Unbundling Education

The No. 1 job skill of the future? A commitment to lifelong learning

By Don Tapscott

The days of classroom lectures and rote memorization are numbered. Tomorrow’s workers will constantly be learning and adapting their skills to keep pace with technology. Our current education system, which requires students to absorb vast amounts of information, is broken, says Don Tapscott, a leading authority on innovation, media, and the economic and social impact of technology. To fix it, we need a new model that encourages lifelong learning.

When I earned my first graduate degree in the 1970s, I figured I was set for life. That’s what my generation — and those since the dawn of the Industrial Age — had been taught: first K–12, then college and, to really lock in my long-term value in the job market, graduate school for a specialty degree. Today’s workers don’t have that luxury. Even graduates of the world’s most prestigious programs can consider themselves set for about 15 minutes.

I exaggerate, but only to emphasize the fact that the skills we learn today are often obsolete tomorrow. Technology is moving at such speeds that the only way knowledge workers of the future will be able to stay competitive is by continuously learning and updating their skills throughout their lives. There’s already a lot of hand-wringing over the “skills gap,” the huge divide between the skills job seekers have and the skills employers today are looking for, but that’s only going to widen unless educators, employers and workers come together to build a new model for lifelong learning.

Lifelong learning can't happen within our current education model.

Under this new technology-enabled model, future workers won’t spend late nights at the library memorizing facts, theorems or philosophies. Instead they’ll learn how to think, how to solve problems, how to collaborate and how to communicate with others. Those skills — which also require an innate desire to learn — is what will make workers of the future employable and give employers the critical thinking they need to compete.

At Dev Bootcamp, a 19-week, immersive coding program, students engage in hands-on learning rather than old-school lectures.

Photo: Dev Bootcamp

When I think of today’s system of higher education, I can’t help but think of milk cartons and their timestamps. Just as milk goes sour and needs to be replaced, so too does the knowledge base of today’s workforce. Careers must be reinvented over and over in order for workers to stay relevant and for employers to thrive.

A new model for new learners

Lifelong learning can’t happen within our current education model. Today, we have the very best model of learning that 17th century technology can provide. A teacher stands before a class of students and there’s an unspoken understanding that the instructor knows something and the students don’t. Teachers push their knowledge out to students. I like to say that the notes of their lectures go to the notes of a student, without going through the brains of either teacher or student. In education, we still have an Industrial Age model of scale and standardization — a one-size-fits-all mentality.

But this isn’t how knowledge is created today. The rise of the networking age is doing more than just making information available to the masses. It is allowing people to tap into the crania of other people. That’s the challenge facing education — instead of waiting for the world’s smartest statisticians to share their latest discoveries independently in a textbook, we have to find ways for them to collaborate and share their insights collectively with a global audience. We’re seeing the beginnings of this with the advent of Massive Online Open Courses, or MOOCs.

The process of knowledge creation isn’t all that’s changing. Young workers, too, are biologically different. They are the first generation entirely shaped by the digital age, and they learn differently than any worker who has preceded them. My generation grew up being passive recipients of information, not just in the way we learned but how we shopped and entertained ourselves. Our brains developed a certain way in that environment. The youngest workers today are accustomed to playing a more hands-on role in what they learn and consume. These kids don’t learn well when information is broadcast to them, because their brains are wired differently.

Beyond knowledge sharing

The education system of the future doesn’t spell the end of Ivy League schools or gowns with tassels after a few years of instruction. Post-secondary school training will always be a necessity. By 2020, an estimated 63 percent of the projected 48 million job openings in the United States will require at least a college degree. A physical campus will always be necessary so future workers can experience the kind of social learning that only happens face-to-face. But what we won’t see is the Industrial Age model of one teacher lecturing an auditorium filled with college freshmen on the basics of supply and demand or quantum mechanics. Teachers will become much more than just transmitters of information. They will become curators of learning experiences; they will facilitate small group discussions and debates aimed at teaching critical thought, problem solving, collaboration and communication.

Teachers will become much more than just transmitters of information. They will become curators of learning experiences.

In this future model, workers will be more responsible for their own education, and employers will take on a bigger role in providing their workers with the skills they need. When I think about this lifelong collaboration in pursuit of learning, I can’t help but think about the extent to which technology could one day allow us to share our knowledge. Is it possible, for instance, that we could one day share not just what we know, but also our underlying intelligence? Could we create a form of collective intelligence — or even consciousness — that extends beyond individuals, organizations or society?

If we could do that, we could solve some pretty big problems.

Don Tapscott is a leading authority on innovation, media, and the economic and social impact of technology who advises business and government leaders around the world. In 2013, Thinkers50 ranked him fourth among the world’s most influential management thinkers, and he was awarded the Global Solutions Award for launching and leading the Global Solution Networks program based at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto. Tapscott has authored or co-authored 15 books, including the bestseller "Paradigm Shift" (1992) and "Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything" (2007). The 20th Anniversary Edition of his bestseller "The Digital Economy" was released in October 2014.