"The most valuable skill that anyone can have is learning how to learn"

 Photo: Tina McCoy

Photo: Tina McCoy

Marta Bernabeu
Mark Brown, Director of the National Institute for Digital Learning at Dublin City University


Professor Mark Brown, first Chair in Digital Learning and Director of the National Institute for Digital Learning (NIDL) at Dublin City University, was invited to the Next Generation Student Success By Design Symposium on May in Barcelona. Over the last decade, Mark has played key leadership roles in the implementation of several major university-wide digital learning and teaching initiatives. He is also currently Chair of the Innovation in Teaching and Learning Steering Committee for the European Consortium of Innovative Universities (ECIU) and is both an EDEN Fellow and member of the Executive Committee of the European Distance and e-Learning Network (EDEN).


We would like to know what you think the future of digital education will be.

Well, what I'd like to think is that we have the ability to influence that future, that educators and other stakeholders really engage and work out what it is we want for the future. So I think right now what we have is a lot of people talking about education in a state of change. But what I'd rather be talking about is education for change. And so what is the change that we're looking for in the future? I anchor a lot of my work in the Sustainable Development Goals, where humanity has set some goals across a broad range of areas regarding what we might want to attain for a more equitable and inclusive world in the future. So for me, digital technology should serve those ends. By itself, it's not going to change anything.

And what are, today, the most common digital skill gaps for students?

There is no doubt that there's a quite large gap/discrepancy/difference across various sectors, various groups. We know that it's linked to socioeconomic factors, cultural dimensions, ethnic groups. Those gaps that exist in digital skills are actually just a subset of gaps that already exist in achievement in education. So we have to be cautious that we don't think that digital technology by itself will close those gaps; it needs to be a much more holistic approach. One of the challenges we face is that the skills that we define as those we need today might well be redundant or obsolete in five to ten years' time. So we might think we're doing a service by helping people to learn to code, developing new digital skills for the latest technologies, but actually, those skills could change very quickly. So what I think we need to really focus on in some respects is more mindsets for change rather than skill sets by themselves.

Current students have the advantage of being digital natives, but maybe they also need other kinds of knowledge.

Well, actually, whilst it's a really interesting phrase, "digital native", and the distinction between digital native and immigrant, what we know from the research literature is that it's slightly misleading. Actually, some of the highest-end users of technology are typically men in the age bracket of 30 to 40-45. I have four grown-up children and if I were to ask them to create a spreadsheet so they could manage their weekly or monthly budget, I don't think they would know what I was talking about. But they are very good at playing games. So we have to be careful. These dichotomies can be useful in part to amplify some of the challenges we face, and there is no question that young people growing up today without any knowledge pre-internet are living in a different world, but so is everyone. So I think what we need to be doing is thinking about all groups, and arguably the skill gaps are just as important for seniors, for those who are retiring, because all walks of life have been impacted by digital technology.

Do you think teachers are prepared to teach in a digitalized world?

I think, again, drawing on the research evidence, there's sufficient evidence to suggest that there's a huge challenge facing our teachers. I don't think there's ever an endpoint because, just as the technologies keep changing, so do the pedagogies; they become more sophisticated and more developed. So this is an ongoing challenge. The question again is one of, do we teach them for today or do we take a long-term view? So it's a bit like that expression or proverb: You can give a person a fish and they can feed their family for a day or you can teach them how to fish and they can feed their village for a lifetime. So I think we need to really focus on the higher-end skills, the real capabilities and knowledge¿ I'll use the word mindsets again because people with the right mindset, that are committed to their continuing professional development and have the opportunities that our governments provide, and funding, and the schools and universities, and who value this ongoing professional development... that's really what we need. It's a change in ethos in some respects or a change of culture. So, again, I'm not giving simple answers because, unfortunately, these questions have very deep and complex responses.

What do you think are the necessary skills for today's learners; who will become tomorrow's workers?

Well, ultimately, the most valuable skill that anyone can have is learning how to learn. If one learns how to learn and has a disposition and a habit of mind of wanting to learn or being a lifelong and a lifewide learner, then whatever new technologies come along or new challenges we face, that is what will prepare them to at least embrace the opportunities and the challenges that exist. So, again, I'm giving quite broad answers here, I realize that, but I really think that that's the most powerful thing we can do for anyone, because we just can't predict the future. So when we often hear people say that the jobs that exist today won't exist in the next 10 or 20 years, sometimes I'm a little cautious about those claims, because those claims have actually been made for a long time and there are certain jobs that have not gone away. But one can't deny that there are lots of new jobs, and not just jobs. There are all sorts of things that we do, from volunteering to being able to be active citizens, being able to really engage in our society's unique digital skills and digital understandings and knowledge. Learning how to learn is going to position you for that, but there are no guarantees.

So the attitude, wanting to learn, is more important.

Yes, and I've used the word mindset so, in some respects, I think in some of our education institutions and even schools we need to break mindsets and to rebuild those mindsets where we don't teach such narrow competencies for today only. Perhaps just teach some of those that are required so we can do a few of the things I've mentioned. But we need to have this disposition or habit of mind for what it means to be a lifelong learner.

What should the role of government be?

Well, that's a very interesting question right now, because with the advent of things like MOOCs - massive open online courses - as a learner you're not restricted to courses that are offered just in your own country. Even now, languages are something that are perhaps one of the new skills for being multicultural, and intercultural awareness and language come as part of that. So national boundaries are being challenged by the level of courses that are available through the internet and online. I happen to take the view, though, that governments have a very important role in ensuring the protection of¿ perhaps not exactly "protection" but rather the celebration of local culture and heritage. Education has always played a role in reproducing what it is to be a citizen of a particular country: the values, the aspirations, the mindsets that come from that particular world view. So if governments don't do that, who else will? Of course, in Spain, you have an interesting dynamic, from an outsider's perspective, that education must be an important tool in helping us to understand differences, respect differences and live with those differences in harmony. So governments certainly can't remove themselves from their responsibilities, and I would argue they need to invest strongly and heavily in education, because that's what our future depends on.

How do you see our country in this respect, in digital learning?

I see really interesting and very advanced innovations. Barcelona itself is known as a hothouse of IT industry and a lot of high-tech stuff is going on here. But my Spanish colleagues tell me that there's a lot of variation. So going out of the big cities, you'll see what you see in many developed countries: smaller regions not as developed, struggling for finance, struggling to attract good teachers. So I can't talk with a great deal of confidence or first-hand experience about what's happening - I'm reporting what my colleagues tell me - but these challenges are not just in Spain alone. Most developed countries are going through this. In Ireland, where I'm currently living, in the rural areas even having adequate internet access is still a problem.

Well, in Spain it's the same, some villages don't even have an internet connection. Have you ever been in Barcelona before?

I've been here many times, actually, it's one of my favourite cities in Europe. I think Barcelona has everything: it has the beach, it has the architecture, it has the weather. Coming from the southern hemisphere and living in Ireland¿ I'm a sun-loving person. So yes, Barcelona. The only problem with Barcelona now, and I know that locals tell me the same thing, you're to the breaking point in terms of tourists. But tourism is something that keeps the economy going. So you can't have it both ways.