Life-long Learning in the Digital Age

Life-long Learning in the Digital Age

Ravi Kumar Pillai

Ravi Kumar Pillai

Much has been written about the demographic dividend that India is expected to reap in the coming decades, based on the age mix and high proportion of working age population.

But the truth is that we simply lack the ecosystem for providing quality public education to the masses which alone can ensure inclusion, aspiration and upward social mobility at a scale needed to pitchfork the vast majority out of the cycle of self-sustaining poverty.

By the way, our demographic dividend would in all likelihood turn into a demography trap over the next three decades due to two significant trends – continued and aggravating unemployability of the dominant sections of the young and the creeping increase of ‘over-the-working-age’ dependent segment of population.

India virtually lost its development battle due to the myopic and self-defeating indifference of our ruling dispensations towards the alarmingly bulging population. Bulk of the additions are at the socially and economically vulnerable sections of society, with hardly any opportunities for education, empowerment and employment. Future generation would be unkind to the legacy of leaders who allowed this hara-kiri to happen. A nation that talks of flights to the Moon and the Mars has not found the nerve and need to articulate a policy on population and sustainability!

Education is recognised by development economists universally as the most critical strategic pillar of sustainable development. However, our education system, especially skilling our vast army of youth in employable age-group, has failed to raise the knowledge, skills and value orientation to anywhere near what has been achieved by comparable economies.

Today our limitations in the structure, culture and practices of learning and teaching are probably depriving us of yet another chance to break out of the cycle of poverty and status quo. In the digitally enabled and networked world that we live, the technology for enhancing the reach, quality and variety of learning is evolving fast. However, the social outlook towards learning needs to change. The way we learn and the way we perceive learning have to drastically transform.

Let us look at some key aspects of learning that are especially relevant to the digital age:

  1. Learning is far wider in scope and reach than education. Education itself is growing beyond the framework of formal, structured programs run by academic institutions. Informal education, mainly skill-based learning, is today crucial to social capacity building. Manufacturers, service providers and professional associations have joined the eco-system to impart vocational training and certification in a wide variety of emerging technologies and functional specializations. Self-study and online programs (MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses) have emerged as viable alternative education modes that can quickly, cost effectively and massively scale up skill-upgrade and employability.
  2. Learning societies encourage the culture of life-long learning. As newer opportunities emerge, the society should have the structural and motivational avenues to encourage citizens to acquire, update and disseminate knowledge and applications. Democratisation, informalisation and personalisation of education are the hallmarks of a learning society. In spite of the predominant role of private enterprise, United States prides itself on the quality, accessibility and affordability of its public education system. Alas in India, public education, except in States like Kerala, is a massive hole in the exchequer with little quality and far less political will. Delhi has shown significant stress in quality and capacity building in public education, thanks probably to AAP leadership’s personal commitment.
  3. The role of governance and regulation are critical to support, nurture and assess the efficacy of private education channels to ensure that education does not become the preserve of manipulators with scant respect for quality and social commitment. What has led to the proliferation of sub-standard institutions, especially in higher education, is undoubtedly the connivance and rent-seeking of the political class - the same story in sector after sector!
  4. Elementary education has critical role in nurturing the core values and attitudes to work, society and self.  Primary education coupled with the learning at home lays the foundation for healthy social and behavioral competence of children. Swachh Bharat would have become ingrained as a social habit if we had educated, empowered and supported the first teacher that any child encounters in life, the mother, especially in rural India.
  5. We have a host of socio-cultural issues holding back the upgrade of education. At the core of our handicaps is the cultural orientation of the society towards learning, especially in the heartland India. It is surprising that a civilization that produced some of the remarkable insights into self, universal oneness and mentorship-oriented education has degenerated over centuries into an exclusionary, privilege-centric society. What sets apart Indians from the societies of the Far East which have the lofty Buddhist ethos of empathy, softness, social commitment and a mellowed ego orientation is the absence of a ‘cultural persona’ that emphasizes inclusive values such as empowerment and shared pursuit of happiness.  Look at Bhutan, the tiny Himalayan nation that has institutionalized pursuit of gross national happiness as the credo of governance.
  6. At the heart of a learning society are a set of learning habits that are self-sustaining and aspirational. These values need to be ingrained at the formative stage to facilitate a balanced framework of cognitive, social and emotional growth of children.
  • Learn to face and overcome failures, not be deterred by them. Be ready to take risks, fail, learn from failure and modify responses in similar situations in future. This is key to gaining valuable life skills.
  • Learn by doing. In fact, one of the best ways to learn is by teaching or supporting someone to learn. Moving away from instructional learning to experiential learning should be the path for self-learning as well as formal learning.
  • Learn to self-critique.  Those who learn and transform themselves do so by reviewing, analyzing and questioning themselves. Self-critique is crucial to change management. Don’t hesitate to ask (and encourage others to ask) questions like, “Why” and “Why not”.
  • Benchmarking, role-modeling and seeking mentorship are part of a continuous learning process.

Competencies drive performance and accomplishment in a digitised, fast-changing and connected environment. The ability to perform the technical or professional role requirements is just the necessary conditions for survival in the current scenario. It is behavioral attributes and values that determine success.   Some call them life skills, some others refer to them as critical success factors; but it is not semantics that matter but differentiating behavior that sets apart winners from the “also ran” types.

There are some core competencies identified as especially critical to digital transformation and success, both at individual and organizational levels. These attributes apply irrespective of the environment and the context of performance. Three of them are highlighted by most experts for success - Learnability (the desire to develop and improve), Agility (the capability to adapt quickly and effectively) and Curiosity (being open to change, and inquisitive and enthusiastic about new approaches and initiatives).

Those with these attributes are more likely to be “digital ready” and comfortable to migrate to and adapt emerging technologies with ease. Hence academia should review and realign the instructional content, tools and delivery mode to these strategic competencies in order to ensure what they teach at the schools and colleges are aligned to the business and life needs.

Apart from these core competencies, there are other complementary or supporting attributes that would ensure sustainable transformation to a digital format of thinking, planning and execution of ideas.

  • Drive or Initiative (proactivity and following through)
  • Objectivity and data-driven problem solving
  • Creativity and innovation (out-of-the-box thinking)
  • Business acumen (understanding business, customers and emerging opportunities)
  • Virtual collaboration (interacting and aligning with others remotely)
  • Emotional Intelligence (resilience; ability to cope with pressure and setbacks)
  • Coaching mindset (developing others and motivating them)

The competency-based model aligned to the requirements of a digitised work environment, calls for behaviour-anchored selection, evaluation, coaching and rewards approach to talent management. The good news is that tools and techniques are available today for shifting to this methodology. We can use competency model to assess employees and deliver talent development interventions that are personalized to address specific needs.  Further, we can modify employee selection process to ensure new recruits are assessed for competencies and potential for future roles.

Learning for life is not just a choice but a necessity in the digital age. “Self-education is, I firmly believe, the only kind of education there is.” - Isaac Asimov.

The joy of rediscovering one’s potential, interests and aspirations is reserved for those who continue to learn and b open to ideas and possibilities. Not being afraid to fail or be rejected is also critical for continuous learning and self-renewal.

Former President APJ Abdul Kalam had put it beautifully, “Never be Afraid to FAIL, it simply means -First Attempt In Learning”.

*Ravi Kumar Pillai is CEO and Principal Consultant, Cherrypick India Consulting and Business Solutions Private Limited, Thiruvananthapuram. He can be contacted at