Up-Skilling for the Future
Early in 2023, WTCI assembled an AGILE panel of higher-ed and ed-tech professionals to discuss shifting to a skills-based workforce. One of the panelists, Melissa Gómez de la Fuente, Principal of Partner Success at Coursera, discussed online learning and the rapidly changing world of artificial intelligence, specifically surrounding large language models. Soon after, Chat GPT took the world by storm and seemingly everyone was experimenting with the tech and wondering how it would impact their lives and jobs. We invited Melissa back to expand on some of the ideas from the panel and talk about all of the recent developments in the AI space. An abridged version of our conversation is below:
WTCI: The online learning space has evolved over time. It was once seen as a backup, not a priority. Then, it became a necessity during COVID. Now it's a very large space. What do you see as next for that online learning field?
Melissa: When COVID hit, and everyone had to jump into the online modality, after we came out of it, online, in some cases became a very positive picture because it solved many needs. At the same time, not everyone was doing it well because it was all in the moment. So even though it's something that is going to continue to grow, it's important to note that while online learning has already made significant strides, there's still a lot more work to do.
Specifically, it may not completely replace traditional classroom experiences. I can instead say that a blended learning approach that combines both aspects of online and in-person instruction are going to probably emerge as a preferred model for education, especially for traditional-age learners. But for adult learners, especially those that have a job or family commitments, fully online has been the modality of choice. That is a preference just because of how much more flexibility they get, and they started to understand the quality that can be provided during that learning experience.
During COVID, everything was just put online, but now we have to evolve it. So further advancements and innovations in technology for those that just jumped on it have to be explored, as well as for more teaching methodologies. Online education has a bad rep of not creating that type of engagement. But more and more we see features and technology that's being created to help create more interactive opportunities for students to connect.
WTCI: You said something interesting there, that the next steps are both a technology, like the actual tools we are using connection and a methodology of evolution. Do we necessarily need to see one advance before the other? Or are they moving together in tandem?
Melissa: I think they're in tandem. On the technology side of things, even if you are not advancing, let's say, at that augmented reality or virtual reality stage or using artificial intelligence for those other learning engagements, you still need the technology there. So we'll always be dependent on making sure that we have the infrastructure that's going to allow for that collaborative learning experience. So it's not one or the other. It's how can we get things moving forward?
I think part of the objective is to make sure that whoever is creating these learning experiences is always looking at the learning outcomes. So depending on what those learning outcomes are for a specific topic or a course or a certification or a degree, then you define what type of technology needs to be used to ensure that you're meeting those learning objectives. Because we don't also just want to add things just to make it fun. It has to have a purpose.
WTCI: One statistic that you brought up during the AGILE presentation was a number, that 40% of the top skills that we use today are going to be changing by 2025. That's a lot! Is that because of that introduction of AI or other technologies? Is there something else driving that change?
Melissa: There are various factors, including the introduction of AI and other emerging technologies. But it's also important to mention that while technological advancements contribute to the changing landscape of the workspace, they're also going to be creating a lot of opportunities. As I mentioned during the presentation, it's now a responsibility to adapt to these changes by acquiring new skills that can open the doors for us to different and exciting and new rewarding careers. I think it's more, let's start inviting more lifelong learning and a proactive approach to skill development so that we can all stay relevant in this ever-changing job market. And we would like to say that in 2025, that 40% of the top skills, are they going to change?
That's an estimate, of course. But we just need to make more people aware so they can better plan and prepare for themselves. Because there's going to be technological advancements. Others that we don't know about, digital transformations that are occurring, that have been occurring and will continue to occur in organizations with globalization and market dynamics. There's more interconnectivity. So, the flow of where the employees reside is going to be more fluid. And the jobs are going to be evolving, so the job descriptions are going to evolve. The industries are going to evolve. It's more of making sure that we have a plan for ourselves and, if we're a leader in our organization, for our teams to stay competitive.
WTCI: The conversation surrounding Chat GPT and other large language models has already changed even since your AGILE presentation. Why shouldn't I just buy into the sales pitch from these tech companies and rely on AI to just help me do my job just now? Why do I need to continue upskilling?
Melissa: It has been changing quite rapidly every week, every month. The leaps are quite significant. And we continue to make the push or that there's even more reasons why upskilling and relying on our own skills is going to still remain important in the workplace. AI languages like Chat GPT can generate text and provide a lot of information, but they won't fully understand and be able to contextualize industry or company-specific nuances. Human expertise is going to be required for that. So often, we're going to be required to interpret that information accurately, before we can make informed decisions and then address those more complex questions.
Another thing here is that effective communication and interpersonal skills are going to be essential in many jobs. They already are, but even more with AI models because again, they can create the text. But we need those interpersonal skills that are crucial for collaboration. If you want to achieve a leadership role, if you want to have meaningful customer interactions, using the tools is going to be what differentiates you in the workforce, not necessarily what is going to replace you. The tool is not going to replace you. Someone else that knows how to use that tool better than you is going to replace you. If we didn't have Chat GPT or other types of language models, we have other things that create a competitive workforce environment.
WTCI: More and more employers are offering either a Coursera class or online learning as part of their benefits package now. They're encouraging employees to go in and take these classes, but it’s traditionally been seen as optional. Should employers be thinking about building time into an employee's schedule so they can actually complete the classes?
Melissa: More and more, I think organizations are thinking about this in a serious way because retaining an employee is cost-efficient. Having to re-skill someone or hire from the outside is going to take more time. At the end of the day, allocating time for employees to engage in learning and upskilling is going to be beneficial both for the employers and the employees. One thing that we do at Coursera is that we do have a continuous learning culture. One of our main goals or key objectives every quarter that we evaluate is: learn, change, grow. What are we doing to learn, change, grow? Knowing what we know now and how fast jobs are changing, we need to maintain the team’s readiness.
So if an organization is providing dedicated time for learning, it does send a clear message that the learning is an essential part of the work environment. It's going to be difficult to offer it all the time. And it might not happen as frequently. But if it's one or two days during a quarter, that can make significant strides into creating that habit and also contributing to that culture that you want to generate.
WTCI: With AI as a more general tool, do you think there's going to be a change where we're asking students to specialize even earlier so they kind of have that knowledge going in?
Melissa: It's going to be important just because of the value that you're going to bring into the workforce. An example can be, I'm a software developer and I can give prompts to Chat GPT to create some code on specific things that I wanted to do. But only that person who has a little bit more experience will be able to see if what was provided as an output actually is meaningful and is solving for what I wanted to do. It's just going to require a little bit more specialization in that sense earlier on, which is sometimes difficult because, typically our experience has been that you learn that in the job. You come out of college with more of an academic background.
That's why it's being highlighted that universities and industries are collaborating more and more because they want graduates to be more workforce ready. They're going to be, more often than not, graduating not only with a degree credential but also with some other type of certification that's recognized in the industry. If you're a digital marketer, for example, you also can obtain a bachelor's in marketing. And then you also graduate with a certification from, and I'm making this up, by Meta or by Google that says that you are an expert at using their tools, and that makes you a little bit more attractive, for a potential employer.
WTCI: It is already a turbulent time for workers. We've already seen that there's a very big labor dispute right now about AI in the creation of scripts in Hollywood. We don't really know what's next. What are you feeling positive about while there's all this turbulence going on?
Melissa: Well, I'm an optimist and a realist that loves change, so I do embrace it. So while it's going to be important to acknowledge that there's going to be challenges, there's also positive shifts taking place that offer workers opportunities for growth, for flexibility, for personal fulfillment. So embracing change, staying adaptable, and focusing on continuous learning is going to help individuals navigate these turbulent times and shape a promising future out in the work world. Some examples of what's positive that has come out through all this is remote work and work flexibility.
You're at home, I'm at home. That allows us to do other things. Instead of spending 30 minutes commuting every day, we can emphasize work-life integration. We can also spend more time doing some up-skilling and re-skilling because of this. There can also be entrepreneurial opportunities. Turbulent times often give rise to entrepreneurial opportunities in general. As we evolve and industries emerge, individuals are going to be able to evaluate or explore other entrepreneurship types of opportunities and start their own business or pursue freelance work. I think we should be thinking about this as having more autonomy, more flexibility, more ability to shape our own professional journey.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.