"The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn." - Alvin Toffler

Throughout my writing and lecturing on the subject of technology and its effects, I’ve stressed the need for all those hoping to survive in this constantly changing global economy in which we live to constantly reeducate themselves. The 2012 version of the video "Did You Know" uses data gathered by Karl Fisch. It states that "for students starting a four-year technical degree ... half of what they learned in their first year of study will be outdated by their third year of study."

Wow!

How can anyone keep up with that? And what about the expense of constantly going back to school to "retool"? It's a huge question today, as the pace of innovation continues to accelerate. Here we'll take a look at this problem - and what moves we can all make to avoid becoming obsolete. (Read about some of the major technological changes of our time in Creative Disruption: The Changing Landscape of Technology.)

The Rise of Robots?

The first step in "keeping up" is to understand the problem and come up with a strategy for dealing with it. Changes in the world and technology mean many jobs we take for granted in the U.S. could increasingly be offshored, eliminated by technological innovation, or lost due to merger, downsizing or company failure. This is a reality, but there's no need to succumb to paranoia or despair.

Workers need to start by examining their company, the job they do, and their skill set.

Some questions to be asked that may help in this analysis:

  • Is my industry in trouble?
  • Is my company still competitive in my industry or is it a target for acquisition, merger, or bankruptcy?
  • Can my job be done offshore?
  • Is my job part of the "critical path" of my company’s business or can it be outsourced?
  • Do I have the skills to meet the challenges of new technologies, systems and management changes? Am I ahead of the curve or behind it?

Good News and Bad News

Other than the last point, we can do little on our own to insure our market viability. Our options on the last point, however, continue to expand.

There are many recognized certifications in the technical area - some sponsored by independent agencies, such as IDCP and CompTIA, and some sponsored by software firms, such as Microsoft and Oracle, attesting to competence with their particular products. Each of these certifications adds something to an evolving resume - no small thing as the skills required in tech continue to evolve. (Read about some of the top certifications today in Top 5 Highest Paying IT Certifications and How to Get Them.)

Even more explosive than the growth of accepted certification has been the constantly expanding availability of college courses and degree programs online. From the early 1970s, when Walden University came into being as an online college, to the present, the growth of online options has been staggering and the acceptance of such programs by employers and other higher education institutions has become commonplace. The University of Phoenix, which for years was primarily an online school, has more than 200 physical locations in 2012 and is, by far, the largest college in the country in terms of enrollment.

Faced with the success of online programs and the continued development of computer educational tools, traditional "bricks and mortar" schools began to offer first courses, and then entire degree programs, online. Today, there are very few colleges that do not offer online education of some sort.

In the last few years, the learning resources made available by colleges have grown exponentially. Stanford put some free courses up online for interested parties to audit. MIT then put its entire course material online for all to peruse and for other professors to draw on in their course development. The move to free and online education accelerated when Apple opened iTunes University (available through iTunes) in 2007, allowing colleges and universities to make lectures, language lessons, lab demonstrations, sports and campus tours available online. In October 2011, iTunes U surpassed 600 million downloads from more than 1,000 institutions and there are more than 350,000 lectures available to download.

One of the largest participants in iTunes University, with more than 40 million downloads in 2011, is the Open University in the U.K., one of only three higher education institutions in the U.K. to gain accreditation in the United States by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. Founded in 1969, the Open University calls itself the "world's first successful distance teaching university, founded on the belief that communications technology could bring high-quality, degree-level learning to people who had not had the opportunity to attend traditional campus universities." At a time when traditional post-secondary education is becoming increasingly expensive - and perhaps ever more inaccessible for those of limited means - this is a drastic change of pace.

Finally (for the time being), a new level of free courses, with certificates, came into being when Coursera was announced. Coursera provides courses from Duke, Stanford, Harvard, the University of Michigan, Johns Hopkins, Princeton and other leading universities. (Harvard also partners with MIT and the University of California, Berkeley, in edX, another free, nonprofit online course provider.)

The Tools of Adaptation

While the direction of online education is not entirely clear, more players continue to enter the arena. That means that an increasing amount of free - or significantly discounted - information is "out there." So, maybe the world is changing in a way that could put many traditional jobs at risk. But that's not the only thing that's changing. And thanks to the growth of online education and certification, we're all plugged in to resources that'll help us adapt and, we can only hope, remain competitive in the face of change.