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AI for all: How Finland (and other countries) are delivering free, accessible digital skills training

On the 14 May, a free online course on Artificial Intelligence was launched in Finland. The Elements of AI course seeks to demystify AI by making it more accessible - it is targeted to anyone who is interested in learning more about AI with no prior mathematical or programming skills required. The initiative of the Finnish government aims to attract 1% of the population to take up the challenge and learn more about basics in AI topics such as machine learning and neural networks by the end of this year.

The course – designed by the University of Helsinki and the Digital Strategy agency Reaktor – is part of the AI Education programme of the Finnish Center for Artificial Intelligence. Teemu Roos, Leader of the education programme and Associate Professor of Computer Science at the University of Helsinki, said that the demand for the programme came simultaneously from the government and industry, as the importance of upskilling the workforce with basic AI knowledge had grown.

Recent studies indicate AI is likely to change operations in many different industries and work tasks at a fast pace in the coming years. According to McKinsey's report, approximately 40% of all work tasks could be automated with artificial intelligence by 2030. Anticipating and addressing the skills development has become crucial for governments aiming to adapt to change.

Finland is not the only country in the race to boost the skills of its labour force by tapping into accessible learning platforms such as free online courses. A growing number of countries have engaged with initiatives to empower citizens with digital skills and various national frameworks have been established to support upskilling. In Singapore, the SkillsFuture for Digital Workplace programme was launched last October by the Minister of Education. Its goals are to equip Singaporeans with basic digital skills and to encourage employers to invest in job-specific skills training of their employees.

One recognised barrier in skilling platforms is motivating people to actually participate in training and the Singaporean model has developed a credit system to address this. At the heart of the SkillsFuture programme is a SkillsFuture Credit system which offers an opening credit of around £280 for all citizens aged 25 and above. Currently, the system has 70 courses focusing solely on AI – a selection from a wide range of training providers including universities.

In Denmark, the Ministry of Employment has established a Disruption Council - inspired by its Singaporean counterpart. Having an agenda of investing in future possibilities of tomorrow’s tech, easier access to training and life-long learning, the council has brought together representatives from public and private sectors and academia to prepare Danish citizens for the job market of the future.

In the UK, The Institute of Coding – a collaboration between universities, tech companies and industry bodies, was recently set up with the help of a £20m government investment to boost future skills in the country. The government initiative is focusing on a variety of partnerships which will be assigned to develop programmes that advance tech skills training and reskill those whose jobs are under threat of digital transformation.

Making lifelong learning central to policy agendas is an important step to fostering a workforce that is fit for the future. Public-private partnerships, access to training and information about technology that is grounded in fact rather than hype are key levers in helping businesses and individuals reskill and upskill.

Tools for long-term engagement

Whether these programmes will bear fruit in the long-term remains to be seen. While governments seek to create more flexible and agile ecosystems for upskilling, the new programmes will also need to secure and support a long-term engagement and motivation of different stakeholders to reach their goals. It is important to make sure that employers recognize the benefits and see value in upskilling their workforce. On the individual level, the programmes will need to focus on encouraging people to take ownership of their learning and career path.

The Finnish AI programme aims to tackle these issues by engaging companies to take part in a year-long project of training for their workforce. According to Roos, over 200 organisations have already committed to this journey and the number keeps growing. To support the recognition of the new skills, the programme offers two academic credits through the Open University Helsinki for those living in Finland. Those living abroad can simply create their own Linkedin certificate as a proof of successfully completing the course. The Singaporean programme, on the other hand, seeks to support the efforts of employees through the subsidies that they provide for employer supported training. The credit system complements this by cultivating a culture of lifelong learning.

When talking about the skills of tomorrow, one of the main issues seems to be how to bridge the gap between the digital skills taught by educational institutions and the skills the employers are calling for. Looking at this, policymakers need to be more aware of how informal and formal education work together and how to ensure that new skilling and training programmes are inclusive. Nesta’s recent report Delivering Digital Skills looks into key components of a skills ecosystem that supports adults in work to learn appropriate digital skills and encourages governments to support new programmes to address the gaps. One of the findings of the report is that people in work need access to multiple services to learn new skills. Training must be responsive to change and governments should support a cohesive system that operates across ministries and works with NGOs and private training providers.

Scalability is also key. According to Roos the Finnish programme will leverage its initiatives beyond the general public and launch another AI course targeted for those who are already working in the field of AI next autumn. If the programme accomplishes its goal to upskill 54,000 Finns by the end of the year, it will most likely offer a great boost for the national AI development strategy and make Finland a key leader in establishing how AI can most benefit society and enterprises.

Many European governments could learn a lot from these approaches. Nesta is bringing together governments from the Nordic and Benelux countries through it’s Digital Frontrunners programme for future skills. Six countries, including Finland, are currently taking part to develop policy that is more dynamic, inclusive and responsive to digital transformation. To find out more contact the team [email protected] or visit our project page.

Author

Karoliina Helkkula

Karoliina Helkkula

Karoliina Helkkula

Programme and Research Support, Digital Frontrunners

Karoliina supports Digital Frontrunners, Nesta's programme for future skills.

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