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The Half-Life of Knowledge

As schools equip students for the work place in the face of technological changes, existing workers are also finding an increasing need to upgrade their skills. That said, this concept is not new. The “half-life of knowledge” was an expression coined by Fritz Machlup as early as 1962 to describe the time it takes for half the knowledge in a particular domain to be superseded. In 1966, the Institute of Electrical & Electronics Engineers (IEEE) postulated that the half-life of an engineering degree in the late 1920’s was about 35 years; while for a degree from 1960, it was thought to be about a decade. According to estimates, software engineers need to redevelop skills every 12–18 months. More broadly, Deloitte now estimates the half-life of a learned skill at just five years.

Lifelong learning is necessary as knowledge is becoming superseded in a shorter period of time. At the same time, careers are no longer linear. There is an increasing focus on cross-functional convergence, bringing together disciplines to build products and solutions faster. On this front, life-long learning is being supported by the availability of on-demand external learning platforms such as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and self-directed learning powered by social media. The profile of a typical MOOC student is that of a working professional who seeks to improve his or her employability but does not have the time to attend college full time.

MOOCs were initially viewed as a threat to the traditional high cost university model by offering open-access, free/low cost education. However, the low completion rate of about 2-4% and the challenge of convincing employers of the credibility of MOOC credentials have since dampened the initial hype. However, Citi analysts believe that MOOCs will still have an important role to play in propagating lifelong learnings and improving employability. For one, MOOCs offer significant flexibility. Self-paced courses are on the rise and even in many session-based classes, new sessions start automatically on a bi-weekly or monthly basis, allowing students to start lessons relatively soon. MOOCs have also innovated by combining individual courses to form credentials, particularly around high demand skills.

Going forward, Citi analysts believe that potential solutions to retraining and lifelong learnings will involve a mix of online and traditional methods.