By Ron Maxwell - CEO

Technology is rapidly changing every industry across the globe, and education is no exception. In the last five years, the Vocational Education and Training (VET) sector has seen many face-to-face courses migrate to online learning, but as concepts such as gamification and virtual reality take hold, a revolution is taking place in our education sector.

In their infancy, online learning platforms were largely a repository for digital course notes rather than enhancing the learning experience.  As a result, in the VET sector, completion rates for online courses were, and continue to be, lower than for face-to-face equivalents.  But as technology advances, a significant shift in the opposite direction is predicted.

Opportunities abound

While classroom learning will continue to play a role, it’s already taking a back seat to technologies that offer the ability to learn where, when and how the student wants.  I experienced this first hand when my son wanted to learn Chinese.  Rather than enrol in a course, he downloaded apps to teach himself the core components of the language, and then extended his knowledge by interacting online with native speakers.  When he became more advanced, he even changed the language on his phone to Chinese, immersing himself in it via technology.  

Self-paced and personalised learning is what the digital native generation want, and it can help employers too, particularly in regional areas.  It’s not uncommon for a regional employer to need to send an apprentice or trainee to a city for study, meaning the business loses a resource and the student must study in an unfamiliar environment, away from their support network. As it stands today, there are also some courses that aren’t available in regional areas, meaning students must move to cities, or choose a different career path.  Online learning has the power to open courses and career paths to a wider audience.

Concepts such as artificial intelligence and gamification, whereby aspects from gaming, such as point scoring and token collecting are integrated into assessments, offer engaging educational experiences.  Done well, they can be used to teach vocational skills, while also developing problem solving and critical thinking abilities and enhancing digital literacy.  

Lifelong learning is key

Digital learning is far more flexible, allowing people to dip in and out of education throughout their careers, studying smaller units to assist with a project or address an immediate challenge.  It’s often said that the only constant is change, and this true now more than ever – lifelong learning is critical to keep up with the rapid pace of technology.

This is a global problem. Head of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde, recently discussed the need for the education industry across the globe to reinvent itself saying, “this is not just about adding a few more coding lessons. It is about fostering critical thinking, independent problem-solving, and lifelong learning that can help people adapt to change”.

Face-to-face experiences will evolve

While technology can replace classroom experiences to some extent, it’s not a replacement for face-to-face learning.  Face-to-face experiences are important to develop communication and work-based skills, and so they must evolve rather than be eradicated.  

I’ve talked before about the importance of mentoring in apprenticeships and there is an opportunity for mentoring programs to play a stronger role in the face-to-face component of study.  In fact, many of today’s most successful online programs sit alongside strong mentoring programs.

There are challenges too

While the rapid rise of technology in education presents opportunities, it’s not without challenges; some of which can be addressed by the industry, while others will need government intervention.

For the entire education sector, it will require a significant paradigm shift. Teachers will need advanced digital literacy to understand educational technology and prepare students for the ever-growing range of technologies in the workforce. And these skills will need to be updated regularly if they are to remain relevant.

It’s expensive too. Investing in digital infrastructure is an expensive upfront cost, albeit one that will most likely lead to significantly lower marginal costs in the future.  There are ways around this, such as using third-party technology, but this brings its own risks. The other issue with these platforms is that is assumes every student has equal access to smartphones or tablets.  This is simply not true, and there is a danger of increasing inequality.

Governments must get on board with the innovations and regulatory changes that will enable the shift to online learning.  The Australian Skills Quality Authority (AQSA) has made some inroads, as has the Department of Employment, with their digital platform for job seekers, but there is more work to be done.  

I’ve previously discussed the long consultation process required to make changes to accredited courses, and the challenges it presents, but this is felt most keenly when it comes to keeping up with technology.  In many cases, by the time a course is approved, it’s already out of date.

But these challenges can be overcome. It will take governments and providers working more closely, to collaborate and innovate, but doing so could revolutionise the way we learn, and put Australia on the front foot, as we head further into the digital age.