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From the Editorial team

How do we learn to be a human in the digital era?

Authors: Heini Huhtinen Published:

Technology alone cannot solve the big challenges of the coming decades. Soft skills are needed more and more, but do we understand what learning these skills requires in the digital world? The text is an editorial written for issue 1/2021 on Future of Adult Education.

At the end of 2020, the Harvard Graduate School of Education convened a panel discussion exploring the future of education.

The panel gathered leading education experts to discuss and debate the innovations and challenges that would shape education and learning in the post-pandemic world.

One of the panellists, Associate Professor Karen Brennan, talked about the importance of deploying technology strategically.

“My stance on technology is that it should always be used in the service of our human purpose and interest. Our values, purposes and goals need to lead the way, not the tech,” Brennan said.

Brennan’s statement might be nothing new but the message bears repeating. When embarking upon a conversation about the future of adult learning, it is easy to get swept away by the endless emerging technological solutions: big data, artificial intelligence, immersive learning and countless new platforms for e-learning are just a couple of examples of the education technology buzzwords.

Often, depending on who is talking, these new technological tools are seen either as the true saviour of democratic learning, or as the biggest threat to it.

AS BRENNAN REMINDS US, we need to keep in mind that when imagining our future, technology alone can neither solve nor destroy all that much.

Yes, technological advances have already made sharing ideas, accessing information and communicating with others easier than ever before. And yes, digital tools are likely to make distance learning an attractive and affordable option for even more adults. And sure, in the future, managing technology will be even more crucial as a basic skill required in navigating day-to-day life.

But will technology really help us solve urgent problems such as the climate crisis? The stark inequality and polarisation in many societies? Or wobbling faith in democratic practices?

I feel we talk a lot about human skills but not so much about how to teach and learn these skills in the increasingly digital world.

It might, but, as data scientist Roberta Sgarliglia points out, the possibilities of technology are always tied to the people behind it. Those, who get to design technological tools and their purposes, have great power in dictating what technology can help us to achieve.

I, FOR ONE, WOULD ALSO WANT TO talk more about what it generally means to be a human in the era of digitalisation and technology.

When futurists talk about the skills needed for future, they often emphasise things such as communication skills, adaptability, abstract thinking, creativity, empathy – the so-called “soft” human skills or transferable skills.

At the same time, research shows that we are becoming less empathetic towards one another .

This contradiction troubles me. I feel we talk a lot about human skills but not so much about how to teach and learn these skills in the increasingly digital world.

Luckily, there are already many examples of what this could mean: different generations can come together and learn from each other without physically being in the same space, and playing games might help us become interested in new topics .

There is even some evidence that social media can also support empathy skills – who knew.

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Heini Huhtinen worked as the editor-in-chief of Elm Magazine 2/2020-03/2023. Contact: Show all articles by Heini Huhtinen
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