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What the future of learning looks like in a digital economy

COVID-19 has been a propellant for the current economic crisis, but it has also accelerated an expanding digital era. Together, the pandemic and technological change are reshaping societies and economies at their core. But how far will this go? Two experts in digital work and learning see major changes ahead.  

According to Nokia’s Sergio Fasce and Georgetown University’s Wendy Zajack, the digitization of work and learning is becoming the new normal. Alongside travel restrictions and the dangers posed by disease transmission, the world economy is becoming ever more data-driven. What both these experts suggest is that the post-COVID era will be shaped by knowledge-based innovation. That is, organizations and institutions that operate using knowledge and learning as their key asset.

The data-driven Fourth Industrial Revolution

The truth is that we are in the early days of what the World Economic Forum describes as the Fourth Industrial Revolution. One of the main challenges emerging with this new era is its inherent volatility. Even prior to the current economic crisis, technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) were forecast to disrupt millions of jobs over the coming decade. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, as many as 375 million workers — or 14 percent of the global workforce — are forecast to require upskilling by 2030.  

Nokia’s Chief Learning Officer knows something about this future. A strategic leader within a fast-moving global industry, Fasce sees digital technologies as fundamental to the post-COVID recovery. According to the CLO, a new generation of knowledge-based innovation is on the horizon with big data analytics, immersive environments, and automation set to transform the nature of the enterprise and the classroom.  

Zajack agrees with this forecast. Having worked in large corporate environments, she understands the speed and impact of technology-driven change. As a faculty director and assistant professor at Georgetown, Zajack oversees the university’s School of Continuing Studies. She observes that we have entered a period of accelerating market churn in which major institutions are now forced to increase their efforts at scaling virtual and online learning. And in her view, online education is here to stay. 

New platforms for learning


Notwithstanding the current limitations in the online learning environment, Zajack contends that what we are experiencing is only a small taste of a broadly disruptive shift. Beyond basic numeracy and literacy, schools will need to evolve their curriculum to support learning in tandem with digital technologies. New innovations in the nature of technology often means significant change in the nature of learning and education.  

In fact, digital technologies portend substantial change. When anything mentally routine or predictable can be reduced to an algorithm, it signals the need for a profound shift in our learning systems. Despite concerns about Al and the future of work, Fasce cautions against unnecessary panic. Workforce displacement may look threatening but new jobs and new livelihoods are on the horizon. Across a host of industries including medicine, engineering, entertainment, energy, and design, technology is driving a new generation of augmented human performance.

Fasce makes it clear that new investments are needed to support digital systems of work and learning. As we move from 4G to a 5G world, demand will grow for a profound transformation at all levels of learning, from elementary school, to post-secondary to workforce training. What this means is that educational strategies will need to deliberately pair creativity with technology in order to ensure that students and workers can leverage digital tools to amplify their own innate talents and abilities.  

The good news is that technologies like AI and ML are part of a creative transformation that holds the potential to regenerate a waning industrial society. Zajack says pressure is growing to rethink how schools support virtual learning environments. Online learning has been a painful experience for most students and educators alike. But this may be changing.  

What we know already is that formal education systems are under substantial pressure to provide students with higher digital competencies. Indeed, as the American engineer Douglas Engelbart understood, computer technologies are fundamental to bootstrapping human capabilities and augmenting human intelligence. Building on Engelbart’s thinking, we need to begin to better comprehend the challenges of technology in the context of human creativity and innovation— particularly with regard to our systems of work and learning.

Planning for a smarter workforce


A key challenge for educators and human resource professionals alike will be to understand the critical importance of supporting personalized learning. The changing nature of the global economy will mean that upskilling and reskilling students and workers will be continual and lifelong. Formal learning and development (L&D) programs will need to embrace micro learning and new modes of digital workforce training. For this reason, workforce strategy will require substantial collaboration between the public and private sectors in supporting personalized training programs. L&D programs will need to support behavioral expertise and critical thinking rather than simply relying on memorization or rote learning.  

Beyond the bureaucratic systems of the Industrial Age, what we are facing is a system-shift in which cybernetic systems and immersive learning environments will be foundational to the future of work and learning. Fasce believes that augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) will prove invaluable in enabling entirely new knowledge-based ecosystems. In fact, Nokia expects to harness 5G to drive AR and VR technologies in collaboration with disruptive partners. As the Nokia CLO explains, the tech industry is working to make immersive environments a common reality. Streaming real-time instructor-led learning, students and workers may soon have the capacity to handle virtual objects in real-time across data-rich platforms.  

Zajack explains the ongoing shift to virtual work signals that the education system could look quite different in just a few years time. What is certain is that new design solutions for digital learning will soon emerge to displace slide decks and top-down information transfer.  

The nature of work and learning is changing. Together, the ongoing shift to virtual work and the challenges associated with the coronavirus ensures that we will not be returning to the status quo.  Indeed, both experts agree that substantial investment is needed to retool our systems of learning and workforce training for the post-COVID era. The most important feature of this investment will be in preparing students and workers to adapt to social and economic transformation before it occurs— rather than after.  

The hard reality is that we are entering an era in which many kinds of routine work is simply becoming much less valuable. However, even as technology eliminates the need for routine labor, it is simultaneously opening up whole new opportunities in industries that leverage knowledge and innovation. The good news is that new tools for augmented learning are on the horizon as well.