Reviewing skills and knowledge: will the digital age mean a break with the past?

By Francesca Beddie

Technological change is forever challenging traditional approaches to education and training. Nevertheless, my review of a collection of landmark reports on vocational education and training published since the 1960s and collated in the VOCED plus database shows that some of the solutions remain the same:

  • give students a strong secondary education so that they have good literacy and numeracy and the ability to keep on learning for work and life
  • make vocational skills relevant to work and technology
  • value the so-called ‘soft’, generic or employability skills of communication, teamwork, analysis and problem solving.

But does the explosion in the availability and dissemination of information in the digital age, the rise of automation and artificial intelligence represent a real watershed in learning? Is the human brain functioning differently? Have we outsourced memory?[1] Is learning still social? Does the requirement for universal post-secondary tertiary education in Australia demand a new structure of educational institutions? Is the market for formal courses and qualifications reaching saturation point? Must we face the possibility that the historical segmentation and hierarchy of educational sectors, with the separation of theory—practice/reflection—action/knowing—doing/research—teaching, no longer suits modern societies and economies?

a picture of toolsTo find answers will mean stepping out of the moulds of current policy settings, funding models and institutional structures to contemplate whether the architecture needs to be dismantled altogether, so that we have different school and tertiary duration and pathways, more lifelong learning opportunities, with quite a different role for VET than as the sector wedged between school and university, struggling for survival.

In Kangan: 20 years on, Peter Ellyard said, ‘the future is not something we predict but something we create’ (Kearns, P & Hall, W 1994, Kangan: 20 years on: a commemoration: TAFE 1974-1994, NCVER, Adelaide, p.108). That creation takes time and effort as the best reviews in the landmark series show. The Kangan report remains one of the most influential. In 1973, the Whitlam government appointed Myer Kangan to chair a committee to advise the minister for education on the future development of technical and further education (TAFE). Kangan’s emphasis on the needs of the learner and the idea of lifelong learning were central to the committee’s 1974 report, TAFE in Australia: Report on Needs in Technical and Further Education, which identified TAFE as a distinctive sector of Australian education.

The year 2024 will be 50 years since the Kangan report was released. In preparation for that anniversary, it would be fitting to return our gaze to the value and purpose of education for the individual, as a family and community member as well as a worker and citizen of the nation and the world. A 50th anniversary commemoration of Kangan deserves a thorough consideration of what skills and knowledge we need in the digital age. Faced with a revolution in human and artificial intelligence, we need a multi-disciplinary conversation that begins outside the policy cycle and beyond the current institutional structures. The conversation must involve students and teachers without whom the system does not exist; neuroscientists and IT specialists because the way the brain learns and how we teach is changing radically; historians and economists to chart trends and crunch numbers; psychologists and careers advisors to help crack the pathways nut; employers and workers, who are key customers of the system; officials and politicians who need to establish limits. Together, it is they who will build a vision for how vocational learning can ride the ever-higher waves of change.

[1] This article, ”Tip-of-the-tongue syndrome’, transactive memory, and how the Internet is making us smarter’, by Maria Popova offers a good discussion of how are we are thinking differently: viewed 21 November 2019, https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/09/13/clive-thompson-smarter-than-you-think/ .


 

Francesca Beddie is Director of Make Your Point. She is a freelance historian and policy advisor. She is a member of the executive of Professional Historians Australia and a former general manager of research at the National Centre for Vocational Education Research.

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