Today’s students see themselves as digital natives, the first generation to grow up surrounded by technology like smartphones, tablets and e-readers.
Teachers, parents and policymakers certainly acknowledge the growing influence of technology and have responded in kind. We’ve seen more investment in classroom technologies, with students now equipped with school-issued iPads and access to e-textbooks. In 2009, California passed a law requiring that all college textbooks be available in electronic form by 2020; in 2011, Florida lawmakers passed legislation requiring public schools to convert their textbooks to digital versions.
Given this trend, teachers, students, parents and policymakers might assume that students’ familiarity and preference for technology translates into better learning outcomes. But we’ve found that’s not necessarily true.
As researchers in learning and text comprehension, our recent work has focused on the differences between reading print and digital media. While new forms of classroom technology like digital textbooks are more accessible and portable, it would be wrong to assume that students will automatically be better served by digital reading simply because they prefer it.
Speed – at a cost
Our work has revealed a significant discrepancy. Students said they preferred and performed better when reading on screens. But their actual performance tended to suffer.
For example, from our review of research done since 1992, we found that students were able to better comprehend information in print for texts that were more than a page in length. This appears to be related to the disruptive effect that scrolling has on comprehension. We were also surprised to learn that few researchers tested different levels of comprehension or documented reading time in their studies of printed and digital texts.
To explore these patterns further, we conducted three studies that explored college students’ ability to comprehend information on paper and from screens.
Students first rated their medium preferences. After reading two passages, one online and one in print, these students then completed three tasks: Describe the main idea of the texts, list key points covered in the readings and provide any other relevant content they could recall. When they were done, we asked them to judge their comprehension performance.
Across the studies, the texts differed in length, and we collected varying data (e.g., reading time). Nonetheless, some key findings emerged that shed new light on the differences between reading printed and digital content:
Students overwhelming preferred to read digitally.
Reading was significantly faster online than in print.
Students judged their comprehension as better online than in print.
Paradoxically, overall comprehension was better for print versus digital reading.
The medium didn’t matter for general questions (like understanding the main idea of the text).
But when it came to specific questions, comprehension was significantly better when participants read printed texts.
Placing print in perspective
From these findings, there are some lessons that can be conveyed to policymakers, teachers, parents and students about print’s place in an increasingly digital world.
1. Consider the purpose
We all read for many reasons. Sometimes we’re looking for an answer to a very specific question. Other times, we want to browse a newspaper for today’s headlines.
As we’re about to pick up an article or text in a printed or digital format, we should keep in mind why we’re reading. There’s likely to be a difference in which medium works best for which purpose.
In other words, there’s no “one medium fits all” approach.
2. Analyze the task
One of the most consistent findings from our research is that, for some tasks, medium doesn’t seem to matter. If all students are being asked to do is to understand and remember the big idea or gist of what they’re reading, there’s no benefit in selecting one medium over another.
But when the reading assignment demands more engagement or deeper comprehension, students may be better off reading print. Teachers could make students aware that their ability to comprehend the assignment may be influenced by the medium they choose. This awareness could lessen the discrepancy we witnessed in students’ judgments of their performance vis-à-vis how they actually performed.
3. Slow it down
In our third experiment, we were able to create meaningful profiles of college students based on the way they read and comprehended from printed and digital texts.
Among those profiles, we found a select group of undergraduates who actually comprehended better when they moved from print to digital. What distinguished this atypical group was that they actually read slower when the text was on the computer than when it was in a book. In other words, they didn’t take the ease of engaging with the digital text for granted. Using this select group as a model, students could possibly be taught or directed to fight the tendency to glide through online texts.
In our academic lives, we have books and articles that we regularly return to. The dog-eared pages of these treasured readings contain lines of text etched with questions or reflections. It’s difficult to imagine a similar level of engagement with a digital text. There should probably always be a place for print in students’ academic lives – no matter how technologically savvy they become.
Of course, we realize that the march toward online reading will continue unabated. And we don’t want to downplay the many conveniences of online texts, which include breadth and speed of access.
Rather, our goal is simply to remind today’s digital natives – and those who shape their educational experiences – that there are significant costs and consequences to discounting the printed word’s value for learning and academic development.
The world’s education systems are failing our children by not preparing them for the workplace of the future. This is the key finding of a new report by the World Economic Forum, Realizing Human Potential in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which puts forward a series of practical measures for aligning education and training with future job requirements.
Training for jobs that don’t yet exist
Technology and globalization continue to reshape business models across all sectors and geographies, creating new types of jobs and disposing of old ones at great pace. However, monolithic, underfunded education and training systems around the world have fallen short of responding to this trend. This means that by the time they leave education, as many as two-thirds of children entering primary school today will not have the skills required to get a job. The impact will be worse for women who already have less than two-thirds of the economic opportunity that men have.
The report was put together by a panel of business leaders, policy-makers, unions, educational institutions and academics. It recommends that governments and the private sector work together in eight core areas to ensure the world’s children are equipped for the future.
Reinventing education for a new age
1. Focus on the early years: Reinventing education starts in early childhood, where the focus should be on literacy and reading. Adequate childcare provision for working parents will be critical in both developed and developing economies.
2. Keeping it dynamic: Training curricula must be aligned with market demand for skills – both job-specific and generic, such as problem-solving and project management. The challenge will be to keep these curricula dynamic and responsive to evolving business needs. In Finland, one of the world’s top-performing nations in education, the curriculum is updated regularly to provide an overall framework, with room for local adaptation by the schools themselves.
3. Open-sourcing education: The report advocates adopting training innovations more quickly, opening up to alternative learning routes (such as Hackathons) and allowing for experimentation with new techniques. For example, the New York City Department of Education has created “Lab” schools and tasked them with reinventing teaching and learning. In Ghana, the US and France, schools are pioneering short courses in coding based on peer-to-peer teaching, project-based learning and gamification.
4. Taking teachers out of the ivory tower: To bring education and business closer together, the report recommends initiatives such as teacher “externships” in businesses, workplace mentoring and involving the private sector in teacher training.
5. Giving students a sense of the real world of work: Similarly, students should experience the world of work from early on – for example through internships and ongoing career coaching – to help them see a variety of career options and the skills required.
6. Addressing the vocational stigma: Vocational and technical education is critical to the world economy but has been neglected and often looked down on as second best. The World Economic Forum advocates promoting vocational and technical career paths more proactively and raising the quality of vocational training on offer. For example, Germany’s vocational training system sees apprentices divide their days between classroom instruction and on-the-job training at a company. Apprentices are paid and their training typically extends to between two and three years. Not only does this approach create an excellent talent pool, it also smooths the – often difficult – transition from education to the world of work.
7. Digital fluency: Digital skills will be fundamental to a wide range of careers, but “digital fluency” is not a given. The report highlights the need for a greater focus on ICT in teacher training and students’ work placements to address the growing digital skills crisis. One successful example comes from India, where the National Association of Software and Services Companies (NASSCOM) has partnered with NGOs and the Government of India to build National Digital Literacy Centres across the country to enable digital literacy.
8. Education, education, education: Given the rapid evolution of the job market, workers can no longer rely on just one skillset or narrow expertise to sustain long-term careers. The report advocates incentivizing employees to commit to lifelong learning so they continue to develop their skills or even retrain for new roles. For example, in Singapore, individuals receive an annual training allowance they can spend on a range of training courses all geared towards developing future-oriented skills.
The fourth industrial revolution will turn the world of work as we know it on its head as it continues to unfold. The report suggests that, unless the world’s monolithic education systems can be reformed and rendered more nimble, their failings will come back to haunt future generations’ ability to prosper.
Over the course of the last year, at World Economic Forum and elsewhere, I have asked participants two questions. First I ask for a show of hands on whether they feel confident about their current skills taking them through to the end of their careers – about one in five raise their hands. Then I ask if they feel confident about advising their children on their education to prepare for their own futures: none raises their hand. These are some of the most knowledgeable, leading figures in the world and yet they, like many of us, are uncertain about what the future of labour markets looks like.
This is not surprising.
Globalization and technology are accelerating both job creation and destruction. Some estimates have put the risk of automation as high as half of current jobs, while others forecast a considerably lower value of 9%. Still, all occupations will go through change: we found that on average one-third of the skillsets required to perform today’s jobs will be wholly new by 2020.
At the same time, education and training systems are not keeping pace with these shifts. Some studies suggest that 65% of children currently entering primary school will have jobs that do not yet exist and for which their education will fail to prepare them, exacerbating skills gaps and unemployment in the future. Even more urgent, underdeveloped adult training and skilling systems are unable to support learning for the currently active workforce of nearly 3 billion people.
In addition, outdated cultural norms and institutional inertia already create roadblocks for half of the world’s talent – and are getting worse in the new context. Despite women’s leap forward in education, their participation in the paid workforce remains low; and progress is stalling, with current forecasts for economic parity at 170 years.
The near-term outcomes of these dynamics, compounded through other demographic, geopolitical and economic factors, are profoundly challenging. They include skills gaps in the workforce that are difficult for employers and workers alike, unemployment and job displacement, particularly in blue-collar and services work, rising fear of further technological unemployment, insufficient supply of talent for many high-skill occupations, and loss of female talent and potential. Together these factors are exacerbating income inequality and creating a crisis of identity.
Yet, most of these dire predictions need not be foregone conclusions. If leaders act now, using this moment of transformation as an impetus for tackling long-overdue reform, they have the ability not only to stem the flow of negative trends but to accelerate positive ones and create an environment in which over 7 billion people on the planet can live up to their full potential.
Instead, in several advanced economies, we are seeing the political and social consequences of short-term, emotive – and sometimes disingenuous – thinking. For those who are losing out from the changes underway, fear is an understandable response. But turning away immigrants, trade or technology itself, and disengaging from the world, is a distraction, at best. At worst, will create even more negative consequences for those already losing out – and many more. It is up to courageous, responsible and responsive leaders and citizens to take the long view and set out on the path to more fundamental, relevant reforms, and an inspiring future.
How? By investing in human capital and preparing people for the new opportunities of the fourth industrial revolution. The World Economic Forum has worked with leaders, experts and practitioners to create a common vision and a shared change agenda focused on how we learn, earn and care.
1. Transform education ecosystems. Most education systems are so far behind the mark on keeping up with the pace of change today and so disconnected from labour markets that nothing short of a fundamental overhaul will suffice in many economies. The eight key areas of action here are early childhood education, future-ready curricula, a professionalized teaching workforce, early exposure to the workplace, digital fluency, robust and respected technical and vocational education, openness to education innovation, and critically, a new deal on lifelong learning.
2. Facilitate the transition to a new world of work. While there are deeply polarized views about how technology will impact employment, there is agreement that we are in a period of transition. Policy needs to catch up and facilitate this transition. We propose four areas of action: recognition of all work models and agile implementation of new regulations, updated social protection, adult learning and continuous re-skilling, and proactive employment services.
3. Advance the care economy. Often undervalued and unregulated, care is one of the most fundamental needs among both young and old populations. It has a strong impact on education, and holds potential for job growth. We propose six areas of action: recognize and value care as a vital sector of the economy, professionalize the care workforce, rebalance paid and unpaid work responsibilities, expand high-quality care infrastructure, create new financial provisions to facilitate care, and use technology as a tool for balancing care and work.
To do any of this – and to make it pay off – it is critical that policy design includes agile multistakeholder governance, empowerment of the individual, objective measurement, universal access and long-term planning as fundamental tenets.
The rapid pace of change means we need to act urgently. By some estimates the current window of opportunity for action is three-to-five years. This may sound daunting but there are a large variety of robust success stories to learn from and emulate. There are also substantial new commercial opportunities – such as adult education, care services, employment services – that make this space ripe for public-private collaboration.
It’s the harder path to follow, there’s no doubt about it. Transforming education ecosystems, creating a care economy and managing the transition to a new world of work require political will, innovative policy, new financing models and, most importantly, a new mindset.
But this is also the only viable path if we want to get ahead of the transition underway and turn this moment of flux into an opportunity for revitalizing growth and realizing human potential in the age of the fourth industrial revolution.
The whitepaper on Realizing Human Potential in the Fourth Industrial Revolution: An Agenda for Leaders to Shape the Future of Education, Gender and Work can be found here. Saadia Zahidi is Head of Education, Gender and Work and Member of the Executive Committee, World Economic Forum.
Nowadays, two of the most frequently discussed topics in the media are perhaps the growing gap between rich and poor, and the challenges presented by Artificial Intelligence (AI).
These two problems are mentioned in my sci-fi novelette Folding Beijing, and people still haven’t found satisfactory solutions to them.
The causes of the widening social gap are various: globalization, the financial system, political policies, and, the most important one, the replacement of workers by automation.
As AI becomes more advanced, it is expected that it will replace more and more jobs now done by humans, increasing joblessness and social inequality.
These problems are not easy to solve.
Social welfare can help people survive, but it cannot help create hope.
Education as key
If countries cannot make proper preparations for these challenges, they may face extremely difficult challenges in having to deal with joblessness and social crises.
Only education can provide the tools to tackle the problem of inequality in the future.
Requirements for jobs in the age of AI are quite different to those in the industrial era.
Programmatic, repeatable work will be increasingly replaced by AI; while new jobs will require much more creative thinking, something that in many countries is not normally the main focus of the educational system.
What, then, should education do to solve the problem of inequality and lack of creativity?
In my view, the most important thing is to produce and share educational programmes that promote creativity.
First, we need a group of professionals who can lead the design of innovative educational programmes, including the content and teaching methods.
These should allow students to learn in explorative, creative ways, and focus on promoting the habits of self-learning and independent thinking, and make creative thinking the most important goal.
Education as commodity
Second, these innovative programmes should be shared broadly, by all children.
Nowadays, in many countries, education has become a high-price commodity, serving as the tool of an elite group to keep their social status advantages.
This undoubtedly exacerbates the problem of social inequality.
In addition to innovation in educational content, it is equally important to improve sharing mechanisms if we are to make progress.
We need to help all children, whatever their families’ status, to have the same opportunities to train and develop their creative thinking.
Can creativity be taught?
Traditionally, people have often considered creativity to be a set of special talents belonging to a few individuals; they saw it as a sign of genius, as a gift, and something brought about through inspiration.
However, new psychological studies suggest there are some common traits in the creative thinking processes.
One prominent feature is the feasible transition between divergent thinking and convergent thinking, which can be practised in classes.
The capacity to identify and then solve problems can be practised as well.
These traits can be trained through designed programmes. Teachers can ask more open questions, encourage students to give independent solutions, let them learn in creative ways, and establish virtuous cycles of explore-study-create in class.
Can this educational innovation be inclusive?
Traditionally, high-quality education has depended on face-to-face teaching by distinguished teachers, and so it was more or less restricted to prestigious campuses.
With new technologies, however, high-quality education can be promoted in a much broader way.
Internet courses can offer people free or low-price education, online applications, and AI techniques can help students learn by themselves; and this new teacher-training system can help spread innovative classes at relatively low cost. Only by these new paths, can all children share the advantages of educational innovation.
My own plans
Educational equality and educational innovation will be, I believe, the most important social issues in the future.
I hope to contribute my own energy into this meaningful process.
As a result, my friends and I have launched a new programme called “WePlan”, in order to explore programmes that promote creative thinking and share these new explorations with all kids in an inclusive way.
Our hope is that children from all families can share high-quality educational resources, and so share a future together.
In the past, if you wanted to get a qualification, or even simply learn something new, you would sign up for a course at a bricks-and-mortar institution, pay any relevant fees, and then physically attend class. That was until the online learning revolution started.
Last year, the e-learning market was worth an enormous $166.5 billion. It’s been estimated that this will grow to $255 billion by 2017. Its growing financial value is matched only by the swelling numbers of students choosing to follow an online course.
In the latest Global Shapers Survey of 25,000 young people from across the world, 77.84% of respondents reported having taken online courses in the past. So is online learning the future of education?
What is online education?
Let’s start first by looking at what exactly it is. Online education takes two major forms. The first: for-credit courses where students enrolled in tertiary education take online classes offered by home or other higher education learning institutions for credit. Some well-known cases include the MIT OpenCourseWare and the Harvard Online learning.
The second form of online education consists of professional training and certification preparation. Such online learning is usually targeted at professionals or students seeking training or preparing for certification exams. Popular courses include training in foreign languages, accounting and nursing.
In the Global Shapers Survey, close to half (47.79%) of respondents said they would be willing to pursue certification for certain skills, including online certification, once they have started their working careers. This again speaks to the large potential and market for online education.
The growth of online education has not been without challenges. Since its early inception in the 1960s, online education has been constantly criticized for its apparent lack of quality control, particularly the scarcity of high-quality teachers.
It’s also been said that online learning deprives students of some of the benefits of being in a classroom, such as teacher-student interaction, as well as other things such as a reliable internet connection and electricity supply.
Overcoming the challenges in online learning
Regardless of these concerns, online education has made great strides in recent years. For starters, more and more institutions of higher learning have introduced or reinforced their online education platforms, the main considerations being cost reduction for students and recruitment expansion in face of rising competition. As a result, online education has become an increasingly important part of tertiary education, with colleges and universities using world-famous faculty members and professional support teams to promote online courses.
To tackle the question of teaching quality, a number of providers have turned to user rating and internal evaluation. Star teacher, for instance, has become a popular teacher evaluation mechanism in China and South Korea, two of the largest e-learning markets.
Overall, such progress seems to have eased the doubt about the quality of teaching, and 40.56% of respondents in the Global Shapers Survey said online education is as strong as traditional learning in a classroom, with another 11.76% saying they didn’t know.
The maturity of education technology has also enabled online education to become more manageable and accessible than ever before. All a prospective student needs is a computer, an internet connection and some basic IT skills.
As for the loss of traditional classroom features, online education has been making up for this through its flexibility and low cost. Students have access to their “classroom” recordings whenever they want, allowing them to go over ideas and review lessons at their convenience. Some have also pointed out that far from being an inferior learning experience, the one-on-one lessons that are often part of online education have taken teacher-student interaction to a new level, where one student is getting all the attention and the interaction, and training can be so unique and valuable.
Furthermore, some argue that online education has significantly helped make education more accessible, thus achieving the aim of “education for all”, a theme that has become a global mandate since the 1990s. While a large number of countries have made significant progress in their provision of basic education to all citizens, there are still too many people – often living in remote areas – who can’t access education.
But with an increasing number of “netizens” in rural areas in many developing countries, online education could be used to reach the last group of citizens without proper access to education and hence fulfill Sustainable Development Goal 4 concerning quality education.
Education for all
Undoubtedly, with the even wider spread of technology and deepening of the global mandate of education for all, online education’s potential to become complementary – or in some cases alternatives – to traditional education cannot be overlooked.
Instead of worrying whether or not online education can ever be as good as more traditional formats, perhaps we should instead focus on how we can use it to deliver quality education for people all over the world, particularly the poor and underserved.
This won’t be an easy task – online education is in dire need of regulation. Outstanding issues include the question of accreditation and quality control. This gets even more complicated when you consider the international dimensions. For years, cross-border credit or degree accreditation has been a major issue for various education systems. The flexibility of online learning will only make that harder.
The obstacles are real but not insurmountable. And the opportunity to make good on the promise of education for all is too big to miss.