The Human Capital project is the EU educational sector’s answer to robots taking over jobs—and AI has a role to play

Supported by the European Institute of Technology (EIT) and endowed with an annual budget of €3 million, the Human Capital project, which focuses on innovation in education and on digital skills and competencies, is an EU-wide effort to build bridges between research communities in climate, energy, food, health, manufacturing, raw materials, urban mobility and digital technologies.

It aims to ease exchanges between a number of scientists and innovators within each of these fields, as they would usually work separately on the same topic: The future of education and what this means to Europe’s workforce. Particularly, it aims to explore these questions in a context where both a changing climate and increased automation are already putting tremendous pressure on workers. While robots could take over 20 million manufacturing jobs around the world by 2030, 70 per cent of jobs in Europe’s coal country are expected to disappear in the coming decade.

From Polish coal mining regions to factory cooperatives in Spain’s Basque country, local authorities and enterprises are under intense pressure to re-train entire swaths of the local labour force. Their aim is to safeguard jobs and avoid, at best, brain drain, and in the worth case, the massive unemployment past industrial disruptions have brought to some of Europe’s regions. 

The Human Capital project offers a range of possible answers to this issue and led to the development of new online education programmes within the EIT, which are backed by some of the old continent’s most prestigious universities and are all available on a single digital platform.

One of the originalities of the project is that it used artificial intelligence (AI) tools to support the creation of the courses. These were used to predict future “skill gaps,” areas where trained workers are needed but unavailable to employers in sufficient numbers, for example, in the energy sector where coal powered plants make way to renewable energy and help to bridge them with relevant courses as part of the EIT’s existing offer. 

AI was also explored as a tool to help develop new education methods, particularly answering the needs of people who are already in employment or what education experts call “lifelong learning.” AI tools, researchers argue, have a key role to play in keeping older, remote and increasingly distracted students engaged in their own education. It also allows for the development of new gamification techniques to make learning later in life less challenging.

Earlier this year, the EIT Lifelong Learning Conference brought together, from the comfort of their online pulpits, researchers and teachers from across the European continent to present their conclusions after  running the Human Capital project. Over a day, they discussed an array of innovative tools which are already being used in virtual classrooms to engage online learners and encouraged meaningful behavioural and structural change in EU member countries’ national education systems.

“In the past century, education methods have not changed much, there is a lot of room for improvement” said Martijn Klabbers, a scientist from the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands involved in the Human Capital project. “Universities have a market gap to fill where it comes to lifelong learning, there is not enough offer compared to the demand.” 

COVID-19 has helped in fostering interest for the overall project, speeding up its deployment as universities were scrambling to develop their online course offers in the early days of the pandemic. 

Younger people were not left behind and heavily contributed to the development of technological solutions through education-focused digital hacking events or DigiEduHacks, with new tools already up and running despite hacking events having taken place mainly online due to the pandemic.

Despite the challenge COVID-19 brought to the Human Capital project, major shifts to online working and learning have highlighted the need for high quality and accessible digital learning platforms. The project is planned to be continued in 2021, with a renewed focus on climate and the environment, to align with the aims of the European Green Deal.

 
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