Industry 4.0 and Education (4.0)

Creating a new ecosystem

By M.Savic, L.Dupasquier 02 Feb 2021 Opinion
Image for post

Two and a half millennia ago, Heraclitus stated that the only thing that is permanent is change. As time went on, his claim proved as more than valid. Some systems are changing faster, some slower. Change, as time-related process, focuses away from the past and present, continuously emphasizing on future. Academia as the knowledge-generator induces the change; in the same time, as the well-established, traditional structure Academia resists the change. Through the history, those two contradicting, dialectic facts have continuously shaped.

Industrial revolutions have proven as strong generators of societal change. Significant changes in Academia have always been triggered by societal change. With the rise of industry, the role of Higher Education starts to shift from enlightening society to supporting economy. Accordingly, at some point, Academia tends to take a lead and drive the development.

Competitive knowledge economies of the future are to be built driven by new technologies. New, or highly transformed industries, professions and jobs are in rise. In a rapidly changing world, higher education cannot stand still. It should catalyse its present collaboration with the world of business and thus maximise its students’ smooth professional insertion.

We are witnessing that HE institutions today, understanding their future role as the suppliers of the knowledge economies and enablers of the ongoing 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR), already started to change their dynamics of change. For example, the internet has opened up a realm of possibilities in many fields, none less so than in higher education. For one, it has introduced the paradigm of permanent (constant)
transformation. Thus it is impossible to say today what professions will still be with us tomorrow. This revolutionary paradigm is based on education and training on the one hand, and long-term employment on the other, the twin pillars on which professional success is founded. Thus the future of both the world of business and the world of education are inextricably intertwined.

The real danger for Academia lays behind avoiding the change. Universities are slowly getting aware that they can't control who learns what, where and how anymore. Lifelong learning, MOOCs, micro-credentials and new-collar workers with non-traditional educational background in tech industry are just some of the valid responses to the Industry 4.0. In the same time, majority of schools worldwide still struggle to get away from robustly structured curricula, 14-weeks semesters and traditional degrees. Without acknowledging that change will happen with or without their participation, universities are choosing their own downfall.

From the other side, institutions which have initialized some of those novelties (eg. Harvard & MIT with their MOOC platforms) have already proven their ability to adapt. Evolving further some of those pioneering institutions are suggesting brand-new educational schemes aligned with the demands of the future society.

The ongoing vast global debate tends to explore and foresee the directions of expected transformation. We are witnessing the intense debate following the rise of Industry 4.0:

  • How AI and robots will affect the labor market of the future? Are we in danger of AI taking control over humanity?
  • In which extent is Industry 4.0 disruptive when it comes to education?
  • Will Academia as we know it disappear?
  • How exactly the Higher Education of future will look like?
  • What are the best pathways to perceive and facilitate the change?

New learners (Millennials and Generation Z) as digital natives, seek alternative sources of knowledge to utilize them for their own growth. They are not hesitating to compare college and non-college knowledge offer. Measuring easiness, effectiveness and value for money, they are diverting from the previously common educational routes, hopping in-and-out from learning to work, shifting between professions and changing jobs. As ‘entrepreneurial learners’, they plan their learning pathways according to targeted careers, optimize their efforts towards achievable gains, and custom-tailor order of ‘learning portions’ in accordance with their personal development objectives, offered schedules and available budget.

There is no doubt regarding a need to embed new skills (list not exhausted yet) into the learning process. In addition, disruption of industry expectations will affect the approach to design the structure of the college curricula. Disruption of learners' expectations induces another shift, towards "person-centered", flexible educational model targeting dynamically changing jobs of the future, and comprising all possible ways of learning (formal, informal, non-formal, contact/workplace/blended/remote, degrees/qualifications/digital badges etc.). New approach addresses the full life/working cycle, enabling learner to accumulate knowledge, carry it in e-backpack and get it assessed against particular job requirements.

The key drivers of the forthcoming change evolve from the relation between major stakeholders - colleges, learners and industry. “In the old days” the worlds of business and education seemed to exist in parallel universes, with but a passing interest in each other. The first where suspected of threatening the world of pure learning with their capitalist agenda, while the second was seen by the former as producing graduates quite disconnected from the real world. Neither would speak to each other, and if they did, it would be little more than superficial chitchat over a glass of bubbly or a gin & tonic. The digital transformation of the world of business has had a huge impact on the way work takes place and is organised. It should therefore come as no surprise that businesses are on the lookout for a new and different set of skills in their recruits, skills that include above all a keen sense of curiosity and the capacity to learn and adapt to rapidly changing circumstance, a mind-set that should allow for the successful completion of divers and innovative projects.

Some may recall a time when students where primarily engaged in what was quaintly referred to as the “classics”. That time now has gone. Universities nowadays prepare their students to be future employees and entrepreneurs with the capacity to slot seamlessly into the present labour market, young graduates who are ready to adapt to the world of work in all its various guises. Faced with the economic realities of our time, universities have successfully managed to evolve their courses, by integrating real-life professional situations, in order to better prepare their students for the challenges of the contemporary professional world.
As concerns the students themselves, they have been more than instrumental in achieving those changes, as their choice of studies inevitably attracted them to those centres of higher education that offered them the best guarantees for a successful professional insertion. In a world where cost is of primary concern, the heads of universities have become veritable patrons. Thus they developed partnerships with the world of business and enterprise, partnerships that have shown themselves to be extremely fruitful not only for the successful professional insertion of its graduates but, moreover, for the reputation of the university. Offering new content in their undergraduate and graduate programmes, while simultaneously developing new teaching methods, universities have evolved into centres of international excellence, where innovation and globalisation are key.

Taking the opportunity offered by business to fully participate in the development of a project while still a student over a period of 2 to 3 years, it allows them to fully absorb the demands of industry and / or commerce, while finding a practical application of their studies. An added bonus in this set-up is the fact that these apprenticeships are paid for, thus allowing for those students with less financial clout to finance their studies over a longer period of time; this in turn improves the social diversity of society, not a bad thing at a time when the integration of social and ethnic minorities within the fabric of society as a whole is, both politically and socially, at a premium.

Addressing the challenge, number of new, more open and more flexible college models already begin to arise promising to ensure the future of formal post-secondary education. Those proactive providers are applying dual models (academic & vocational), recognizing prior learning, developing upskilling & reskilling programs for mid-career professionals, adding micro-credentials and emphasizing on work-related learning through internships and apprenticeships. Applied research initiatives under proactive partnership with industry are resulting by development of technology parks, boosting employment and offering vast entrepreneurial opportunities for learners.

In order to succeed, new models require significant mind shift and internal and external buy-in. Faculty and administrators are expected to unlearn and re-learn how to assess the quality of learning and how to structure new career prospects. Industry has to take more responsibility in articulating expectations, foreseeing employment needs and defining future occupation profiles. Learners have to understand new opportunities and take more responsibility (ownership) over own career development. Respective government entities have to engage to structure and regulate comprehensive frameworks (including updated accreditation models) to maintain and facilitate that newly-evolved ecosystem.

It should be clear by now that where once there stood a solid wall between the worlds of business and higher learning, now a brave new world of intense collaboration between the two beckons. Just as the career success of its graduates shines a light on the university that brought them forth, so the appeal of a business to young graduates resides in its capacity to offer them a dynamic learning environment.
So what would be the exact effect on universities as we know? In years to come, they will test their ability to evolve in order to sustain. Some may choose not to change, which will surely affect their competitiveness. Others will (if not already) begin to transform. Personally, I see the universities of (near) future as follows:

  • offering diverse, guided, partially-structured and career-oriented pathways for learners, including entrepreneurship models (business incubators, spin-offs)
  • evolving curricula to be more flexible, modular and generic,
  • keeping non-exclusive ownership over credentials by assuring quality of non-traditional provision (recognition of prior learning, credit transfer and similar),
  • emphasizing real-life/work-related experience by enhanced partnership with external stakeholders (government, industry) under triple-helix model, and
  • still inclusively appreciating “learning for sake of learning” model.

Education will surely share the destiny of humanity. Regardless which future scenario humanity will choose, education will follow and continue to support. We have to agree and accept that change is inevitable. Accordingly, universities of the future will be different of those we know today. In addition, following the evolution laws, some educational models will disappear, some new will arise. Enlightening role of education will evolve as well, helping humanity to develop and accept new values and ethical norms (eg. regarding Artificial Intelligence). Having in mind its' eventual status in the process of change, as soon as ready-to-change Academia reaches critical mass, it will take a lead and ensure the smooth and safe 4IR implementation.