instance, was a visual thinker. The development of chaos theory and complexity theory has been greatly assisted by the visualisation of mathematical ideas.

A major implication: increasing markets in adult education

Around the world, there are many patterns for state and private provision of education and training for children and adults, and I do not claim that this will be replaced by a converged model. However, it seems to me that the issues of competitiveness and globalisation will cause a realignment of public and private provision. It is also likely that national governments, faced with difficult tax bases, the need to raise minimum standards and the need to improve performance across the board, will find it necessary to focus public resources on children to ensure that an increasing proportion of their citizens can compete in the new economy.

Above school-leaving age, governments will seek to create markets in adult provision from both public and private learning suppliers. My own belief is that we will increasingly see a move from funding the institutions to funding the learner. This will facilitate the creation of learning markets as well as support learner-driven quality. The idea of individual learning accounts and learning banks is increasingly widely discussed, and smart cards for learning, carrying money, learning plans and records of achievement have also been suggested. If we are to create a culture of lifelong learning, the idea of a visa or passport for learning based on a personal learning account seems to me both desirable and practical.

A great challenge is to exploit new technologies to create high-quality learning materials. The new technologies are blurring the boundaries between the arts and the sciences in a way that we have not seen since the Renaissance. The creativity of many British media companies has the potential to create a new export industry in educational content because every country is facing the same educational challenges as the UK. This is what Lord Puttnam described as the Hollywood of Education.

Re-engineering teaching

Of central importance to the whole debate is a view of the skills and education needed to survive and thrive in the new economy.

We will not see optimal improvements unless the re-engineering of the educational infrastructure and curriculum occurs alongside the re-engineering of the teaching profession. My own view is that we will see fewer, more highly rewarded master teachers and an increasing range of paraprofessionals working in teams. This will be hard, costly and time-consuming but ultimately, without it, I do not believe that we will see a real leap in the performance of our educational systems.


Chris Yapp

Chris Yapp

Chris Yapp is ICL Fellow for Lifelong Learning. He has worked on the National Grid for Learning and the ICL Cyberskills programme and is currently involved in developing ICL's approach to the emerging information society, in particular, the use of ICT in education and training.