How the Gig Economy Is Impacting Education

Post by Open Colleges on March 5th, 2017

The working world is changing rapidly. While long-term careers at just one or two companies are slowly becoming a thing of the past, freelancing has become more prevalent than ever. In 2015 alone, nearly 1 in 3 Australians carried out some form of freelance or contract work. The reasons for the growth in the gig economy are complex. A weak economy combined with new technological advances, the emergence of new platforms connecting freelancers with businesses, and the rise of the sharing economy have all played a contributing role. As Robin Chase, founder of Zipcar, the world’s largest car sharing company, put it, “My father had one job in his life, I’ve had six in mine, my kids will have six at the same time.”

While there has been a lot of talk about the downsides of the gig economy, it also offers plenty of benefits in the form of personal and professional freedom for workers. Whatever your opinion, one thing is clear—the way we work is changing and, because of that, the way we learn must change too. The gig economy is impacting education from both sides: while teaching jobs are becoming increasingly contract-based themselves, students must also be prepared for project-based work after they graduate by incorporating project-based learning into their curriculum.


Impact on Educators

Substitute teachers have long been employed on a freelance basis, but we are now seeing a growth of freelance work across all areas of teaching.

Brie Reynolds, director of online content at FlexJobs, says that “contract jobs in the education field seem to be keeping pace with the overall growth in flexible work we’ve seen in recent years.” In fact, the education and training industry is among the top 5 highest demand industries for freelance workers due to the high level of specialisation and rise of virtual education.

Many teachers are embracing online teaching and tutoring as a way to supplement their income. The growing need for highly specialised employees means an increasing number of teachers are offering their skills outside of school.

This has seen university professors offering freelance writing and thesis editing, and teachers doing everything from proofreading to online tutoring and lesson plan writing. Many teachers are transitioning from traditional school jobs to full-time online teaching and tutoring. One-on-one teaching can be less stressful than classroom teaching, as it requires far less lesson preparation, fewer administrative tasks, and minimal behavioural management. It can also be carried out at home or from anywhere, allowing teachers to fit their work around other important aspects of their lives, like family.


Impact on Teaching

Preparing students for the gig economy once they graduate is a big challenge. On the one hand, jobs will become much more focused and specialised in the future, but on the other hand, the shift towards contract or gig-based jobs requires employees to be very flexible.

Instead of focusing on obtaining deeper knowledge, there must be a shift towards teaching skills that students will need in the modern working world. Although curricula have not been adapted quickly enough to meet the future demands of working culture, teachers can still implement methods to prepare students for project-based work using project-based learning strategies.

Tom Vander Ark, CEO of Getting Smart, who recently launched the “It’s a Project-Based World” blog series, told Forbes that “although the trend toward freelance and/or project-based work is not news to many of us in the business world, there is a gap between economic realities and current school preparation.” He adds that “many people will go back and forth between contractor and employee for periods of time in the project-based and idea economy. It’s time for a national conversation about how this is impacting students, the design of schools, and also their future employers.” The blog gives advice to teachers and students on how to prepare for a project-based world.

In addition to teaching crucial skills like self-directed learning, effective communication, critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, and project management, the use of technology across all these aspects must be encouraged by educators.

Real-world experiences like internships should also play a bigger role in education. Traditional shadow days are no longer sufficient. Business people should be encouraged to act as mentors to students, giving them the opportunity to work alongside experts to solve challenging, real-world problems.

Teachers should get used to giving students feedback at different stages of their projects, instead of just one final graded deliverable. This way students will understand what it’s like to be held accountable for their work, making them better prepared to handle feedback in their careers. Emphasis should also be placed on how the project is reported. Students should be encouraged and prepared to deliver their results in a public setting as a talk or presentation, just as they will have to in real life.


Impact on Students and Graduates

In the future, a graduate’s employability will rely more and more on their ability to pivot, be flexible, and pick up new skills quickly. A traditional four-year degree will offer less return on investment compared with customised, regular, on-demand learning, which will allow workers to stay up-to-date with technological changes and new projects.

Students of all levels and ages can benefit from the new learning methods that the gig economy provides, giving them more choice of where and how they learn. They can choose from a large range of full online degrees, often offered for free by Ivy league universities around the world. Experts in fields from marketing to computer science are creating online courses and offering boot camps and personal tutoring.

The fact that so many teachers and professors are working in virtual positions means that students can tap into a much larger talent pool, without having to be at a particular location at a certain time.

The growing availability of online and freelance educators means that students can now access quality education in innovative ways, allowing them to fit learning into their busy lives no matter the level of education. Adult students and those already in the workforce will have more opportunities to enhance their skill sets and be able to fit it around their personal lives and other responsibilities.

While the gig-based economy is often equated with low-skilled work, like driving for Uber or carrying out tasks on Task Rabbit, highly skilled and specialised jobs are also increasingly being offered on a contract or consulting basis.

The growing millennial workforce is embracing the gig economy. Educated, technology-savvy graduates are choosing to work gigs instead of pursuing salaried, long-term employment. The advantages of a project-based career are improved work-life balance, the ability to follow more than one interest and talent simultaneously, access to more learning opportunities, and the flexibility to work in different locations.

The gig economy is the result of a fast-changing job market and rapidly evolving technology. As careers become more customised and flexible, teaching and learning will have to adjust too. Students must learn how be adaptable, how to use technology, and how to work project-based roles, and do so by taking advantage of the growing number of online learning resources and freelance educators.

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