It was a full house at the recent annual Academic Board Forum, where UTS academics and professional staff gathered to share information and contemplate what the learners of the future might look like. As a digital educator myself, and a new member of the rapidly expanding LX.lab, I was keen to grasp how UTS is actioning ‘a lifetime of learning’ not just for undergraduate and postgraduate students, but also for enterprise learners wanting to upskill or reskill in an increasingly digitally disrupted world.

One of the goals of the UTS 2027 strategy is to create agile leaders with multidisciplinary skills who are professionally equipped for the evolving job market. This requires educators to be up-to-date with innovation in the workplace ourselves. The task can seem daunting, but new technology is providing an increasing number of tools and resources to make our lives easier. At the end of the day, we are all on our own learning journey just as much as our students.

Multi-generational learning

According to Professor Robert Wood, Director of UTS Futures Academy, “we need to teach people how to learn again”. To avoid multi-generational workforces becoming polarised, organisations are having to find effective ways to work and learn together. “Everyone is feeling the pressure!”, said Claire Madden, a UTS alumna and the founder and director of Hello Clarity. Madden is a social researcher and author specialising in Gen Z and shared a few good tips on how to speak Gen Z and be ‘lit’ (i.e. awesome, cool…not intoxicated).

She discussed how students today are highly concerned about staying relevant; they fear being left behind, just like many of their older peers. However, unlike their predecessors, Gen Zs complain of having too many options and pathways, each one filled with uncertainty and unknowns. Although generally optimistic, they are also apprehensive and therefore looking for transferable skills as they expect to jump around in the workplace over the course of their professional lives.

Transformational learning approaches

Consequently, students today are seeking greater mobility and flexibility not just in the way they learn, but also the way they want to work. They have high expectations, which are rapidly evolving alongside technology. They are used to fast-paced delivery systems with variety, real-time updates, instant feedback, rewards, personalisation, customisation, and engaging interactions. However, Madden also notes that these high levels of engagement can also lead to increased anxiety, confusion and insecurity. Devices can create barriers between us; dehumanising and desensitising us. Madden described how many Gen Zs suffer from ‘absent presence’, a state in which they only ever pay partial attention, as they constantly straddle two worlds: the physical and virtual. This is affecting their levels of concentration and productivity, which we often see play out in the classroom. For this reason, we need to develop new strategies to push past superficial engagement. Establishing healthy boundaries between our personal and professional lives as technology continues to blur the lines is essential, and a big part of developing good interpersonal and digital literacy skills, alongside a strong focus on ethics.

Another pressing issue we need to take into consideration is that many students are feeling isolated by all these digital distractions and seeking out community, so both the campus and the workplace are becoming an increasingly important part of young people’s social lives. They’re looking for connection and community IRL (in real life), not just online. Madden believes that educators can help facilitate that connection in the classroom through meaningful collaboration and social interaction with games and activities, specifically tailored to a curriculum.

Stackable degrees and micro-credentials

The initiation of stackable degrees and micro-credentials is a big step toward future-proofing higher education and enabling more autonomy in student’s learning journeys. In a standard UTS degree, an academic defines the curriculum, but with the roll-out of stackable degrees in Autumn 2020, the student will define the curriculum – usually with a specific problem in mind. This could be a challenge in their professional practice, how to address a technological disruption in their workplace, or a global problem they may wish to address. The student will then pick (or ‘stack’) the curriculum that will best help them to solve that problem and participate in studios, which are designed to be collaborative practice-based learning experiences.

Micro-credentials (sometimes called nano or mini courses) will give learners the ability to access bite-sized chunks of learning at their own pace without having to make a bigger commitment to a traditional Master or Certificate. Delivered in a blended learning environment to fit busy lifestyles, students will be able to choose from a variety of modes to suit their learner needs, be it fully online, face-to-face or a mix between the two with easily accessible online resources, bootcamps and other events. When UTS launches the new micro-credentials program in 2020, they’ll be the smallest form of awarded study on offer, earning students anywhere from 2 – 12 cp per micro-credential. Students can then use them to scale up into graduate certificates, diplomas and master degrees (where the micro-credentials align to the larger degree).

Impact of new technology

With the rise of job automation technologies like artificial intelligence and robotics, many people perceive them as a threat rather than an opportunity. Guest speaker Seckin Ungur from McKinsey & Company talked about some of the key findings and insights around the scale up of automation across industries from their recent report on Australia’s automation opportunity: Reigniting productivity and inclusive income growth (March 2019). While the transition will inevitably present challenges, as with all new technologies, ultimately there will be more jobs than today, which means lots of room for growth for those who know how to leverage the technology and are willing to learn about it. Ungur noted that governments and other institutions who manage this transition poorly could see increased inequality and even risk public backlash and political instability. In the report, John Lydon, Managing Partner of McKinsey Australia and New Zealand and Charlie Taylor, Senior Partner, Australia Public Sector Practice state that:

“More people will be affected than one might think: not only those who perform routine manual activities, but also those in predictable, data-heavy analytical areas like engineering, accounting and computing. People who can acquire new skills will flourish in their existing roles and in roles yet to be defined; others will find it much harder.”

Australia’s Automation Opportunity Report (2019), McKinsey & Company

As such, Ungur predicts a strong uplift in technological capabilities, as well as cognitive and interpersonal skills (i.e., social skills and emotional intelligence) with the biggest shifts happening in education and healthcare via innovation and disruption trends. But this in turn will lead to the augmentation and addition of new jobs and opportunities; something UTS will be able to help all students prepare for with the 2027 future of work model that we are all working towards.

Lifetime of learning circle

For me, the big takeaway was understanding that by helping students to create a more personalised learning journey, and encouraging them to participate in their own learning environments at their own pace, we’re more likely to complete the ‘lifetime of learning’ circle that could see a UTS undergraduate return not only as a post-graduate, but also potentially as an enterprise learner in the future. And if we’re smart, we might even learn a few things ourselves along the way. Personally, I’m looking forward to going back to the future!

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