Universities and vocational education: a new learning game

Australia's tertiary education system requires urgent reform to emphasize lifelong learning, agility, and digital skills. Traditional models are outdated, highlighting the need for inclusive, community-based skill-sharing platforms in the digital age.
Darren Scott
6 mins
“Humans need three basic things in order to be content. To feel competent at what they do, to feel authentic in their lives and to feel connected with others.”


ANU Vice Chancellor Brian Schmidt couldn’t have been clearer.

In his personal submission to the Universities Accord review. Professor Schmidt called for a “nose to tail” revolution in the face of a “broken” vocational education and training system within a fractured tertiary education system. That becomes a more urgent challenge with pressing demands for speed, agility and resilience across the economy to thrive in the digital economy.

It goes deeper. It has to be our shared task across government, business, the education and learning system and the broader community, to make a culture of lifelong learning a reality for everyone. We all love to learn, but this is different. Equitable access to the right skills and the best possible support for a lifetime of learning has to become a national obsession.

Professor Schmidt’s revolution is partly about quality and content, the “what” of a learning and skills system. It needs to track rapid and unpredictable changes in new digital capabilities that will keep surprising us with new demands, new risks and new opportunities.

But it’s also about the “how” of learning. New demands for flexibility and agility clash with many education and skills structures and systems that are slow, cumbersome and often poorly aligned with what people need to learn and how they want to learn.

Growing and spreading future-facing skills and capabilities is at the heart of our collective ambition to transform our economy and society by unlocking the potential of the digital age for everyone.

Traditional education and learning systems are not going to solve this challenge as they are currently set up and certainly not on their own. If we don’t find new ways to help people learn, particularly the skills and knowledge of the digital age, we risk missing big opportunities for resilience and prosperity. And in the process, we will leave large parts of society behind.

We need new ways to invest in our human capital. That means playing a new learning game better attuned to the demand for flexibility, inclusion and resilience.

Professor Schmidt is not alone. There are plenty of calls for radical reform and deep change to the culture and practice of skills and capability development. The recent Advancing Prosperity report from the Productivity Commission is the most recent, putting reforms in education at the heart of Australia’s “productivity predicament.”

And technology — digital, data, AI, social media — is at the core.

In fact, technology has rarely moved as fast as it is right now in relentless cycles of change, each bringing new demands for skills culture and capabilities to survive and thrive.

As a consequence, individuals and organisations in business, government and the community sector are not evolving their “human capital” — the skills and opportunities of their people — as fast or as comprehensively as they should.

In part, that’s because the learning models and systems on which they rely are often outdated and struggle to match the rhythms of a faster, more intense, better connected digital world.

The risk is employees become disheartened and disengaged and who worry rightly, about falling behind. Worse, new inequities of wealth and opportunity become entrenched. That damages people, the economy and society.

In fact, the problem is deeper.

The World Economic Forum has argued[1] that “capital is being superseded by human talent as the most important factor of production.” Further, COVID-19 is accelerating the adoption of technology. But, the Forum argued, “for organizations to fully benefit from technology, they must support the development of a workforce with digital skills.”

In Australia, there are growing calls for investment in transitions to the digital economy including the need to build skills and confidence. According to one technology industry analysis,[2] “our economy and workforce should transition to increase sovereign capabilities, seek resilience in global and local supply chains and digitise our economy.

In a report from the Centre for Social Impact[3], Australians with lower levels of income, education, and employment emerged as significantly less digitally included, as are people over 65, Indigenous Australians and people with disability. The same report also found that people with mobile-only internet access — which typically includes those with lower incomes and people experiencing homelessness — are less digital including that the population as a whole.

The priority to close gaps and dissolve differential opportunity for learning has to be at the heart of the learning venture for a new digital age. It can’t be an afterthought.

What does that mean? We need new ways to invest in our human capital as part of a new learning game better attuned to the demand for flexibility, inclusion and resilience.

An evolving tribe of expertise

The Experience Exchange (www.tex.inc) is pioneering a way of learning — connected and social, relevant and responsive — that is rapidly growing as a practical response to exactly the dilemmas that the Productivity Commission has laid out.

TEX enables curated communities of practise to share skills and experiences.. It’s a place where individuals, organisations, technology leaders and academia can work together, target an outcome and close the digital skills gap.

A platform where people can curate their own learning and support and access expertise and experience from within their community, anywhere in the world, with a rhythm and intensity that makes sense for them to build the skills they need.

The point is to give everyone access to the expertise they need to thrive in the digital economy. Connections that builds empathy, respect and a mutual interest in areas of expertise and knowledge; it makes ideas and experiences easier to absorb so they can start to be confidently used more quickly.

As we’ve built, grown and adapted TEX with people who have shared their experience and insight, we’ve stayed true to building human connection as the core of learning. The idea is to build a sustainable and growing community to help you or that you can help when the next challenge comes along. Basically, a living, breathing, evolving tribe of expertise.

How well we learn, how quickly we learn and, increasingly, how we learn together from shared experience and expertise is key to navigating the digital economy’s speed, intensity and connectedness.

Martin, Darren and the team @ TEX

Further information

Visit us at www.tex.inc

Connect with us directly at darren@tex.inc; martinsw@publicpurpose.com.au; info@tex.inc;

Read more from Martin here, Martin Stewart-Weeks

[1] https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/01/building-a-future-ready-global-workforce-post-covid/


[3] https://www.csi.edu.au/media/uploads/csi-covid_factsheet_digitalinclusion.pdf

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