What education in the digital economy looks like in America
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COVID-19 has clearly accelerated an already expanding digital era. The coincidence of the pandemic and evitable technological change is rapidly and fundamentally reshaping society. Two experts in digital work and learning see major changes coming soon. 

According to Nokia’s Sergio Fasce and Georgetown University’s Wendy Zajack, the digitization of work and learning has already become “the new normal.” However long the current pandemic and resultant remote-learning protocols last, the post-COVID era will undoubtedly be shaped by knowledge-based innovation. 

What the World Economic Forum describes as the Fourth Industrial Revolution will be (and is already) characterized by inherent volatility. Even prior to the current economic crisis, technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) were forecast to disrupt millions of jobs over the coming decade. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, as many as 375 million workers — or 14 percent of the global workforce —will require upskilling by 2030. Education has to shift quickly—as in right now—to meet this demand.

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This would have been the case without the COVID-19. In the current crisis, what looked to be down the road is suddenly upon us: the need to radically transform what we are learning and how we are learning it. 

Nokia Chief Learning Officer Sergio Fasce, a strategic leader within a fast-moving global industry, sees digital technologies as fundamental to the post-COVID recovery. He sees a new generation of knowledge-based innovation on the horizon with big data analytics, immersive environments, and automation set to transform the nature both the workplace and the classroom.

Wendy Zajack, a faculty director and assistant professor at Georgetown with extensive experience in large corporate environments, agrees. She understands the speed and impact of technology-driven change and, as she oversees two programs at the university’s School of Continuing Studies, realizes first-hand the ways in which educators have to pivot right now and plan for the future. She observes that we have entered a period of accelerating market churn in which major institutions are now forced to increase their efforts at scaling virtual and online learning. In her view, online education is here to stay. 

New Platforms for Learning

Despite the current limitations and challenges in online learning, Zajack contends that what we are experiencing now is only a small taste of a broadly disruptive shift to come. Beyond basic numeracy and literacy, schools will need to evolve their curriculum to support learning in tandem with digital technologies. New innovations in the nature of technology often means significant change in the nature of learning and education. 

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When anything mentally routine or predictable can be reduced to an algorithm, the need for a profound shift in our learning systems becomes starkly apparent. But despite concerns about Al and the future of work, Fasce cautions against unnecessary panic. Workforce displacement may look threatening, but he sees new jobs and new livelihoods on the horizon. As his work at Nokia evinces, technology is driving a new generation of augmented human performance across a variety of human endeavor, from medicine, engineering, and entertainment to energy and design.  

Nokia’s Fasce emphasizes that new investments are needed to support digital systems of work and learning. As we move from a 4G to a 5G world, demand will grow for a profound transformation at all levels of learning, from elementary school, to post-secondary to workforce training. Educational strategies will need to more deliberately pair creativity with technology to ensure that students and workers can leverage the digital tools that amplify their own innate talents and abilities. Technologies like AI and ML will be integral to this creative transformation. Pressure is growing to rethink how schools support virtual learning environments. Although online learning has been a painful experience for most students and educators alike, the current crisis has only accelerated the inevitable process of integrating AI and ML into the learning experience. 

 

Educating a Smarter Workforce

A key challenge for educators and human resource professionals alike will be to understand the critical importance of supporting personalized learning. The changing nature of the global economy will mean that upskilling and reskilling students and workers will be continual and lifelong. Formal learning and development (L&D) programs will need to embrace micro learning and new modes of digital workforce training. For this reason, workforce strategy will require substantial collaboration between the public and private sectors in supporting personalized training programs. L&D programs will need to support behavioral expertise and critical thinking rather than simply relying on memorization or rote learning. 

Beyond the bureaucratic systems of the Industrial Age, what we are facing is a system-shift in which cybernetic systems and immersive learning environments will be foundational to the future of work and learning. Fasce believes that augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) will prove invaluable in enabling entirely new knowledge-based ecosystems. 

In fact, Nokia expects to harness 5G to drive AR and VR technologies in collaboration with disruptive partners. As Fasce explains, the tech industry is working to make immersive environments a common reality. Streaming real-time instructor-led learning, students and workers may soon have the capacity to handle virtual objects in real-time across data-rich platforms. The ongoing shift to virtual work signals that the education system could look quite different in just a few years. New design solutions for digital learning will soon emerge to displace slide decks and top-down information transfer. 

Indeed, both experts agree that substantial investment is needed to retool our systems of learning and workforce training for the post-COVID era. The most important feature of this investment will be in preparing students and workers to adapt to social and economic transformation before it occurs— rather than after. 

Even as technology eliminates the need for routine labor, it is simultaneously opening up whole new opportunities in industries that leverage knowledge and innovation. The good news is that new tools for augmented learning are on the horizon as well. The advent of 5G, enabled by companies like Nokia, is rapidly bringing new access to those who need it most—the students of today and the workforce of tomorrow. 

For more information about how Nokia is leading the way into the education of America through improved technology and access, visit nokia.com/opentomore.

The sponsor of The Hill's Education in America special report provided this content. It is not written by The Hill's editorial team.