The future of work is the future of learning

  • New industries based on cutting-edge technologies are changing the worker landscape
  • P-TECH school programme tries to give students an inside track through partnerships with industry


The future of work is the future of learning


WHEN the advice given by one of the world's biggest IT companies is that students need to "learn how to learn" to become "life-long learners", the question it begs is “How?”

Recently, a trio of experts from IBM were in Malaysia to give their perspective on this.  They hosted a session with representatives from the new Malaysian government, and there was plenty to talk about.

"The discussion this morning got extremely animated and engaged when we started talking about skills," said Stephen Braim (pic, above), IBM VP Government & Regulatory Affairs.

"How do we change the mind-set in in schools?"  What's the role of Industry versus government?" elaborated Braim. "It ignited nearly 40 minutes of discussion."

Education-industry partnerships

Braim clarified that the challenge faced by future industry was that new technologies that create higher-value economies disrupt workers by making old skills obsolete, while creating new ones. Unfortunately everybody is playing catch up.

"We have a really bad alignment between what education institutions are producing and what employers would really like to have," said David N Barnes (pic, below), IBM VP for Global Workforce Policy.  "Kids are being taught stuff which is no longer relevant."


The future of work is the future of learning


For example, curricula are not contemporary, but he refuses to lay the blame solely at the feet of universities, saying that connections between educators and industry needs to be stronger. "That's as much a fault of employers as it is of educators," Barnes pointed out.

"Industry needs to take some responsibility here of giving back," said Prof Iven Mareels, IBM Research Australia Lab Director in support.

IBM has created a model to demonstrate how such industry-education partnerships can work through their P-TECH school initiative. Schools are partnered with companies that provide instructors and mentors as well as internships and work-based learning opportunities.

"First-year students would come in and do 10 hours at IBM instead of doing it at McDonald's," said Barnes. "It's giving kids not just theory, it's that face-to-face contact, with real-world problems."

The idea of the programme is also to open up opportunities. "There's no entry test to the school, no fees, the kids can complete the five-year course in their own time," said Barnes, adding that students who graduate exit with a two-year associate's degree. 

"They can either go on and complete that degree and get a four-year undergraduate degree at a regular college or university, or they're first in line for a job at one of the partnership companies."

Originally designed in collaboration with the New York Board of Education, the programme is now available in 70 schools in the US, as well as countries as far-flung as Australia, Morocco, Taiwan, Singapore and Japan. Barnes acknowledged that they have also had talks with the Malaysian government about it.

Guiding adult-learners with AI

Meanwhile, IBM is also an advocate of adult learning. The company mandates that each of their employees must do 40 hours of learning each year.

The way IBM manages this is through an AI interface powered by Watson, IBM's natural language interface project to an AI system. "It gives them a kind of Netflix-like experience," said Barnes. "It tells us we ought to be learning, what priorities there are and so on, and it adapts on the fly."

The system searches what courses are available both within IBM and outside via external courses, and it is customised for each individual user. The success of the system is shown in the results. "Our employees are actually averaging about 60 hours of learning each year."

"What it's resulted in is that our longer-serving employees, like those over 40, are actually the heaviest users of that system."

Learning to learn

But beyond industry partnerships and artificial intelligence, there is a recognition that the process of creating workers who can pivot to new jobs and new technologies must begin with the students themselves.

"Leveraging teachers to AI is one way forward, but focusing critically on emotional intelligence is a really important aspect," said Mareels, leading to this idea that it's just as important to shape attitudes in the modern worker.

Mareels stresses that the emphasis should be on learning to think rather than just parrot knowledge.  His favourite exam technique is to ask students what question they would like him to ask them.

“A not so good student will try to impress me by asking a very difficult question,” he said, whereas a better student will pose a more general question and handily manage a 20-minute discussion of what they understand.

“I guarantee you that you can sit in (that) exam not knowing a single thing about that exam matter, but by just observing the behaviour (of the student) you know if they’re capable.”

Obviously, this sort of one-on-one exam is too time-consuming and impractical to take on currently. Isn’t that exactly the kind of job that a futuristic, disruptive tool such as Watson was built for?

Yes,” admitted Mareels. “We are working on that.”


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