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4 lessons for the future of lifelong learning

Blog 1 Comments

  • Education
  • Future of Work
  • Cities

We face an unprecedented surge in unemployment.

The impact will fall disproportionately on low-skilled and young workers – some of the hardest groups to engage in lifelong learning.

This comes on top of the digital disruption of the economy and employer’s growing needs for more social, creative, and collaborative skills.

And at the time we need it most, the infrastructure of adult learning is reeling from ten years of budget cuts and falling participation. Rishi Sunak’s announcement of a £2.5bn New Skills Fund is welcome, but comes too late to undo a decade of damage.

But at the RSA, we believe the scale of the crisis presents an opportunity for positive change. So how do we meet the challenge of reskilling and upskilling a nation?

There is no single solution. But from the RSA’s work in the Cities of Learning programme, I can point to four important lessons to consider:

1. Recognise learning wherever it happens

During this crisis, hundreds of thousands of people have engaged in volunteering activities, social organising, mutual aid and digital mentoring – learning and sharing new and vital skills. Most of that learning is invisible.

Cities of Learning’s mission is to showcase learning wherever it happens. We use digital credentials to define and recognise the skills people learn outside formal education environments.

Many people develop the collaboration, communication and creativity skills that businesses need through community centres, clubs and civic engagement.

We need to help recognise and showcase that learning. Not just for employers, but for the individuals who often don’t recognise just how valuable their own skills are.

2. Make learning connected, not just digital

Lockdown has seen an explosion in digital learning. Millions of people have used the last few months to join online courses.

For example, OpenLearn had 950,000 users sign up in the last few months. FutureLearn’s traffic increased by 100% in March and 74% in April. Other platforms providing learning content have seen similar increases in traffic. That’s before you take into account the hundreds of hours spent on Zoom yoga classes and Youtube bread making tutorials. The learning space, like the workplace will never be the same.

But (as parents all over the country are discovering) access to learning content and progression in learning are very different. Human feedback and encouragement are necessary to push us forward when learning gets tough.

For example, the Plymouth Cities of Learning team at RIO have been working hard to connect online learning provision with locally issued credentials and tie those into meaningful opportunities such as digital work placements.

The learning content might be digital, but the skills learned are connected; to people, place and progression.

3. Respond rapidly to change

The world moves fast. We need the capability to rapidly respond to changing needs in the economy and society.

Cities of Learning chose to build digital credentials on the open badges framework because it allows this kind of agility.

If new skills or knowledge are required within a local economy, we can work with employers to rapidly build out credentials that capture those needs. At the same time, we can work with local learning providers to help learners access those skills and move towards employment.

This is also possible at a national level. If businesses are willing to specifically define the skills that they need, we can very quickly create meaningful credentials for those skills and connect them to learners.

4. Build pathways not courses

Courses are expensive and time-consuming to build and are completed by relatively few people.

Skills or knowledge gained by learners who drop out before completion is undocumented. Cities of Learning is built on the idea of pathways rather than courses.

Pathways are about connecting discrete micro-credentials (that can be earned in multiple settings and through different learning experiences) to create routes to employment, work placements and other destinations.

This way, we can showcase the skills that learners have gained and help signpost a variety of routes for progression to their goals.

Cities of Learning

The Cities of Learning pilot is still in its infancy.

Covid-19 struck just as we were about to launch. However, the teams in Brighton and Plymouth have been able to react and pivot to the changing needs of their learning ecosystems extraordinarily quickly.

Having witnessed their response, I am more convinced than ever that a connected and agile learning system which recognises learning wherever it happens and builds pathways to progression is part of the step change we need in adult learning.


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  • Agree with many of these points Tom, particularly the point about human feedback and connectedness.  Over 20 years ago I wrote an article for a book - ‘Can you put your arm around a student on the Internet?’ The focus was on working class adult education but the issues remain as relevant today as they were over 20 years ago.

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  • 4 lessons for the future of lifelong learning

    Tom Kenyon

    An increase in unemployment will make gaining new skills more important than ever. To make re-skilling work during social distancing, we’ll need to learn to recognise learning wherever it happens.