Education and skills report

Teaching and fostering the skills of the future

As the world’s economy seeks to emerge from the damage wrought by Covid-19, more than 80 per cent of businesses “face critical gaps in the skills needed to build resilience amid ongoing uncertainty”. With skills development now critical, apprenticeships and online learning once again come into focus.

Two new reports from McKinsey and Company – Reviving the art of apprenticeship to unlock continuous skill development and Setting a new bar for online higher education – make the case for the modernisation of both the apprenticeship and online higher education worlds. Cognisant of the 80 per cent figure for skills gaps in business, McKinsey notes that only 42 per cent of employees are taking up employer-supported reskilling and upskilling opportunities and that “there is simply too much to learn and not enough time for formal learning to meet all of an organisation’s reskilling needs”.

Modern apprenticeships

Modern apprenticeships are a “learning model that distributes apprenticeship skills and responsibilities throughout the organisation” that “represents a focused effort to intentionally build the same specific skills, habits of mind, and actions as those of a domain expert”. The McKinsey imagination of these roles places them in all workplaces, not just in the vocational occupations typically associated with apprenticeships.

Organisations, the report says, can take four steps towards introducing apprenticeships into their organisations as a “powerful skill-building tool and to begin to reshape culture around the idea of continuous learning”:

  1. Create a clear organisational expectation for both learning and teaching.
  2. Build apprenticeship skills in every employee.
  3. Identify the skills that individuals need to build.
  4. Be broad and inclusive about who can apprentice.

McKinsey’s model recommends that the manager in the apprenticeship situation models “how to approach the work instead of giving prescriptive directions to be followed”, gives the apprentice manageable tasks to complete individually, provides samples of work as supports, asking the apprentice questions, provide opportunities for the apprentice to articulate their thinking on the subject, offer coaching and feedback throughout the process and assess the apprentice’s progress and add complexity over time.

The report states that learning environments “flourish in organisations with strong learning cultures because those cultures emphasise the importance of every person taking ownership for their development and growing their skills” and advises that the “teacher does not have to be the direct team lead, the senior leader, the ‘guru’, or expert faculty”, but rather can be “anyone in an organisation, even peers or junior colleagues who possess a skill that others need to build”. Steps recommended towards reaching a culture of continuous learning with an organisation include: visibly positioning a CEO or senior leader who “values learning and teaching”; supporting learner agency within the organisation; and creating incentives to encourage individuals to both teach and learn.

Online learning

As a result of the worsening of the already existing skills gaps across worldwide industry, learning methods will have to modernise to equip both the workforce of today and of the future with the skills that have been found to be lacking. Key to doing this, along with the development of a modern apprenticeship system, will be the utilisation of online learning, as McKinsey and Company illustrates in the second of its reports.

Research conducted via a survey of more than 30 institutions, “including both regulated degree-granting universities and nonregulated lifelong education providers” and ethnographic market research, following 29 students in the United States and in Brazil (two of the largest online higher education markets in the world), found that the most successful online higher education institutions place their focus on eight dimensions of the learning experience. These eight dimensions were then classified under three principles by McKinsey: create a seamless journey for students; adopt an engaging approach to teaching; and build a caring network.

1. Create a seamless journey for students: The first step towards building a seamless journey for students is the building of an education road map, due to McKinsey’s finding that online students “may need more direction, motivation, and discipline than students in in-person programmes”. The second step is enabling seamless connections, with it advised that courses and programme content “be structured so they can be accessed in low-bandwidth situations or downloaded for offline use”.

2. Adopt an engaging approach to teaching: The first step within this principle is that institutions should offer a range of learning formats, with examples given including Zhejiang University in China, where instructors use live videoconferencing and chat rooms, and the University of Michigan’s Center for Academic Innovation, which uses its custom ECoach platform to help students in large classes navigate content when one-on-one interaction with instructors and also “sends students reminders, motivational tips, performance reviews, and exam-preparation materials”.

Ensuring the captivation of audiences and utilisation of adaptive learning tools such as AI and analytics used to address students’ needs and offer real-time feedback and support are mentioned as next steps. Inclusion of real-world application of skills is the final step within this principle recommended, with pioneers said to make use of virtual reality, laboratories, simulations, and games for students in this regard.

3. Create a caring network: The two steps listed within this principle are the provision of academic and non-academic support, such as Southern New Hampshire University’s system that detects low student engagements and offers alerts and nudges, and the fostering of a strong community, which again offers SNHU as an example due to their Connect social gateway, which offers an exclusive social network to over 15,000 members.

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