On 10 November, Ditchley convened a Transatlantic group as part of its work on continuous learning and the renewal of democracies. The main takeaways from this session were as follows:
Acceleration in digital content delivery. The response to the pandemic has driven rapid changes in how educational content is delivered, with shifts that would typically take years being achieved in months. For colleges, universities and adult education there have been positives, not just in the increased content available online, but also in innovations in teaching and learning.
Some parts have worked better than others, but this journey has only just begun and some are seeing opportunities for positive and fundamental change. As edges get smoothed over and new technologies such as virtual reality are introduced, the capabilities will only get better. This is the largest education experiment of our time.
We must not lose the benefits of the old system when we embrace the new. While we should explore the opportunities of digital, we also need to consider its limits. These include obvious things, such as the difficulty reading an audience’s reaction when delivering a lecture, to more subtle effects, such as how some people with speech impediments can find virtual discussions difficult.
Networks and friendships, an important ingredient of university life (and post university career), are developed through in-person contact. So, while technological progress has many advantages, we are social mammals and should not lose sight of the benefits of human contact.
The benefits of a broad education. Will arts subjects become marginalised in a push to deliver defined skills? The demand for digital skills training is clear, but should this be narrowly defined at the expense of broader educational outcomes? The model of a (liberal arts) university degree, (taken away from home, delivering a well-recognised qualification, allowing students to build networks and develop as individuals) remains strong.
Demand from students for a university education remains buoyant. But the model is being challenged by cost, a breaking of the job guarantee, and by policy makers determined to orientate education towards more specific ends. For those young people opting for vocational training, the opportunities are often narrow and overly prescribed with little freedom for individuals to choose where to take qualifications or to combine with additional courses.
There was a concern that the division between vocational training and university education is creating a divide and that the values of a broad education are being challenged and educational institutions weakened.
What is the role of education institutions? Some universities and further education colleges are strongly rooted in their communities and are developing well recognized roles as centres of community learning serving local geographic needs and providing opportunities for continuous learning. Despite being severely under-resourced, parts of the FE sector have demonstrated innovative practice, successfully embracing a turn to digital. They are able to access parts of the workforce that higher education does not.
Digital skills – are maybe not that difficult! The last nine months has seen a rapid change in the labour market from one where there were more jobs than people, to a position in which there are more people than jobs. Employers still report skills shortages in digital skills. But the digital transformation undergone within many educational institutions over the last three months may help meet the greater demand. Digital skills can be as much about a change in attitude and behaviour as it is about practical expertise. Technical skills can be acquired relatively easily.
Agenda for solidarity in truth seeking. Human culture is especially vulnerable at a point when it has undergone trauma. To respond, education could aim to engender values and virtues that are shared widely across society. How do we ensure there is a robust commitment to truth seeking, across the board from school to higher/further education and beyond? Solidarity in this pursuit is crucial.