Online courses are often linked to the digitally-savvy – and by extension, the young. While schools and even nurseries are jumping on the IT-literacy bandwagon, companies and retirement communities have been slower on the uptake. Universities are increasingly taking their lecture rooms online, from lecture capture to offering fully-online degrees, but most target school-leavers.
But this idea – that edtech is reserved for the young – ignores the untapped potential for educating and upskilling a larger pool of students: working professionals and senior citizens.
There is demand from these demographics. In aging populations like China, courses at universities like the Shanghai University for the Elderly reportedly sell out within seconds from being announced. According to a Chinese association of educators for senior citizens, there are currently more than eight million students enrolled in China’s over 70,000 elderly universities.
A Merrill Lynch study found that nearly three out of five working retirees said retirement was an opportunity to shift to a different line of work. For these adults, they don’t want education to stop in their 20s, but well into their golden years.
The appeal of going back to school isn’t limited to older students in developed economies, according to Sheryl Lim, a consultant at JobStreet Education. The online platform is a “one-stop solution” for students, professionals and retirees, whom JobStreet consultants connect to their partner universities and institutions offering online education opportunities.
This includes courses in project management, digital marketing, business administration, finance, Big Data, etc by universities such as INTI University College Malaysia, Digital Marketing Institute in the US, EdX, Chartered Institute of Management Accounting and the London Examination Board.
While many US universities have some kind of continuing education programmes in place, the debate is shifting towards incorporating more older students into campus, but Malaysia’s higher education landscape is different. For adult learners, the focus is more on online learning, where higher education institutes offer a broad range of full-time and part-time e-learning opportunities, as they offer more flexibility and greater autonomy.
“They’re slowly loving it because of the flexibility around time [it offers]. For working adults, they don’t like to travel especially after work. Imagine finishing work at 6pm and the class starts at 7pm – in that span of one hour, do you really think they can make it for class?” said Lim.
These are factors that are highly attractive to their client base, who are mainly working professionals, but also include senior citizens who would likely find going back to university for a full-blown degree programme off-putting or difficult.
Their oldest client is a 67-year-old man who had retired successfully as a company director. Though out of the workforce, he enrolled himself in an online accounting course to upskill.
“They want to learn, they don’t want to spend their lives meaninglessly,” adds Lim.
But there is another more pressing reason why there should be more high-quality online courses for adult learners: the future of work.
A survey by JobStreet, unveiled last week found that 96 percent of employers think the digital economy and the onset of Industrial Revolution 4.0 will change how they plan to hire in the next three years. The top five digital skills sought by employers were: digital marketing, software and application development, e-commerce, big data & analytics and database.
Gone are the days where workers need not be lifelong learners. We all know the ways in which technology will upend industries and make many jobs redundant – to remain relevant in the labour market is to have the skillsets that current and future employers need.
And with social and labour protection for workers eroding in the new features of the digital economy, through things lik zero-hour contracts or informal gig economies, relevant qualifications seem to be the only insurance to stop workers being left high and dry.
“Many of the major drivers of transformation currently affecting global industries are expected to have a significant impact on jobs, ranging from significant job creation to job displacement, and from heightened labour productivity to widening skills gaps,” said the World Economic Forum.
“In many industries and countries, the most in-demand occupations or specialties did not exist ten or even five years ago, and the pace of change is set to accelerate.”
“Succeeding in such a labour market requires workers to be agile lifelong learners, comfortable with continuous adaptation and willing to move across industries. If one profession becomes obsolete – a change that can happen virtually overnight – workers need to be able to shift nimbly into another,” the WEF said in another article titled, To succeed in a changing job market, we must embrace lifelong learning.
While JobStreet’s report found employers are looking for digital skills in the near future, it may be folly for us to flock en masse to the programmes that teach such skills. Subjects such as the humanities, which have fallen by the wayside with the global push for STEM skills, hold great importance now and even more so in the future.
South of Malaysia, countries like Singapore are finally appearing to recognise the urgency of this.
Long criticised for its fixation on exams and rote learning, it created its sixth public university – the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS) – in 2017 to focus on quality education for adult learners as well as its emphasis on social sciences-related subjects. Its partners include SkillsFuture, a national movement to promote lifelong learning among Singaporeans. Studying at SUSS is subsidised by the government and programmes leverage technology and online courses to better support working students.
“The majority of them (adult students) want a degree to further themselves in their careers or to make a switch. The university offers them a flexible path to work and study for a degree at the same time,” said SUSS President, Cheong Hee Kiat.