Seven radical new ways we’ll gain knowledge in the future

When we asked four pioneering educationalists what the future of learning will look like, we didn’t expect these answers… 

The impact of artificial intelligence, the need for constant upskilling, gamification – the way we learn was changing even before the Covid-19 crisis struck. Those changes will only accelerate now.

So how ready are we for the fourth industrial revolution, and the impact it will have on all of our careers?

Consider these facts:

  • The World Economic Forum predicts that 54% of the global workforce will need to be reskilled as soon as 2022 as more manual tasks become automated.
  • At the same time, the UK government has been urged by the House of Lords Select Committee on Intergenerational Fairness and Provision to do more to promote lifelong learning and ensure that our young people are prepared for longer working lives.
  • In Iceland, 84% of 55- to 64-year-olds are still working – in the UK, it’s just 64%.
  • At the same time, millennials and Generation Z are looking for employers that will stimulate them with lifelong learning. They want more freedom over how, where and when they learn… but they expect employers to provide the framework, tools and materials from which to learn.

This is a future in which organisations will need to reimagine their learning and development strategies, methods and technologies.

But how? And where should they begin? Post-pandemic the rush to digital learning could accelerate innovation and adoption of new and exciting methods.

So, to help us understand how we will learn in the years ahead, we asked four of the world’s leading education experts to give us their thoughts on the future of learning.

1) Developement will be learner-centred 

Learning and development activities in the future should be technology-enabled but not necessarily technology-led. Instead, according to Rose Luckin, professor of learner-centred design at UCL, employers and learning providers should be contextualising the learning first and then supporting it with technology.

Luckin defines good learner-centred design as a partnership between all the different stakeholders, working together to understand the needs of the learners. “It’s an excellent way of tapping into the contextual nuances of the learners in question as they bring their own circumstances and perspectives to the design process,” she says. “Learner-centred design is more likely to result in products, services or resources that are appropriate for their users.” Luckin is an advocate of a design method known as the ‘ecology of resources’. This defines each learner’s context as all of the interactions that a particular learner experiences as they interact in the world. “Context is not something that has multiple forms that we move in and out of. Rather, context is something that each of us carries with us – it’s part of us, and we are at the centre of it,” she says.

The ecology of resources method involves indexing all the relevant resources available to learners, both within themselves – such as their existing knowledge or the extent of their motivation – as well as within their learning environments.

2) Learning will be adapted to our emotional states 

If learning is the art of putting new information and skills into our long-term memory, it’s important we understand how memory works, says Patricia Riddell, professor of applied neuroscience at Henley Business School. “For instance, if we only encounter information once, we are likely to forget it unless it’s connected to some strong emotion. Surprise, laughter, mild fear and even disgust can be used in the training room to make memories more sticky,” she says. “If learning is dry, we need to repeat it to make it memorable. If the information is repeated after a period of time, we’re likely to have almost forgotten it, meaning we have to learn again from scratch.”

According to Riddell, one of the most important things for leaders and managers to understand is that people do not learn well when they are stressed. “We know that stress reduces the brain’s ability to respond to change,” she explains. “It decreases our neuroplasticity – fewer new neurones or synapses are firing – and makes us focus on old, partial solutions to problems rather than giving us the ability to adapt in new ways.”

Her advice? Use emotional states in the training room to make memory stickier, and space learning out so that it is repeated: little and often is better than lots in one hit. And teach leaders and managers to help employees prioritise their time and energy so that they can perform the tasks they are working on well and have some free time to be creative, learn and grow in the process.

3) Games + learning = impact

Learners need different modalities and contexts to embed learning most effectively, argues An Coppens, chief ‘game changer’ at London-based design consultancy Gamification Nation. “Games and gamification can provide that added modality by simulating the real-world experience,” she says. “And contextualisation happens best when you experience something first-hand; winning or losing is the feedback mechanism that helps you learn.”

For example, Gamification Nation recently designed a board game for an insurance company around the topic of cybersecurity. While the players had already received training on the topic through more conventional methods, after the game they reported feeling 80 per cent more confident in the subject matter and retained 40 per cent more of the information about the scenarios covered, making conversations with clients easier.

Coppens adds that “boss battles” or “knowledge duels” – where peers challenge one another on specific knowledge topics – work well too. “The best way to use gamification is to focus on a specific outcome and then think backwards about how you can best achieve this,” she says.

4) AI will identify your learning needs

For Luckin, artificial intelligence (AI) will enable education providers to leverage other technologies (such as augmented reality and virtual reality) to give each learner a personalised experience. “The real power of AI will come through in the way it makes other technologies even more powerful and through its blending with human intelligence so that human and artificial intelligence each play to their strengths and pool their intelligence for the benefit of the learner,” she says.

Meanwhile, Coppens sees smart devices such as watches, glasses and other wearables as the vital link to make learning work like a fitness app. “They can nudge us to learn more or implement more, record the learning being applied in the moment and so on,” she says. “And when we are flustered, they can give signals to people to send us support, linking learning to that moment of need.”

Speech technology is also entering the world of learning, thanks to Alexa, Siri and others. “Trivia quizzes and voice-enabled search will become bigger,” predicts Coppens. “Also, reporting back and tracking learning can be done much quicker and in a much more lifelike way by speaking about it, not just through the traditional classroom or e-learning options.”

5) Learners want deeeeeeeep immersion

Virtual reality is already proving effective in providing realistic simulations and experience-based learning in workplaces where people are faced with life-threatening situations. For pilots, surgeons and firefighters, virtual reality can create lifelike experiences where the brain does not differentiate how it learned, whether it was from reality or within a virtual experience.

For example, Highways England uses virtual simulations to develop the skills of workers who are out on the road network, helping them to learn about the consequences of actions such as putting out a road sign or closing a lane on the motorway. Network Rail has used similar technology to train employees who assess site safety in different weather conditions and in situations where there is limited sight of approaching trains or the possibility of sudden noise.

But while these virtual-reality solutions get more coverage, Coppens says that augmented reality can be a less expensive and equally effective method of refreshing learning at the moment of need. “Imagine if a piece of equipment that you don’t use frequently had a sticker with a scannable QR code. If you scanned that with a smartphone, that could ignite a checklist or a quick explainer,” she says. “And augmented-reality glasses also allow for remote support and job-shadowing, with feedback in real time.”

6) Bite-sized lessons and real-time formats suit tomorrow’s workers

In future, learning will be better integrated into employees’ daily tasks and workflow, especially in busy environments, allowing staff to develop their skills continuously while minimising time spent away from the job. That means more blended learning solutions such as short videos and “bite-sized” learning materials, says Sean Williams of London-based training provider Corndel, which delivers much of its learning through five- or six-minute videos and podcasts.

“Much of our learning is done through microlearning. We are video-first, because we know that 80 per cent of our learners access our knowledge through video,” he explains. “As workplaces become busier, the competition for attention will intensify. So we need to make it more efficient for people to learn. If you could have learnt that skill in 17 minutes, don’t learn it in two hours. Getting the information, skills and knowledge across to people as quickly and efficiently as possible is about really good course design, content design and delivery methodology design.”

According to Williams, this kind of microlearning will also have to become hyperflexible in its delivery. “The learning has to fit around the learner’s working day so that they can do it, for example, on their commute or in a lunch hour,” he says. “That hyperflexibility of delivery methodology makes consumers feel much more empowered.”

7) One-to-one learning – but scaled

Technology will enhance the efficiency and flexibility of learning, but human feedback, coaching and mentoring will still be key. According to Williams, the power of Corndel’s short videos lies in the one-to-one coaching and mentoring that learners receive afterwards via Skype or Cisco WebEx sessions with professional development experts.

“The knowledge components can be delivered very effectively through microlearning, but the embedding of new knowledge, skills and behaviours is done through interaction with a human being,” he explains. “The coaching and mentoring with your professional development expert every fortnight is really where the value lies. And that is miles away from what AI can do at the moment. The future of learning – at least in the next 20 years – is heavily blended models where humans do the one-to-one feedback and the knowledge is delivered by microlearning.

“After all, no one ever tells you about the school textbook that inspired them. No, they tell you about the teacher, the person. Learning is about people.”

If you’re looking for some learning motivation, check out Ann Francke’s live webinar with Sir Charlie Mayfield on how to learn in the crisis.

For more of CMI’s content related to getting through lockdown, visit our Leading Through Uncertainty hub.

This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in the autumn/winter edition of CMI’s magazine. For more information visit CMI Insights

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