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AI, the gig economy and other technologies will transform the job market in ways we don't fully understand yet.

How do we equip ourselves with the right skills for such an uncertain future? We need to reimagine the whole city as a learning campus, where education happens throughout a life-long learning journey.

We are being held back by how we think about learning

Recent reports by The RSA, McKinsey and OECD highlight the need to develop competencies such as creativity, problem-solving and resilience to help us adapt in an ever-changing workplace, as well as the need for a new mindset of continuous, lifelong learning.

As Alvin Toffler put it, “the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”

The biggest obstacle to preparing us for the future could be the way we think about learning: as something delivered only by schools, colleges, and universities.

In formal education, the value of learning is measured in qualifications. However, qualifications only capture a snapshot of what we know, not what we can do. What’s more, they tend to measure routine skills - the ones most vulnerable to automation and outsourcing.

Previously, the government commissioned curricula and qualifications to meet market need. But this was when it could target well-defined, static skills. Now, skills are a moving target. The old, mass market approach doesn’t work. It isn’t nimble enough to keep pace with the needs of a complex, evolving marketplace. We need a locally-led strategy.

Cities can be central to developing the skills of the future

Cities are full of people with unrecognised talents and potential. Cities are a huge untapped resource. Skills are developed every day in the community, at work and online, but they are hidden from view - disconnected from formal education and employers.

To utilise these skills, we must find a way to promote and recognise learning across cities. What if we imagined a whole city as the new learning campus?

Inspired by Mozilla Hives and US cities of learning, the UK's Cities of Learning project is testing a new locally-led approach to create new pathways into learning and employment by connecting and promoting existing learning opportunities.

This includes opportunities inside and outside schools and universities, online and offline.

Key to doing this are Open Badges, an online tool to recognise skills. They recognise learning where it happens. And they provide individuals, employers, and education providers with a common language to communicate skills, which makes skills visible across cities.  

What are Open Badges?

Developed by the foundation behind the Firefox browser, Open Badges give people a portable record of achievement and employers a new way to connect with talent in cities.

Open Badges are awarded to individuals by organisations to verify accomplishments. These range from interest-based volunteering to membership to skills mastery, project completion, or a qualification.

Open Badges are designed to be shared by people on social networks and websites for maximum visibility and recognition. They are linked to data that provide context about the achievement including:

  • Who did something
  • What they did
  • Who says they did it

Open Badges technology is a freely available internet ‘Open Standard’.  This has led to their rapid adoption: 300,000 were issued in 2014, today 15,000,000 have been issued by thousands of organisations, according to IMS Global.

Their widespread use has made digital accreditation cost effective for large and small organisations alike.

Using an Open Standard makes the communication of skills easier across the internet because everyone is using the same technical formal. It also makes them portable between digital platforms and the learning data they contain belongs to the individual.

Connecting the digital and physical worlds to create a new skills currency

Open badges have the potential to deliver far reaching benefits for society, but technology by itself isn’t enough. Badges are like a new form of currency. Like all currency, people need to trust that it is worth something to them before they’ll use it. Building that trust in the value of the system is vital.

In 2014, we conducted our first place-based learning project in Leeds. Learners and educators praised badges’ potential but challenged their value, wanting to see greater adoption from educators and employers before embracing them fully.

“I like being recognised digitally, but how well known are badges with employers...will it help me get a job?” said one Leeds participant. We heard similar sentiments from learners in Brighton in 2017.

To build trust in the value of Open Badges, people need to be able to see clearly how earning these badges can help them achieve their career and learning goals. With support from the UFI Charitable Trust, we are building an open source tool to make this journey clear. We call these journeys from getting badges to achieving goals ‘pathways’.

Pathways help people navigate learning by showing where activities are on a local map and how combinations of badges can unlock employment or other opportunities.

Over time, we plan to use AI to learn which pathways have been the most successful. This way we can start recommending people try pathways towards careers they hadn’t considered.

As well as helping individuals on their journey, this sort of data gives city leaders new insights in skills and social mobility in their areas. For example, anonymised learning pathways captured and overlaid onto a city map will help visualise where skills pathways are strong and weak – helping guide investment.

At Digitalme, we believe the best way to meet challenges like this is creating an open environment that fosters innovation. That’s why we build pathways using Open Standards, Open Source and Open Data, following guidelines from the Department for Education Open Standards Principles, ODI, and TMForum.

We hope that by putting Open Badges and pathways technology into the hands of organisations, a new digital learning currency will develop. With awarding bodies like City & Guilds now issuing qualifications using badges and employers such as IBM using badges to recognise workforce development, we are getting closer.

The 5 building blocks of creating successful Cities of Learning in the UK

Our vision is a global standard to communicate skills, closing the gap between the skills employers want and the skills they can see.

Cities are the perfect place to develop and test this vision. As outlined by Anthony Painter, they are where all the parts of the educational and economic ecosystems are within reach and can work together collaboratively through new forms of local leadership.

In partnership with RSA, Digitalme is working in Brighton, Plymouth, and Manchester to create Cities of Learning in the UK.

We are beginning to see five crucial building blocks essential to bringing this vision to life:  

  • The city as a learning campus, to build trust among local organisations. By recognising and valuing the learning they are already delivering. Trust is built bottom-up, with endorsement from the network of local and national organisations who stand behind badges and badge pathways in cities.
  • Open Badges, to build trust in the system. Taken individually, the recognition of small blocks of learning in cities is of niche value. But combining this learning, using the same global technology standard, delivers a trusted ecosystem of skills which respond to local needs, and is interoperable internationally.
  • Pathways with meaning, to build trust with individuals. By connecting them with activities related to their interests and lead to employment or enterprise based opportunities. Closing with the gap between the skills people have and the skills organisations can actually see.
  • The Cities of Learning Skills Spine, to build trust amongst employers by communicating evidence-based competencies and amongst learners by providing them with the tools to reflect and communicate the full range of their capabilities.
  • Open Standards, to build trust in a level playing field. Open standards are the Lego bricks of the internet. Alongside open APIs and Open Data we can create a trusted level playing field which encourages participation and innovation from public and private partners to deliver the best possible value for citizens.

I will be writing in detail about the 5 building blocks as we work together towards the launch of the UK Cities of Learning initiative in the Summer of 2019.

We hope you can join us in building cities where everyone can learn the skills they need.


Tim Riches is the co-founder of Open Badge provider Digitalme, now part of City & Guilds Group. Follow him on Twitter @triches and @digitalme_

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