During the first week of April, Aalto Design Factory hosted four similar workshops, each with a different theme: lifelong learning, diversity in technology, cross-sectoral collaboration, and STEM vs. soft skills. The goal of each workshop was the same, to inspire the participants to think about the challenges related to the theme of the day, and to embark on a journey to come up with educational solutions to one of the identified challenges.

Irena guiding the participants through the workshop process

Our hopes were to give the participants something that they could take to their own organisations, as well as to gain valuable ideas for the further phases of the Universities of the Future project. The second goal was definitely met, by the participants coming up with great ideas that inspired the Aalto team, and based on the feedback we got, so was the first. Our third goal – bringing people from different backgrounds to work together on issues related to the future of education and Industry 4.0 – was also met. The participants represented different sectors: public bodies, higher education institutions, and companies ranging from large corporations to startups.

It was interesting to notice that no matter the theme of the day, the same kinds of topics kept coming up in discussions. Once again the theme of cross-sectoral collaboration was highlighted, not just as the theme of the day, but as a necessity for lifelong learning, a tool for improving diversity, as something that students should be taught skills for, and as the most beneficial part of the workshop to the participants. The answers to our feedback survey highlighted the value of getting to hear the thoughts of people coming from very different fields. Other themes that kept coming up throughout the workshops were the importance of having common goals in collaboration, having a mutual language, increasing diversity and inclusiveness, creating opportunities for lifelong learning, and the challenge of a lack of time for learning in worklife.

The ideas that came out of the workshops called for more active participation on all sides. New models of learning could include recognising “life” as an environment for learning, helping to reflect on and formalise the learning that takes place in unofficial contexts, recognising and supporting the learning of company partners who act as sponsors on courses for students, and using up- and re-skilling as an outlet for research.

The final “product” of the workshop was an educational idea, and many of the solutions highlighted the importance of facilitation and reflection, and support for understanding oneself, understanding others, and understanding the learning that has taken place. To give a couple examples on what the participants came up with: In Finland there is a contest called “A Great Place to Work”, that rates companies as employers. What if there was a similar contest, called “A Great Place to Learn”? What if in companies there would be one coffee break a week dedicated for reflecting on own learning during the past week? What if there was a platform for bringing HEIs and companies together? What if there were ready-made recipes for cross-sectoral collaboration?

One of the main outputs was that there needs to be a shift in mindset. Learning needs to be recognised on a weekly if not daily basis, and time needs to be carved out for it. The difficulty is in that the positive effects of learning are hard to measure, and hence, other tasks that give more visible results get priority over learning. Learning should be free enough for people to be able to fit it in their agendas, but still mandatory enough, that people will prioritise it over other tasks.

Merja Fischer, a member of the team working on Finland’s strategy on AI and a doctorate in leadership, giving a presentation on STEM vs. soft skills.

After discussing with the participants, many of whom are closely involved with their own educational initiatives, it seems that there is a rough consensus on what should be done: what are the skills that should be taught (systems thinking, problem solving, basic understanding of tech…) and what are the ways to move forward (cross-sectoral collaboration, new models for learning…). However, it seems that what is hindering us as a society from moving forward are the lack of time to do anything outside of one’s own job description, the lack of ready-made recipes for how to collaborate across sectors, and shared responsibility, that results in nobody taking responsibility to act. In short, how to move from planning to action?

At Universities of the Future, our next steps are to take action based on the planning that we have been doing so far: creating actionable guiding tools on how to move from planning to action, and testing new types of lessons and courses that benefit from cross-sectoral collaboration. These next steps will hopefully give new practical examples on how different institutions could work together to improve teaching and learning in an Industry 4.0 era.

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