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Need to better prepare students for a future world

Universities need to do a better job of equipping young people to succeed in the 21st century, Andreas Schleicher, deputy director for education at the OECD, argued at the recent World Innovation Summit for Education, or WISE, in Doha, Qatar.

“More than ever before, skills drive our economies and they transform people’s lives,” he said. “But more education doesn’t automatically translate into better skills and better lives.”

Schleicher’s comments summarised a major theme that arose throughout the summit: how must the fundamentals of education change to address the fast-shifting needs of the globalised world with its daunting, complex problems?

Andrei Fursenko, assistant to the president of Russia, agreed with Schleicher’s assessment. “Education prepares for yesterday’s economy or maybe today’s economy. But these students are here for the future economy.”

Schleicher said that in many countries, graduates do not finish university prepared to succeed. “There is this toxic coexistence: graduates on our street unemployed while at the very same time employers desperately say they cannot find the people with the skills they need.”

He pointed to Japan, where 80% of employers complained of recruitment problems, despite a high quality education system. And in Egypt, for instance, 1.5 million young people were unemployed last year, while 60,000 jobs went unfilled.

A changed relationship with knowledge is driving the need to drastically change higher education, Scheicher argued.

While it was once assumed that what was learned in school would last a lifetime, technological change is now occurring so fast that much of what is taught in universities is obsolete shortly after students graduate.

“Today, when we can access content on Google and where jobs are changing rapidly, accumulating knowledge matters a lot less and success is much more about ways of thinking, including creativity, critical thinking, and judgement,” he said.

Educating students to possess this type of skills doesn’t necessarily require adding new curricula, but demands changing the way students are taught. “Take literacy as an example,” Scheicher said.

“In the past literacy was about a set of technical skills that would enable you to decode a fairly established body of knowledge. Today literacy is about your capacity and motivation to identify, understand, interpret, create and communicate knowledge.”

While the promises of technological solutions were discussed in depth, scepticism arose in many sessions.

“Technology can’t be a substitute for physical schools,” said Rakesh Bharti Mittal, managing director of the India-based Bharti Enterprises and co-chair of the Bharti Foundation. “It is interaction, the touch and feel, that is a great learning experience.”

Roberto Carneiro, president of Portuguese Catholic University, agreed that technology was only part of the solution. “I think that education has to be about high-touch as much as high-tech,” he said.

Making educational resources assessable to all through web-based platforms was a positive development, but a truly valuable education includes the mentorship and feedback of teachers. “I can’t envision learning as an individual in front of a screen. Schools are social institutions.”

Input from the private sector on how to make change to education systems appeared to be a theme at WISE.

For instance, the opening plenary session featured Andrew Swiger, senior vice president of ExxonMobil, speaking on a panel of three people about the importance of collaboration in making change. The closing plenary panel about "Building a learning world" included Gabriele Zedlmayer, vice president of sustainability and social innovation at Hewlett-Packard.

Zedlmayer agreed that technology was not the only solution to access, but she argued more than other speakers in favour of a larger role for technology.

“Technology is an enabler, not the solution in and of itself,” she said, but pointed out the shortage of university spaces in Africa and fast-growing economies like India and China. “In order to address the university spaces we would have to build a new university every week that could hold 30,000 students.

“That’s not going to happen.”
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