Teaching Know How

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By Ayesha KhannaJanuary 19, 2013 | The Straits Times

DISRUPTIVE technologies are shattering the notion of a stable career, as well as how we prepare for professional life in the future.

Just a few years ago, Western industrial workers primarily feared the outsourcing of their jobs to Asia. Now automation is as much a threat. Together, the challenge is existential for the average citizen of even modern, advanced societies.

The 19th-century model of edu- cation, which consists of a linear accumulation of credits from elementary school to university, can no longer guarantee success in the 21st century.

That system presumes that our maximum capacity for professional learning occurs between the ages of 17 and 25. But the future of education is one that has no beginning, middle or end: It is life-long learning, training and re-training.

Why is this necessary? First, because breakthrough technologies (such as nano-technology) are spawning new industries for which few existing workers have the requisite skills. Millions of blue- and white-collar workers will need to rapidly get up to speed to take advantage of this.

Second, robotic automation is quickly ascending the value chain, even displacing lawyers and competing with entertainers. (Just witness Blackstone Discovery’s legal search tools, or a Hatsune Miku holographic concert in Japan.)

Third, learning to work with robots and big data will require a mix of creative and analytical thinking that cannot be taught only in a classroom; it is gained from hands-on experience as well. All in all, the job description of the future has yet to be written.

One of the great ironies of today’s global economy is the persistent, even growing, skills gap in both wealthy and developing countries despite widespread unemployment. Increasingly, young people are realising that liberal arts universities may not be the right path for them, according to a new study by Moody’s Investors Service pointing to new economic realities in which post-graduate salaries no longer justify the massive cost of private university edu- cation in the United States.

This paradox is prevalent in Asia as well. According to McKinsey, 40 per cent of Asian employers surveyed cited “lack of skills” as the reason for continuous entry-level vacancies in their firms.

Universities are abysmally inadequate at providing students with the skills for moving from education to employment to entrepreneurship. Even the new wave of massively open online courses provided by start-ups such as Coursera and Udacity suffer from all the failings of academic instruction minus the cost, which is free.

What is needed is a re-orientation of higher education towards skills acquisition that prepares one to be immediately relevant and productive in the economy and society at large.

But we do not have to start from scratch. “Learning by doing” is the animating spirit of the apprenticeship model dating to the European Middle Ages, and has been enshrined in modern vocational institutions in which students acquire skills through mentorship and peer projects. Those were eras 1.0 and 2.0 in vocational systems.

In his insightful new book Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder, economic theorist and provocateur Nassim Taleb specifically cites the importance of such training for overcoming cyclical economic crises. He gives the ex- ample of Switzerland, calling it the most successful society in human history despite lacking a strong central government and having a traditionally low level of university education.

He writes: “Its system, even banking, is based on apprentice- ship models, vocational rather than the theoretical ones. In other words, on techne (crafts and know-how), not episteme (book knowledge, know-what).”

Germany, Finland, Australia and Singapore have been notable leaders in training citizens in skills that are primed for high- demand market sectors. But even here, there are significant short- comings such as in creating large-scale innovation hubs with sufficient numbers of learning centres and expert instructors, and inadequate career counselling leaving graduates with concrete skills but little sense of progression.

Vocational education 3.0 must seize the post-industrial future with a renewed purpose. First, the very term “vocational” needs to be re-branded away from its association with dead-end, low-paying, blue-collar work. Especially since even mechanics and bank tellers are vulnerable to automation, vocational centres must be the venues for learning how to manage robots and analytic products.

Amazon already employs Kiva Systems robots for loading and unloading items in its warehouses. Administering robots should be- come a popular vocational field, one already valued by leading companies.

Second, vocational education can provide all the same critical thinking skills valued in PhDs, which contribute to national innovation. Consider all the experimentation and multi-dimensional skill sets essential to designing new products, from software and graphics engineering to multimedia expertise and using 3-D printers for rapid prototyping. Making sure that vocational institutions are equipped with the latest technologies will empower students to exercise their creative talents.

Third, a much closer partnership is necessary between those who train students and those who employ them, whether in the pub- lic or private sectors. Fields such as infrastructure and construction (accounting for approximately one-tenth of global gross domes- tic product), travel and tourism (approximately another tenth), retail financial services such as banking and mobile communications all represent massive and growing sectors of the world economy.

According to the Asian Development Bank, US$8 trillion (S$9.8 trillion) will be invested by 2020 in Asian infrastructure due to rapid urbanisation, which is driving demand in sectors such as power, transportation and logistics, build- ing engineering and water management, with positive spin-off effects in sectors such as hospitality and retail.

Only close consultation between employers, government agencies at the federal and municipal levels, and vocational institu- tions can generate the stable pipeline of workers trained to build and manage the economic and in- novation hubs Asia needs.

The fourth essential dimension of reinventing vocational education is its digitisation. With Inter- net access spreading rapidly in cities, brick-and-mortar institutes can greatly enhance their reach through e-learning platforms that reach broader segments of the population.

From retail to engineering, in some fields, more than half the content of vocational learning can be delivered online. Demonstration videos, interactive games and simulation can all be used to enhance skills acquisition through repeatable exercises. With the introduction of haptic touch sensors and holographic and gestural interfaces, for example, it could soon be possible for nursing students to practise surgical assistance in life-like environments.

It is critical for today’s vocational centres to begin to migrate and transmit their learning through online media, both as a public good and to maintain their own relevance.

Indeed, precisely because education has gradually shifted from a presumed public good to a private cost burden, there is a major opportunity for vocational institutions to become the faster, cheaper and better route to job readiness.

The stakes are global, reaching far beyond knowledge societies. Around the world, an entire generation – widely referred to as the “youth bulge” – needs useful vocational preparation before it becomes an under-educated social time bomb. For an urbanising, digitising and accelerating world economy, Singapore and its vocational institutions have an opportunity to become leaders in the vocational 3.0 paradigm, bringing great benefit not only to Singapore’s citizenry but to millions beyond as well.

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