eLearning must reflect the knowledge economy

There are new, excellent ways of looking at education. E-learning is an accessible way of doing this. Picture: iStock
There are new, excellent ways of looking at education. E-learning is an accessible way of doing this. Picture: iStock

Google Assistant can now conduct telephonic conversations using artificial intelligence (AI) technology to mimic human-to-human interactions.

What does that tell you about the future?

What does that tell you about the skills you need in a world where robotics, AI and algorithms are trumping humans at, well, being human? What does it tell us about the future of learning?

Undoubtedly and unequivocally human beings need to “up” their game.

As things stand right now 41% of all work activities in South Africa are susceptible to automation, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF).

In Ethiopia the figure stands at 44%, in Nigeria at 46% and 52% in Kenya.

By 2020, 39% of core skills required across all occupations in South Africa will be notably different.

In other words: If you don’t acquire 39% new skills then you risk being stranded in the 41% of occupations that will go the way of automation.

And it’s not just blue collar jobs at risk, this technological revolution poses a very real threat to executive and managerial positions in finance, transportation, insurance, retail and administration.

This is a global workforce shakedown of seismic proportions and it requires an appropriate response from universities and business schools alike to provide the sort of Fourth Industrial Revolution know-how required to stay relevant in a fast-paced, global and skills-hungry world.

To get this right, higher education institutions cannot continue to teach essential skills using the same methods rolled out 50, 30 or even just five years ago.

Teaching future skills requires a future-focused approach; and by this I don’t simply mean replicating the content of old on a new, digital platform.

It is advisable to opt for an online approach which starts with the recognition that eLearning isn’t the only answer.

Death by PowerPoint is not, in my opinion, the solution, nor do I believe it is the direction in which executive education is moving.

Instead a multi-layered and guided collaborative learning approach would be more favourable.

In practice this talks to a more learner-centred and interactive effort which includes peer-to-peer learning engagements and lecturer-led live discussions.

It’s in these digital discussions where the interaction so embedded in the on-campus process can unfold, ensuring that students have access to the interactions needed to stretch them but via a convenient eLearning channel.

This design has been carefully thought out and addresses some criticisms levelled at business schools around the world for being too myopic in their approach to using and teaching technology.

But we would take this argument one step further, stressing that the manner in which new skills are taught is as important as the core competencies.

Human skills require a human touch

Consider for a moment the skills which are going to define the next era: human skills, unique and complex problem solving, emotional intelligence, social quotient, creativity, entrepreneurial ability, life-long learning and, for organisations, the ability to adapt, to be agile, organisationally aware and culturally sensitive.

Do you learn these skills tucked away in an isolated online world, based in different countries and individualised settings? No.

While the workforce is increasingly global, mobile and flexible, learning shouldn’t be this isolated.

To absorb knowledge and ideas students need interaction, and mastering these new skills requires that students interact and debate constructively in a safe space.

Education should be a way to connect, not to isolate.

In short, undirected learning just won’t cut it: you need interactive, learner-centred, guided and collaborative learning which is affordable and effective due to its digital nature, but which maintains a highly individualised approach.

In other words eLearning needs to mirror the new world: a human touch merged with a technological, digital and cross-border system which develops the full suite of skills needed in the future world of work.

An imperative for Africa

This is particularly true of the African context, where the WEF tells us that employers are already bemoaning the impact of inadequately skilled workers as a major constraint to their businesses.

In fact, 41% of companies in Tanzania are already feeling this pinch, 30% in Kenya, 9% in South Africa and 6% in Nigeria, says the WEF.

For the continent this approach is going to be the best way to impart skills quickly and effectively, to create a globally relevant and skilled African workforce.

This is all the more important if you consider the WEF’s projection that, by 2030, sub-Saharan Africa will be home to a quarter of the world’s under-25 population.

As business schools we have a responsibility to find the right recipe to upskill the continent and GIBS, as the number one business school in Africa, recognises the need to be a first mover in this area while continuously upholding the very best standards in terms of quality of education and relevance of approach.

Yes, eLearning is widely regarded as the best way to push skills into Africa, with conferences like September’s eLearning Africa event in Rwanda fully focused on this potential.

But simply moving education online does not take into account the complex layers of knowledge required by African executives and professionals, nor the cultural nuances embedded in managing, trading and transacting across nations.

In our African context the focus needs to be on creating teams and replicating how face-to-face learning unfolds, encouraging creativity, pushing new ideas and dynamism within the context of the learner.

This level of localisation is particularly important in Africa.

If, for example, you go through this form of eLearning you could find yourself in a situation where individuals from Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana and South Africa are all learning together in a virtual environment.

If you give them time to interact and debate then they can take the material, localise it and make it contextually relevant; after all, what works in Botswana might not work in Angola.

What is critically important in this approach is that discussions are led by a subject matter expert who can guide the conversation through a variety of interactive media including live webinar sessions, podcasts, virtual discussion boards, interactive question and answer sessions and online facilitator support.

It is here, in this environment of exchange and engagement, where the very essence of humanity will come to the fore.

Certainly machines and AI will continue to make repetitive administrative jobs redundant, but there are still skills which are vital and it is these human skills which need to be developed.

Consider the importance of abilities like managing and leading teams remotely on the future world of work? Right now robotics and AI simply can’t achieve this.

Teaching these skills in a social setting, even if it is digital, will be the game-changer in the eLearning space.

Nishan Pillay is executive director of open programmes at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS)

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