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Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Thinking about the Future of Work to Make Better Decisions about Learning Today | EDUCAUSE Review

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Marina Gorbis, futurist and social scientist who serves as executive director to the Institute for the Future (IFTF), Silicon Valley nonprofit research and consulting organization insist, "By looking at historical patterns and identifying signals of change around us today, we can better prepare for the transformations occurring in both work and learning."

Marina Gorbis is the author of The Nature of the Future
Dispatches from the Socialstructed World (2013).

If you've participated in recent discussions about the future of higher education, inevitably you have heard people argue about the purpose of education. "It should be about preparing students to be good, educated, and engaged citizens," some argue. "We shouldn't bend education to suit today's needs of acquiring specific work skills. These may quickly change, leaving graduates with little to fall back on as demand for their particular skills wanes. Instead, we should equip people with basic critical thinking skills and a desire to learn. A curious mind is a much greater asset than specific content knowledge." 

Others respond: "That is all nice and good, but in an era of rising tuitions and high student debt, it is more important than ever for graduates to be able to earn good incomes, not only to repay their debts but also to lead sustainable lives. To ensure this, we need to more tightly connect education and work preparation."

Such debates are not new; they've been around for decades if not longer. What is new are the ways that both the nature of work and the tools and processes for learning are changing. These fundamental transformations are making distinctions between work, learning, and living ever more artificial. The Institute for the Future (IFTF), in partnership with ACT Foundation, recently published ACT Foundation, recently published Learning Is Earning in the National Learning Economy — a visual synthesis of future forces that are shaping this transformation. The work shows how the proliferation of online learning resources (free and for pay), the rise of alternative learning and making paces(from TechShop to General Assembly  and makerspaces), and the diffusion of mobile technologies and peer-to-peer communities allow every moment of the day to become a learning moment. At the same time, the way we have come to think about work—that is, 9-to-5 predictable jobs in formal organizations—is less and less a reality for the growing number of working-age adults. So in thinking about the future, we need to understand the forces that are reshaping both work and learning, and we need to make linkages between the two. Instead of debating whether learning is for learning's sake or as a means for earning a living, we need to think about the forces and signals of transformation and what they mean for higher education today and tomorrow.

So let's explore these deeper transformations.1 From our experience of doing forecasting work for nearly fifty years, we at the IFTF believe that it is usually not one technology or one trend that drives transformative shifts. Rather, a cluster of interrelated technologies, often acting in concert with demographic and cultural changes, is responsible for dramatic changes and disruptions. Technologies coevolve with society and cultural norms—or as Marshall McLuhan is often quoted as having said: "We shape our tools and afterwards our tools shape us." Nowhere does this apply more critically today than in the world of work and labor. Here, I focus on four clusters of technologies that are particularly important in shaping the changes in the world of work and learning: smart machines; coordination economies; immersive collaboration; and the maker mindset...

Immersive Collaboration: From Face-to Face to Blended Reality 
We are creating a new kind of reality, one in which physical and digital environments, media, and interactions are woven together throughout our daily lives. In this world, the virtual and the physical are seamlessly integrated. Cyberspace is not a destination but is, rather, a layer of experience that is tightly integrated into the world around us. The proliferation of mobile and sensing devices, advances in virtual and augmented reality, and the explosion of various types of lightweight collaboration platforms are making it easier than ever to work, share ideas, and be a part of a global team while still being physically separated. In fact, being a part of a geographically distributed workforce is quickly becoming a de facto standard in today's work environment. 

Although the amount of information that can be transmitted via typical online video platforms is currently limited, it is poised to jump dramatically as a new generation of gigabit telecommunications networks is deployed and even rural areas get connected with mesh wireless communication tools. Virtual reality devices, once the purview of science fiction or high-cost research labs, are entering retail markets with the introduction of Oculus Rift, which consumers can purchase for about $300. These devices are poised to enter not only entertainment spaces but also learning and work environments, enabling people to create shared "realities" independent of geographies. 

At the same time, the online social networking industry has seen enormous growth over the last decade. These sites have so far largely filled a recreational or contact-directory role. At the same time, social network infrastructures are permeating the work domain with team productivity and coordination tools, such as Google Docs and Google Hangouts, Asana, and Slack. Meeting augmentation platforms such as MindMeld promise to deliver critical information flows in the context of online meetings. These systems seek to repurpose the communications tools used by Facebook and others to facilitate a deeper coordination of professional teams. The ability to deftly manage and apply social networking tools—in order to both communicate effectively and facilitate the accomplishment of practical tasks—will be increasingly valued. Many entrepreneurs are also using online platforms to create showrooms and storefronts to sell their products. 

This world of immersive virtual collaboration will drive new work patterns, will further support entrepreneurial efforts in countries with high unemployment, and will create new dilemmas that individuals and governments will need to navigate. 

24/7 Global Teams 
Putting together global teams that can undertake tasks continuously, using time differences as a competitive advantage in the provision of goods and services, has become an efficient and often highly desirable practice in several industries. It is already playing out in the world of finance, where traders operating in global and integrated teams can use minute advantages in timing to create greater profits. Increasingly, this global advantage works for the worlds of programming, selling, and many other areas as well and will drive requirements for a new kind of team literacy in labor markets around the world. 

Digital Work Trails 
As virtual collaboration across borders becomes ever easier, those workers with the ability to orchestrate, shape, and productively participate in ad hoc value networks will be greatly prized. Virtual collaboration requires that those involved leave digital trails of their work so that others know where the gaps are, what needs to be done, and where they need to contribute. Google Docs, wikis, and many other collaboration platforms will enable the creation and management of such digital trails. Curating these trails may become micro-tasks for people with local, on-the-ground knowledge as well as those dedicated to and skilled in a new kind of work management. Asana is a web and mobile application designed to enable teamwork without e-mail. Each team gets a workspace that contains projects and tasks. In each task, users can add notes, comments, attachments, and tags. Users can follow projects and tasks, and when the state of a project or task changes, followers receive updates about the changes. Another example is Trello — a free, online, and mobile collaboration tool that organizes projects into boards. At one glance, Trello users can see what's being worked on, who's working on what, and where something is in a process. 

Quantified Work 
With so much work being done through digital technologies and with the proliferation of digital trails, it becomes easy to create exceedingly precise individual and team performance and productivity metrics. Having this type of data is essential to creating algorithms for efficiently allocating tasks. Such measurement can be done at an individual level and also aggregated across workers. When this data is collected and used at an individual level, however, it creates concerns about a new kind of Taylorism, potentially increasing individual stress levels and raising concerns about privacy and coercion. We are already beginning to see this issue emerging among package delivery workers, many of whom resent continuous monitoring of their vehicles. Online task platforms such as Upwork can see at what time of day what type of workers are most productive anywhere in the world or what type of coding is most efficiently done in a particular country. LiveOps measures time spent by each freelance agent on a task: time spent with a customer can be logged in and correlated with an outcome such as making a sale.
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Additional resources 
New Workers, New Skills by Marina Gorbis
"What are the most important skills—the work skills and the life skills—that students should acquire from their educational experience, and what is the best way to teach those skills?"

Source: EDUCAUSE Review

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