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Education Trends: We Need to Rethink How we Learn and Work now

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Education trends suggest an urgent rethink is needed (Pexels)

Anthony Tattersall, EMEA Head of Coursera, closely monitors education trends and he warns that new solutions are required urgently to future-proof students young and old

In the months since COVID-19 began, we’ve undertaken a great transition. From work to home, classroom to Zoom call, our institutions are searching for ways to adapt to current and future crises. The most glaring and immediate of these problems are the nearly one million under-25s currently facing unemployment. With universities projected to be some of the last of our institutions to reopen, a young group of new workers is wondering what kind of economy they’ll graduate into. So what are the education trends?

Last week, the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) announced their latest graduate outcome survey. This survey is the first of its kind to research the transition from higher education to the workforce in the United Kingdom. Even before 2020’s reshuffling of everyday life, it shows a rapidly evolving world with an ever-changing list of demands. 

The education trends, which are from graduates who recently transitioned into the world of work after graduating in 2017 and 2018, align with how those of us in online training see the future of work evolving. While a college degree is the most valuable credential in today’s labour market, candidates will need more in their toolkit to impress employers. Employers are seeking workers with an increasing range of future-focused skill sets, often resulting in major companies becoming part of the education process themselves.

Our next hurdle is solving the massive unemployment crisis that’s coming our way. It’s already being speculated that a quarter of furloughed workers in the country will be made redundant once the furlough scheme ends. With about 9.1 million workers currently furloughed, this translates to more than 2 million future job losses. The UK higher education system must urgently evolve to focus more on employability outcomes for students. 

Urgent Evolution Required

At Coursera, we closely monitor education trends and see three distinct concepts that should be emphasised in order to achieve this: the development of flexible learning pathways, a focus on skills acquisition, and greater collaboration between higher ed institutions and industry partners.

The “Coronavirus class of 2020” will face disruption to campus education that may extend far past the latest graduating class. And that’s only for those who are lucky enough to attend university at all. Higher education will be cut off for many – drops in enrolment are estimated to hit UK universities with a collective £2.5 billion shortfall. But jobs will continue to need applicants, meaning a fast and flexible pathway to learning is needed to train individuals, or the labour market will be flooded with newly unemployed competition. 

Breaking through this economic doldrum will require more than the name on your diploma or the number of years spent in a classroom. Skills, particularly digital skills will be essential, according to education trends. 

Digital skills were already gaining steam before the pandemic forced our continued stay at home. HESA’s study shows a background in these skills helped improve employment prospects for graduates: 82 per cent of UK science graduates who work in-country went on to positions deemed “high-skilled,” compared to 71 per cent for non-science graduates.

On our platform, we’ve seen similar trends. Introductory courses on machine learning and programming remain some of our most popular, with the University of Michigan’s “Programming for Everyone” seeing an increase in enrollment of 590 per cent over the last 30 days compared to the same period last year. These are acquirable skills requiring no prior tech experience and can be learned, practised, and implemented during the uncertainty of a pandemic world. 

Crossover Skills

What’s more, it’s not just the crossover of technology skills into other sectors that are trending. As industries become more reliant on a base set of evolving tools, we can see a growing number of skills that transcend career boundaries — namely, management and leadership skills. Courses that have taken off in this space include: “Teamwork Skills: Communicating Effectively in Groups” from the University Colorado, Boulder and “Communication Strategies for a Virtual Age” from the University of Toronto. Compared with the same period last year, enrollments over the last 30 days have skyrocketed by a staggering 9,600 and 7,400 per cent, respectively. HESA’s survey also shows business graduates going into a wide variety of fields, with the largest number — around 16 per cent — going into the technology and science fields.

By partnering with higher education institutions to offer a blended curriculum of remote and in-person learning, online education has stepped in to help teach critical skills with affordability and flexibility. An online approach can teach essential skills over a series of weeks or months in a stackable and modular way – a solution that, today, is both socially distant and accommodating to the everyday variables of learning. 

This has opened up opportunities for some of our most coveted companies around the world to invest in helping upskill and reskill our workforce. Companies like Google, IBM, and AWS are already taking the lead in this respect, broadening access to high-quality education. For example, Google IT Support Professional Certificate on Coursera not only offers students immediate experience with industry-critical skills, it also allows learners to earn credits toward University of London’s online BSc in Computer Science upon admission to the degree program. In other words, learners earn a valuable credential that prepares them for entry-level roles in IT while working their way toward a full computer science degree. And with Coursera Labs, a hands-on training regimen, they’re able to use applied learning to practice their newly-acquired skills even before employment.

Shifting Focus

The UK’s higher education system must evolve to focus more on employability outcomes for students, especially as the pandemic continues disrupting our traditional learning avenues and employability options. This may mean a restructuring of current degree programmes and the respective pathways to get there. Education trends indicate that greater emphasis on skills and a focus on digital tools that transcend curricula and industries will be needed. And as COVID-19 continues creating financial setbacks for both institutions and prospective learners, it will be necessary to reevaluate higher education’s relationship to online learning as a partner in fostering affordable and accessible skills-based learning pathways.

Doing so will not only prepare students to adapt to a tough labour market ahead, but will also allow higher education institutions to use this momentum to drive lasting change.

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