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The Potential of Technology to Scale Global Education and Build 21st Century Skills

Ross Smith, Director of Skype for Good and Fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, is a member of our esteemed Teachers & Educators Challenge Leadership Group. In celebration of Global Education Day, Smith shares his optimistic outlook on the impacts of technology in education.

In 1962, President Kennedy declared, “the major domestic challenge of the Sixties is to maintain full employment at a time when automation is replacing men.” Sound familiar? More than 50 years later, we are still worried about the threat of automation.

And it makes sense — we live in a time of rapid change. Advances in computing power have led to a rise in mobile devices, cloud computing, artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality, and robotics. These advances have boosted our quality of life, but they also drive demand for new skill sets, which will require a shift from traditional education to a more modern approach.

Technology moves so quickly, it can feel impossible for anyone to keep up. In the clever words of Mark Twain, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” Despite our fears, throughout history, humans have adapted to find their place alongside technology. The challenge is learning how to adapt.

Case in Point: The Power Loom

Take the power loom, for example. For centuries, spinners used raw materials to create thread, and weavers used that thread to create cloth. But in 1784, Edmund Cartwright transformed these roles with his invention of the power loom. Over the next few decades, new machines replaced spinners and increased the demand for weavers who could keep pace. Yet despite increased productivity and cloth output, only the “rock star” weavers were paid more. The rest found themselves out of work alongside the spinners.

In 1845, German philosopher Friedrich Engels published The Condition of the Working Class in England, a book in which he wrote about wage stagnation and worsening living conditions in Manchester, England. Fortunately, this harsh reality was only temporary.

Over time, spinners adapted and became weavers. Weavers increased their skills, learning to operate not only one loom, but two or three. And demand for skilled weavers gradually affected wages, which began to rise in the mid-1800s.

This period of wage stagnation has become known as Engel’s Pause — a phenomenon in which advances in technology disrupt or displace workers, stagnating their earnings and limiting job placement. But eventually, wages rise again as worker skills adapt to the new technology or the technology creates new types of work.

Our Modern-Day Engel’s Pause

According to McKinsey Global Institute, 540 to 580 million people — 65 to 70 percent of households in 25 advanced economies — had incomes that had fallen or were flat between 2005 and 2014. But between 1993 and 2005, fewer than 10 million people — less than 2 percent — had the same experience.

As we look forward to the next decade, new jobs in robotics, data science, AI, and design thinking will continue to change skill requirements. Unfortunately, the skills for these jobs are not being taught to the next generation of students.

Put bluntly: we are in the midst of a modern-day Engel’s Pause, and we must find ways to disrupt it. Much like how spinners had to adapt to become weavers, we need to learn a new set of skills to adapt to changing technology. But how can we inspire students to learn these new skills? And how do we ensure that the next generation learns the right skills?

This is why Solve chose Teachers & Educators and Work of the Future as two of its 2018 Global Challenges. These two Challenges go hand in hand, and to support our future workforce, we need innovative solutions for both.

A Call to Action through Technology

Technology drives much of the need for workforce change, but it also has the power to solve many of these problems. In education, technology has flattened the landscape of knowledge dissemination. Through the internet, much of the world’s knowledge is available to anyone with a connection. There are incredible opportunities to use technology to transform teaching and personalize learning.

One such example is Skype in the Classroom. Skype in the Classroom breaks down socioeconomic and geographic barriers, connecting modern day workers with students around the globe to share real-world experiences. A guest speaker can introduce students to data science, robotics, machine learning, climate change, disease control, or any one of a number of new collar jobs — and answer questions about 21st century skills.

This is only one solution. To address the gap between education and the workforce, we’ll need all sorts of innovative, tech-based solutions — starting with yours.

Anyone, anywhere can submit a solution to Solve’s Teachers & Educators and Work of the Future Challenges. Applications are due by July 1 — submit yours today!


Students learn in a classroom on computers. (Image courtesy of Pixabay)

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