“Don’t confuse schooling with education. I didn’t go to Harvard, but the people that work for me did.”
— Elon Musk, South African-born entrepreneur and business magnate.
The world of work is changing rapidly. Disruption is everywhere, and work systems are constantly evolving. Zoom calls and online platforms have become the norm. But where does our education system fit in all of this, or is it still struggling to keep abreast with this volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) environment? Of course, we all love to learn. It’s simply our nature. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed how we think about work and education.
Of the main reasons we go to study further is to reap the financial rewards of possessing a degree or diploma of some sort. And in many ways, this makes sense; those who’ve studied for longer do benefit from an education premium that increases their earnings – and a few years’ extra schooling often seems a small price to pay for a long-term financial bonus. According to this idea, getting a degree increases your earnings because education trains you to be a more skilled and productive worker. More productive workers, in turn, earn higher wages. Sounds pretty straightforward, right?
This style of education may have worked well in the industrial age, in which most workers only needed to learn how to complete a task and then repeat it over and over. Conventional education resulted from the need to deliver highly standardised knowledge to the workers’ class so they could work. But in today’s context of constant innovation, a new approach to education is needed.
One study from Gallup found that only 11 percent of business leaders feel that tertiary education institutions prepare students to be successful – implying, to be productive in the workplace. It also found that over half of all recent graduates are either unemployed or employed in jobs they could have done without a pricey university education.
But how do businesses and society deal with this problem? What have we learned from the COVID-19 pandemic concerning how we learn and what the future of education could look like? How do we upgrade our education system to fit the needs of today’s economy?
Out with the old, in with the new
Current learning styles in colleges and universities use assessments from textbooks. However, textbooks use traditional theory-driven problems, where data-sets are simplified and problems are close-ended and linear. When the pandemic started, everything suddenly had the preface “e”, e-learning, e-commerce, and even e-attendance. Therefore, future education systems must address the quality of problem-solving that matches the real-world complexities. The modern information age has resulted in businesses and organisations dealing with lots of data. Thus, one of the critical skills needed to succeed as a business is how well to manage and apply data to make meaningful decisions. In addition, textbooks could be ten or twenty years out-of-date to keep up with the latest technologies , .
Courses in engineering and the social sciences, for example, must be delivered with experiential learning theory (ELT) to prepare students to be successful in their future careers. Experiential learning occurs where new knowledge is learned through reflection and conceptualisation . One notable contemporary experiential learning theorist – David Kolb, proposed the experiential learning cycle . The cycle consists of two modes of learning: grasping and transforming, which then encompasses four stages of learning: concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualisation and active experimentation – in that order. In the concrete experience process, the learner experiences new or interprets a previous experience. In a reflective observation, the learner compares current live experience with prior knowledge and experiences. The abstract conceptualisation process allows the learner to develop new concepts or modify existing theories based on their observations. Finally, active experimentation enables learners to create new experiences by extending their newly acquired knowledge to other situations , , .
From a course-design perspective, experiential learning activities can be designed to meet any learning outcomes, assessment structure and delivered anywhere – in the traditional classroom, workplace, or online. Besides, the ELT activities can include case studies, role play, interactive simulations, arts-based learning, high-impact practices, community service learning, projects and internships. ELT activities are expected to depart from traditional, teacher-centered textbook-style assessments and incorporate valid data and tasks that provide explicit reflection opportunities. Furthermore, the ELT typologies offer authentic experiences that match the employability skills demanded by industries , .
In assessing learners’ competencies in sustainability, Nolet  coined the term ‘sustainability literacy’, defining it as the “ability and disposition to engage in thinking, problem-solving, decision-making and the actions associated with achieving sustainability”. Research by Brandt et al. suggests that instructors must be enthusiastic about the topics of learning sustainability. At the same time, students and professionals value the social connection to sustainability topics. Also, effective sustainability learning requires group discussions and incorporate reflective processes. Face to face learning environment lends itself to providing the setting for a successful understanding of sustainability. However, the reluctance to switch from teacher-centred to learner-focused education, and incorporate advanced ELT activities hinders the opportunity to deliver a practical learning experience .
The education system is on the verge of a massive disruption, to state the obvious. It has to break away from the old, assembly-line education system. Education should not be seen as a luxury commodity, but how can it be democratised in society. Digital learning solutions can have a transformational effect. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, this transformation was advancing apace, but now it’s moving even faster. But it remains to be seen if this fast pace of change will translate into more online learning platforms and study programmes with fewer learners on campuses. Done right, it’s believed that industry and educational advancement can coexist as long as the right decisions are made.
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 W. O’Brien et al., Living labs as an opportunity for experiential learning in building engineering education, Advanced Engineering Informatics 50 (2021), 101440.
 A.Y. Kolb, D.A. Kolb, Experiential learning theory as a guide for experiential educators in higher education, Experiential Learning Teach. Higher Education 1, (2017), 7–44.
 M. Gadola, D. Chindamo, Experiential learning in engineering education: The role of student design competitions and a case study, Int. J. Mech. Eng. Educ. 47 (1), (2019), 3–22.
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 J.-O. Brandt et al., A matter of connection: The 4 Cs of learning in pre-service teacher education for sustainability, Journal of Cleaner Production 279 (2021), 123749
 Nolet, V., 2009. Preparing sustainability-literate teachers. Teach. Coll. Rec. 111 (2), 409e442. http://gcafh.org/edlab/Nolet.pdf.
Wagner, Tony and Dintersmith, Ted (2015): Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing our kids for the Innovation Era. Scribner.
Robinson, Ken and Aronica, Lou (2015): Creative Schools: Revolutionizing Education from the Ground Up. Penguin Books.
Spier, Guy (2014): The Education of a Valued Investor: My Transformative Quest for Wealth, Wisdom and Enlightenment. Macmillan Publishers.
About the Writers:
Romein is a (self-confessed) Pan-Africanist by heart. Romein is a multi-disciplinary professional with experience in various sectors. Contact him via ([email protected])
Ebenezer is a Development Communication Specialist, MSME & SDG Enthusiast, Finance & Investment Nomad, and a WriterPreneur. He`s Country Director (Ag) of PIRON Global Development GmbH, Ghana (www.piron.global). Contact him via ([email protected])
Enock is a Sustainability Strategist with experience in developing and delivering sustainability projects, energy research, and using renewable energy and resources to meet energy demands and materials. Contact him via ([email protected])