Fourth industrial revolution. Seventeen jobs, five careers: learning in the age of automation

Online courses will help employees to upskill as redundancies sweep away jobs – but will universities be able to keep up?

St Paul’s in Adelaide has changed plenty over the years. The bluestone facade, lancet windows and sloping roof of this 19th century Anglican chapel suggest yet another house of worship in Australia’s city of churches but it hasn’t been that for over 30 years.

In the decades since God left the building, St Paul’s has been converted into a secular community centre, a hedonistic nightclub, and lately trades as a South Australian government-backed co-working space.

Yet, those seeking salvation are undeterred. The growing number of homeless people left behind by Adelaide’s rapidly de-industrialising economy still occasionally wander inside, thinking it a place of sanctuary.

They’d be right, just not in the sense they were expecting.

Within the sermon hall and the labyrinth of corridors beneath, developers stagger around with virtual reality headsets wrapped around their faces, designers and engineers hunch over 3D printers, musicians hone their digital marketing strategies, and tech heads lounge in leather bound chairs debating the internet of things beneath stained glass windows.

Within St Paul’s Creative Centre these people have found a refuge from the economic headwinds pummelling Adelaide’s closing car factories, shuttered retail businesses and abandoned offices.

Many of the building’s new congregation are working in industries or with technologies that didn’t exist a couple of years ago, such as Ben Tripodi, the managing director of MIK Health. Tripodi boasts a rather hectic CV that encompasses work with mental health, digital marketing, cutting-edge bike part design, nutrition, development of high-tech sports garments, not to mention an athletic career that inspired most of his bright ideas. He has co-founded three businesses in three different sectors, and won a medley of awards in recognition of his innovative capacity. Despite all that, Tripodi fears being left behind.

“If I don’t know how to code, I’m going to be screwed in the next few years,” he says.

It is nothing remarkable that someone with so much professional experience is reskilling, but Tripodi is not some middle-aged veteran trying to keep up with the new wave of talent – at 24 years of age, he is the new talent.

It was only 2015 when Tripodi graduated from his bachelor of health sciences at Flinders University – the last couple of years part-time so he could tend to his business ventures – and since then he has completed four more courses online and developed new professional skills from conferences, networking and a digital mountain of books queued up on his Kindle.

Tripodi might teeter at the leading edge of several emerging industries but, like many of those working around him at St Paul’s, he is always looking to leap to the next rising sector as the ones behind him fall away: a work model that futurists predict will become the norm for us all as technology advancements continue to accelerate. Welcome to the fourth industrial revolution: the economy of always learning.

Staying still is more likely than ever to result in obsolescence, as indicated by a report released last month by consultancy firm PwC, which estimated 30% of British jobs could be automated by 2030.

As professionals need to update their skills more frequently than ever, so too the education sector is evolving to cater to a new state of affairs in which young people are projected to have 17 jobs over five different careers, according to the Foundation for Young Australians 2015 report, The New Work Order.

That doesn’t mean existing models of education are no longer relevant – Tripodi credits his degree in health science with teaching him not just the skills of that particular sector, but the kind of capabilities that will enable him to continue to learn and develop on his own. Studying at a forward-thinking education body such as Flinders University meant he was able to take advantage of additional learning opportunities beyond a mere degree. These included the university’s New Venture Institute that linked him up with other aspiring entrepreneurs, provided him with mentoring by established businesspeople and opened up access to engineering and office facilities. It was at NVI that he established his bike component business, seeking to engage companies that had excess capacity after losing work in Adelaide’s declining car industry.

After finishing his degree, Tripodi is still working with Flinders University on new projects. This includes his current work with MIK Health, which is developing machine learning processes that undertake sentiment analysis of workers to confidentially assess their mental health, and allows companies to ensure they aren’t putting too much demand on their workforce.

To deliver this, Tripodi is drawing on his existing health and business skillset and making the most of the tech-proficient people he’s met through NVI and St Paul’s, the latter of which he joined through working for digital agency Made In Katana, the majority owner of his health venture.

“Our generation is really pro-mental health, and I think mental health is ripe to be disrupted, no one is really building anything like this,” he says.

If he was relying on the skill set he obtained out of university alone, Tripodi’s new venture would have been hard for him to imagine, but the online courses he completed after graduating have granted new skills. He is currently studying coding so he can communicate better with the technical side of his team, and says the ability to learn online suits his busy lifestyle.

“It is convenient, because you can do it in your own time,” he says.

“It’s there for you, you don’t have to rock up to a classroom anywhere, you don’t need to wait for someone to teach you, it’s there whenever you want to access it, 24/7. It’s the most convenient learning you’ll ever get, it’s just whether you can motivate yourself to do it. Universities are going to start to change their approach – at the end of the day people are rushed and want to learn more quickly in a quick amount of time.”

Susan Drew, the senior regional director at Hays recruitment, says the projected impacts of the fourth industrial revolution are already being realised. The agency has noticed workers changing roles increasingly rapidly, with many in the manufacturing and finance sectors losing their roles to automation and outsourcing.

She says it is not all forced, however, with Gen Y workers preferring to move around, and employers seeking people with more diverse experiences. “The organisations are more accepting of the fact they are getting real value from someone in a very different industry … One area in particular is we are seeing not-for-profits looking for candidates with an industry focus.”

Drew says a university degree remains important, but of increasing value is a CV brimming with examples of lifelong learning. “Candidates have to be involved in professional development,” she says.

“It is easier than ever for people to demonstrate that want and desire to continually develop by online training, but it doesn’t have to be formal – networking, being part of groups on social media, following certain people on Ted Talks, broadening day to day knowledge – anything to demonstrate that want and desire to improve and develop to be at the forefront of technology.”

What is clear is that a generation used to on-demand media content services such as Youtube and Netflix are increasingly wanting the same from their education services – binge-learning new skills just as they binge-watch their favourite shows, rather than waiting for a university degree to dole out information the way a TV station drip-feeds content to a set schedule.

Online learning has been a staple of the internet since it first blinked into existence, but from corporations such as Microsoft offering up courses that teach the skills they want potential job candidates to have, to Apple rolling out educational offerings on iTunes, today the options are almost endless.

Some millennials have taken it upon themselves to create formalised education systems they feel best suit the needs of their world. A case in point is 30-year-old entrepreneur Adam Brimo, the co-founder and chief executive of Australian startup Openlearning, one of the medley of platforms hosting Moocs (massive open online courses) that have exploded in popularity over the past half-decade.

OpenLearning itself has grown from 150,000 to 750,000 enrolments over the past two years, and from 500 to over 3,000 courses in the same timeframe. Courses can involve video lectures, interaction with teachers and online readings, often for free or at a fraction of the cost of a traditional degree.

Brimo says the most popular subjects are entrepreneurship, cybersecurity, teacher training and creative arts.

OpenLearning provides the platform for educators to upload their courses, as well as expert advice on how to effectively design an online learning tool, the necessary documentation and online customer service. “Many people today are looking to learn new skills, however they don’t have the time or patience to complete an entire qualification. Therefore, they are looking for courses that can be completed in weeks or months, rather than years,” he says.

“Our learning designers are experienced teachers who help educators convert their face-to-face course materials into engaging, active online learning experiences for students.”

Openlearning has had particular success in Malaysia, where last year it assisted the national government in rolling out the world’s first national guidelines on credit transfer for Moocs to ensure such courses were as valuable as a conventional education.

A raft of universities now allow Mooc course credits to count towards their final degree, with the UK’s Open University and the University of Leeds two of the latest examples to make the leap.

Free study for students is obviously appealing, but how are they economically sustainable for the provider? For Openlearning, the answer is a model that’s free to study, but students pay for the certification.

To help his system flourish, Brimo would like to see governments update how they support students.

“Most government funding and support schemes for higher education are centred around entire qualifications, thereby allowing students to complete entire degrees without paying any money upfront,” he says.

“While this is great, it has led to universities and education providers charging upfront fees for individual courses. Therefore, the immediate out-of-pocket costs of a single course are higher than for an entire university degree. Government should consider whether they should provide support or funding for individual, accredited courses in addition to entire degrees.”

Openlearning is just one of a plethora of Mooc platforms, with the global leaders including Udemy, FutureLearn and Coursera. Mooc aggregator Class Central last year estimated over 500 universities offer such courses for an estimated 35 million students.

At first, leading academic institutions saw Moocs as a kind of taster to lure students into a full degree, but today many also see them as a tool to help continue relationships with alumni after they’ve graduated.

One of the platforms preferred by elite universities is edX, founded by Harvard University and MIT in 2012, which today has grown to include courses from 110 different education providers, including as of last year Oxford University.

The University of Queensland is also on board, having had 1.5m registrations since the institution’s first Mooc was uploaded onto edX in 2014.

UQx director John Zornig says the boom in popularity of online learning is reflective of a changing work environment: “Having been in the IT industry most of my career, I appreciate the need to keep learning if you want to stay relevant and have access to good employment opportunities.

“Today, Moocs are impacting the post-university workforce more than they are pre-university students. I see it everyday in the demographics of our Mooc learners. The fact that the courses are accessible for free means that the barrier to having a look is very low.”

He says they even keep old versions of courses available in online archives, with learners still using content that was replaced in 2014.

“They have integrated those courses into their personal library of knowledge and now dip into it whenever they need to check the accuracy of their memory or to look for an answer to a problem they are facing,” he says. “This is very different to the common practice of just googling for info. Many Moocs are also forming lasting social networks among learners who connect around the subject matter.”

The University of Queensland – or UQ as it prefers to be branded these days – is not just updating its online presence to better cater to the needs of the modern economy: it is also scrambling to reshape its in-person options.

Nimrod Klayman is the director of the UQ Idea Hub, a startup incubator that seeks to kickstart the careers of entrepreneurs in a similar fashion to how the New Venture Institute launched Tripodi’s career in Adelaide. He says the hub has attracted registrations from high school students right through to UQ alumni already working in the corporate world.

The program is structured around workshops and Q&A sessions with successful entrepreneurs, cultivating businesses in areas as diverse as drone development, distilleries, food science, automation, financial technology and safety equipment.

“What I tell students is that they have two options after university: apply for a job, or create their own,” he says. “We leave students to work on their idea, they need to present progress each year, go do market validation, find customers, and present a minimum viable product ready for sale.”

Universities have always been in a state of evolution – the last century alone seeing a transformation of once-stuffy intellectual fortresses for the upper classes into thrumming hotbeds of activism, free thought and formative life experiences, before straightening out into today’s professional job-factories. Are they now on a path to becoming providers of online self-help courses that occasionally host on-campus pep talks from corporate successes?

Anne Knock, the director of development at the Sydney Centre for Innovation in Learning, thinks there are certain fundamentals that education institutions will need to retain as they evolve. “Moocs haven’t been the great salvation everyone hyped them to be – education is predominantly a relationship activity,” she says.

According to Knock, online education is useful for “surface” learning, which provides the tools to delve into “deep” learning. “What I’m finding with universities is because students can access coursework online, they’ve discovered places for social learning are equally important,” she says.

“The question is how do we create an environment where students want to come to campus – you can’t negate the fact that face-to-face learning is a social activity.”

She notes that lifelong learning has never been so important as now, with the projected redundancies from automation in particular requiring a change in focus in what is taught.

“What we really need to be focusing on is a sense of being creative in our learning, not locking into one job for the rest of your life. You need a range of skills,” she says, pausing for a moment.

“The job for life era has truly past.”

Avots: The Guardian

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