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Thriving in the knowledge economy: Online learning and self-directed lifelong learning

Thriving in the knowledge economy: Online learning and self-directed lifelong learning

The ubiquity of accessible online courses is changing not only the nature of learning, but also the idea of how the 21st century career path should develop.

Target 4.3 of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) states: “By 2030, ensure equal access for all women and men to affordable, and quality technical, vocational and tertiary education, including university.”

The SDG-Education 2030 Steering Committee’s website elaborates: “… and to provide lifelong learning opportunities for youth and adults. The provision of tertiary education should be made progressively free, in line with existing international agreements.” In 2020, global free tertiary education is still not a reality and there is still a long way to go to achieve many of the targets set out as part of the SDG.

However, when it comes to “lifelong learning opportunities”, thanks to the internet, the world is doing much better. While not exactly all free, and mostly inaccessible without access to the internet and cheap data, there is still far more access to information, and skills than ever before.

Today, the idea of lifelong learning opportunities makes complete sense; education is gradually moving on from the idea that it is something one does during the “school and tertiary” phase, with only those looking to specialise, or change careers as the exceptions who would continue active learning as part of their careers.

Back in the 1990s, as the changes that have brought us to the current and relatively fluid idea of what a career path should look like were taking place, there was much written about the “Knowledge Era” or the “Knowledge Economy”, a concept which overlapped in some parts with the “Information Age”.

The idea being that due to advances in technology, mechanisation as well as artificial intelligence, and other societal changes, the 21st century would increasingly favour workers who are ready, and able, to access new information as and when it is needed, prioritising the ability and desire to learn, rather than simply thinking of education as something one does formally at one stage of their lives, and implements it at another.

Through to the noughties, learned minds continued grappling with what it all meant for educators, learners and workers. In 2008, “Shifting Thinking”, a website project by the New Zealand Council for Educational Research said: “Knowledge Age worker-citizens need to be able to locate, assess and represent new information quickly. They need to be able to communicate this to others and to be able to work productively in collaborations with others. They need to be adaptable, creative and innovative… Most importantly, they need to think and learn for themselves, sometimes with the help of external authorities and/or systems of rules, but more often, without this help.”

And so it has come to pass, well, sort of, and only for some. The ubiquity of online courses is a testament to this. On the one hand, there are full-term university degree online courses: In South Africa, reputable institutions like the University of Johannesburg, University of Witwatersrand, and Stellenbosch University all offer online courses in some fields, undergraduate as well as postgraduate. The University of Cape Town offers various online short courses and is working on a five year (2018-2022) program to establish online and blended undergraduate courses as well as fully online postgraduate courses. Further afield, various reputable universities offer online courses.

On the other hand, there’re also pioneering online education platforms like Coursera, founded in 2012 – initially, it offered access to various short university courses given by lecturers from universities around the world for free. Their model has evolved to include paid specialised courses as well as courses that students can take for free and only pay if they need certification. They now also work with various corporates to provide courses for their employees.

Although large-scale online education is a thoroughly 21st century concept, the idea of distance learning via correspondence is not. In the United States, as the postal service developed in the 19th century, so did correspondence colleges. In South Africa, UNISA “became the first public university in the world to teach exclusively by means of distance education in 1946”.

Today, for those who are not looking to invest in degrees and diplomas, perhaps early to mid-career professionals who need to add a new skill to their CV, or simply looking for personal growth, the options are relatively unlimited. Online portals like Skillshare, Udemy, Lynda and Codecademy have grown to be the “Nextflix” of online courses. Working between subscription models and “price per short course”, for their tens of thousands of courses uploaded by thousands of instructors around the globe.

Average subscriptions are anything between R120 to R400, whereas individual courses outside subscription plans can range from as little as R100 to R2,000 on sites like Udemy. Courses include topics such as business, arts, design, computer programming, marketing, personal development, fitness and more. There are also thousands of hours of YouTube tutorials on various subjects.

Admittedly, whether one chooses a full-on degree, a short university course, or subscribes to the likes of Skillshare, the online learning system is far from perfect.

For one, the dropout rates are higher than traditional brick and mortar classes. For grade school students and younger tertiary students, those who are likely to be less proficient in traditional classroom scenarios, do much worse in online courses. When it comes to the shorter user-generated courses aimed at additional skills rather than qualifications, there are less stringent rules with regards to who can be a teacher and students have to be able to decide for themselves if a course is good or not.

That said, the unprecedented access to educational and constructive information, especially in an internet ecosystem that also is filled with the opposite, presents us with a challenge to actively pursue learning opportunities throughout life, as and when we need them. The body of research on neuroplasticity, our brain’s capacity to change based on learning new skills and ways of approaching problem-solving, already reflects numerous health benefits from committing to the idea of lifelong self-directed learning at all stages of adult life.

A paper on 21st century education published in 2008 by the international education research body, the Centre for Education and Innovation, lays out quite succinctly: “In the knowledge economy, memorisation of facts and procedures is not enough for success. Educated workers need a conceptual understanding of complex concepts, and the ability to work with them creatively to generate new ideas, new theories, new products and new knowledge… They need to learn integrated and usable knowledge, rather than the sets of compartmentalised and de-contextualised facts. They need to be able to take responsibility for their own continuing, life-long learning.”  ML



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