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Skills evolution


QuestionsDonald H Taylor reports on Ufi's vision of the future of technology-supported learning and asks: what happened to the employer?

Founded in 1998, Ufi exists to provide resources and services for adult learning and development. Like that other great British invention, the Open University, it has made a great contribution to widening participation in learning in the UK: since 2000, over 2m people have trained using its learndirect online learning service.

Published recently to mark the organisation's 10th anniversary, Skills Evolution, a collection of six essays, is a mixed bag. Each of the essays aims to paint a credible picture of the future of technology-supported learning. Some succeed better than others.

Outlandish statements

As well as the essays, the report has a vodcast and a timeline showing the past and future of skills development through technology. The timeline has an almost comic book, technology-driven view of future learning. In 2024, we are told: "Robots have replaced human teachers".

Photo of Donald H Taylor"This is a bit of a let down. Skills assessment is important for setting a learning road map before learning, but surely it goes too far to say that it will 'enhance our educational experiences' - except at a distance, by helping us choose the right ones."

None of the report is as outlandish as this statement might suggest, however. Bar a touch of artificial intelligence and 3D simulation, there is precious little big-picture star gazing, which is probably as well. After all, Ufi is a practical body doing practical work. A few of the essays do, however, lapse into gadgeteering – as the author latches on to particular technology and pursues its use beyond the credible.

What part of 'learning' is actual learning?

Dick Moore, Ufi's director of technology falls deepest into this trap when he tackles the likely role of digital personal assistants (PAs) in our learning in the future. He invites the reader to "Imagine a digital PA that selects the relevant information for you to consume based on your own skills gaps... with automated systems, we will not only be provided with the relevant knowledge but have it pre-digested for us".

'Pre-digested'? Effective learning is all about taking new information onboard – which you do by engaging with it. It is precisely in this digestion of the information that the learning happens. Moore shows he understand this when he says: "This information will remain static unless we create value by thinking about it and making links with what we already know and understand".

Reading this, I hoped that Dick Moore would go on to say how technology could provide rich learning environments to make this happen. Instead, this follows: "Technology that enhances our educational experiences through accurate skills assessment and training is the next step".

This is a bit of a let down. Skills assessment is important for setting a learning road map before learning, but surely it goes too far to say that it will 'enhance our educational experiences' - except at a distance, by helping us choose the right ones. This is not Moore's point, though. His example of skills assessment is of artificial intelligence software marking GCSE papers – in other words, automated testing after learning. It's an important distinction, and one worth some editorial input: two pages on the role of technology in testing and assessment would have made a good read.


There was no such editorial input, however. Overall, the report has been very lightly edited. Perhaps the aim was to give the authors free rein. That has its advantages, but I would have preferred either a more coherent view of future learning, or to have divergent views presented as two different views of a case. As it is, when the essayists contradict each other, they do so in passing, rather than head to head.

Dick Moore, for example, finishes his piece with this flourish: "The days of the UK's industrial economy are long gone. Bleeding edge technology must be embraced if the UK is to become a leader in [tomorrow's] knowledge economy".

On the next page, futurologist Ian Pearson begins his second paragraph: "Today's school system concentrates on training kids for the dying 'knowledge economy' rather than the future 'care economy'".

Well, is the 'knowledge economy' dying or not? As our perceived move towards it informs a great deal of government skills policy, I would have liked an editor to make more of this debate.

Pearson's point about the 'knowledge economy' is that smart machines will soon be doing all the knowledge work, leaving us to do... well, to do the things that machines apparently can't. In learning, he suggests that simulated environments such as those found in virtual worlds be used in conjunction with artificial intelligence (AI), because "people can practice human skills in a safe environment before trying it in a real life situation". He probably has a point – this would be a natural continuation of what is already happening – for example in Brigadoon and other Second Life environments for the autistic (albeit without AI).

"Pearson's point about the 'knowledge economy' is that smart machines will soon be doing all the knowledge work, leaving us to do... well, to do the things that machines apparently can't."

In contrast to Pearson's focus on AI, professor Wendy Hall and Nigel Shadbolt both of the University of Southampton's School of Electronics and Computer Science, keep their feet firmly on the ground, and stress the power of augmenting existing technologies. In particular they both examine the semantic web, which provides more intelligent access to data than current search engines.

Developing information

Hall emphasises that technological change is not socially neutral, and insists we ensure that the streams of information developed in the future are widely available. In the often rosy world of technology-supported learning this is a point worth remembering. Shadbolt looks at the benefits of "universities and schools... using content they and their students have generated, structured, indexed and tagged". In other words, between them they paint a believable world of information sharing and its potential pitfalls.

But in one thing, Hall, Shadbolt, Moore and Pearson are united. They focus almost exclusively on individual learners and on the education sector, supported by technology. The fascinating introduction by Professor Lord Robert Winston on the workings of the brain, and Ufi chairman John Weston's conclusion do the same. For a report subtitled 'The Future of Workplace Skills' this is unfortunate.

Between the individual and the aggregated UK skills base, there is something else: the employer. Professor Shadbolt is the only essayist to devote any time to them. In a thought-provoking passage he says:

"The large corporates may well seek to lock the best talent down – corporate welfare states will emerge in some of these companies that will be richer than even large nation states."

Again, he paints a vision that is not entirely enticing, but all the more believable for that. We cannot ignore the role of employers in developing the UK's skills base, and Ufi has not done so in its work, but that could have been more widely reflected in this report. The organisational role in skills development is vital.

Ufi has an admirable mission: "To use technology to transform the skills and employability of the working population, in order to improve the UK's productivity".

It already works closely with employers. This report, after Ufi's first 10 years, spells out one part of the vision of future learning. I look forward to another report detailing the close relationship between Ufi and employers in making that vision a reality.

About the author: Donald H Taylor is chairman of the Learning and Skills Group and the Learning Technologies conference. He blogs at

For more information on the Ufi report go to:


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