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This article was published 31-03-2016

The learning revolution is upon us

New forms of learning will be fully entrenched within five years - and probably already be out of date by that time. Technology, economics and ongoing change are driving the necessity for ongoing learning. But the process can only be successful if we dramatically change the way we learn, according to professor Robert-Jan Simons.


New forms of learning will be fully entrenched within five years. But by then they will probably be overtaken by newer innovations. "We cannot really predict what they will be", says Robert-Jan Simons, emeritus professor of didactics in the digital context and scientific coordinator of the master's degree in Human Development at Schouten & Nelissen University. "Looking back at the existing, divergent forecasts tells us that most of them never transpire. At least, not in a form or at the time they were predicted. Take the dot-com companies, which at the turn of the century we thought would be set up on a massive scale. It did not happen then. However, it is happening now."

The inability to accurately predict, continues Simons, does not affect the fact that learning is subject to significant change. He lists three causes of this change: "Technology, the economy and lifelong learning. These partially overlap each other and sometimes coincide. Take technology, which has greatly contributed to the availability of information and learning resources. It has opened up a new world of information. The availability of all that information gives rise, in itself, to new forms of learning which enable people to make use of the available knowledge."

Technological push
Apart from the technological push originating from innovation in the learning environment, new forms of learning are also a response to an existing, intrinsic human need for them. And technology has made these other ways of learning possible. "As an example, the demand for the use of images in learning is widespread and has existed for a long time. Technological development has now made this possible. Photos, videos, images, graphics – it is all there and is used on a massive scale. The smart board was also widely adopted by businesses and schools. No-one saw this coming, or that it would be so widespread."

Variety of educational tools
Another change brought by technical developments, according to Simons, is that they have enabled choice from a broad variety of educational tools. "For example the choice of pretty much all available books, of learning from a tutor, of online learning or learning with colleagues. And this last form of flexible learning is currently attracting a lot of attention."

Simons also explains the difference between individual and personalized learning. Individual learning means that the educational tools are defined and you make a personal choice from the available range. Personalized learning means that you personally define the information and educational tools you want to use in learning. "The recent focus on personalized learning is because this kind of flexibility addresses the requirements of improving employability."

Time and distance disappear
Technology has also removed time and distance as relevant criteria in learning. We now have workplace learning. More and more organizations are embracing this approach. "For example, a large healthcare organization in the south of the country", says Simons. "They have thrown out all forms of external training. This, of course, requires change in the available resources. There must be areas where people can study. There must be good online facilities. For large organizations, this is more attractive than having employees constantly away on courses and incurring travel expenses. The internal solution saves time and expense."

"Learning in the workplace is, however, not necessarily cheaper - given the investment in learning resources that are sometimes quickly obsolete. Workplace learning can also reduce productivity."

Technology is nevertheless not the main driver of new forms of learning, believes Simons. Developments in world economy are more important. "We no longer produce cheap products and services in the West, so this happens elsewhere. The cheap T-shirt is made in Asia, but the production methods for this were developed by us."

Shrimp industry
"We have seen a recent example of this in the shrimp industry", he continues. "Shrimps were peeled in the Netherlands. The work then moved to Morocco. Then mechanized peeling was developed in the Netherlands, which brought shrimp peeling back here - but now done mechanically. In the West we focus on innovation and that requires creativity, new ideas. This permanent state of innovation is our competitive advantage in relation to the rest of the world."

Development focus
This permanent orientation towards development requires well-trained people, capable of addressing new issues on an ongoing basis. "Cognitive knowledge is involved only to limited extent", says Simons. "It ages faster than ever before, constantly requiring new knowledge in replacement. There is also the requirement that this knowledge must be quickly applicable in the business of generating innovation. This requires a focus on innovation and creativity."

Need for permanent learning
Simons then cites the third cause of change in learning: the need for permanent learning. ''We live in an uncertain world, in which we are never certain of tomorrow's requirements. We are subject to climate change, attacks, wars and a whole range of other, unexpected developments. One must be ready to respond to what will be asked of you tomorrow."

Tolerance of uncertainty
"It is a misunderstanding that the intelligent employee with a high IQ is best equipped for this", says Simons. "Degree of intelligence, or lack thereof, does not apply here. Analytical ability is not enough to enable quick response to change. It is also about tolerance of uncertainty. Tomorrow the circumstances in which you have to work, the skills required of you or the knowledge that you must apply could all be different. Whether you can handle this is a question of personality. Not only your knowledge will be required, but also your inspiration, involvement and motivation. Creativity, empathy, social intelligence - everyone has talents that are needed to give permanent learning form and content."

Learning in communities
"The ability to learn independently is important for permanent learning", Simons continues. "You have to get used to the fact that you are constantly learning. But that does not mean that you have to do it alone. Learning within communities is growing rapidly. For example, in healthcare and education. Teachers are reaching out to each other in order to develop new learning tools and to learn, together, how to deploy them. This is also seen in healthcare, where professionals are trying to learn how they can respond to patients' personal needs, against a background of insufficient budgetary and time resources. People are reaching out to each other to resolve these issues together, to look at how other professions are responding and to find the applications in their own work."

Are the familiar ways of expressing learning achievement still relevant - such as diplomas and certificates? Simons advocates change here too. They are suitable for basic qualifications, but not for recognition of progress in permanent learning. "We must get rid of much of the output criteria that relies on testable results. This gives insufficient insight into people's flexibility and adaptability. We must work towards relying on employees' willingness to change and their adaptability. This not only concerns the degree of employability, but also job satisfaction, commitment and motivation. It calls for a culture change - and it is one required from of all of us."

Robert-Jan Simons
Professor Robert-Jan Simons is scientific coordinator of the master's degree in Human Development at Schouten & Nelissen University. He is also emeritus professor of didactics in the digital context, a chair that he held at Utrecht University from 2001 until he reached emeritus status in 2014. He was previously professor of educational and training psychology and research director of pedagogy and educational sciences at the Catholic University of Nijmegen (from 1990 to 2001). Simons studied psychology in Utrecht and Amsterdam. He received his doctorate in 1981 on the basis of a thesis on the use of metaphors in education.

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