Opening remarks by Bambang Susantono, ADB Vice President for Knowledge Management and Sustainable Development, at the 9th Skills Forum, 23 August 2021

Distinguished guests, colleagues, ladies, and gentlemen,

Welcome to the 9th International Skills Development Forum, the first held virtually, thus underscoring our need to reimagine education and skills development.

Reimagining education and skills development for a new [or next] normal

The pandemic’s impact continues to bring unprecedented challenges to all of us, affecting our health, livelihoods, and education. Critically, it exposed the widespread disparities in education and skills development globally, and more specifically across Asia and the Pacific. It threatens to reverse some of the hard-earned gains made over past decades. 

Allow me to first share with you some examples of the pandemic’s real-life impact on education and skills development.

Effective digital learning and reskilling

Tingting is a 6th grader in the People’s Republic of China who comes from a relatively well-to-do family. Through online open educational resources, she achieved 9th grade level competency in Math during her 1-year home-based learning. She also streamed Python* classes—an object-oriented programming language—and can now program simple games by herself.  

In her comfortable home study space, she uses an iMac for livestream class and open educational resources and an iPad and Apple pencil for digital note taking. She also wears an Apple watch that reminds her of daily study and exercise routine. This is definitely high-end.

Linlin is a 36-year-old PRC tollbooth collector with 15 years of experience, who lost what she thought was a secure job. The pandemic accelerated service automation, replacing her with a radio frequency ID system. So, Linlin took a 6-month online reskilling course in accounting and eventually found a new job. 

What we are seeing is a widening digital gap—across age groups, countries, and regions within countries. We must fulfill the urgent need to equip students, teachers, and trainers with the digital skills that allow them to adapt to new learning, training, and finding jobs in a rapidly digitalizing world. 

Fight for better signals

Namitha is a third year BA English student from India. To get better internet signal, she stands on a tilted roof while attending online classes. Their roof is the only area in their house where she could get good connectivity.

This is too familiar in countries with poor ICT infrastructure and limited connectivity, especially in rural and remote areas.

Sharofat, a teacher in Uzbekistan, is also struggling with online teaching because of the same connectivity problem. She also lacked the digital skills to quickly learn how to manage her classes. Only from her roof could she use her phone to call and send messages to students. Still, she managed to successfully get all her students to the next grade level.

Pre-existing challenges compounded with new ones

Even before COVID-19, research findings confirmed that a large proportion of children are not able to read a simple sentence by the end of grade 3 (World Bank, 2018c). Globally, the learning crisis disproportionately affects the poorest countries where seven out of 10 children are not learning basic primary level skills. As early learning deficits worsen over time, students in disadvantaged backgrounds face severe long-term consequences in their adult life. With poor learning foundations, they enter the workforce as ‘educated’ adults but ill-equipped to meet the skills requirements of the job market.

COVID-19 has exacerbated learning and inequities since the overnight shift to online learning was not accessible to a large share of the population in many developing countries due to lack of connectivity, digital contents, and readiness of teachers to manage online teaching. We must fulfill the urgent need to equip students, teachers, and trainers with the digital skills that allow them to adapt to new learning, training, and finding jobs in a rapidly digitalizing world. Industry 4.0 has significant impacts on the future of jobs, skills, and higher education. We have seen that 4IR will bring job displacements, job gains, and shortened shelf-life of different occupations. 

Opportunities for reimagining education 

To address the compounded challenges, our education systems need to adopt a two-pronged strategy. First, it is important to go back to the basics to address the core problems of poor learning and skills mismatches, and related improvements required across all levels of education. Second, going beyond the basics, it is also important to pursue transformational approaches that include adopting EdTech solutions to scale learning and equity, preparing the current and future workforce with Industry 4.0 skills, and improving teaching and learning by drawing on research from brain science, psychology, pedagogy, and technology. To capitalize on the emerging opportunities, let me focus on three key actions—convergence, cohesion, and collaboration.


Convergence comes from developments across disciplines, such as innovations in pedagogy, psychology, and neuroscience. Combined with technologies powered by artificial intelligence and big data analytics, education becomes a powerful enabler to transform learning and make it more equitable. Neurological breakthroughs, for example, show how the cultural environment alters children’s brain development, which impacts learning and school-readiness. Discoveries in behavioral science show how early learning sets the foundation for success in school and in life. These improve the lives of children and their learning experiences. New understanding of neuroplasticity can help create new frameworks for adult education and lifelong learning.

A new national survey from the National Center for Research in Policy and Practice in the United States found that the majority of education leaders value research and use it regularly. This convergence of research and practice can have a wide, more profound impact on schools, teachers, and students. Researchers and practitioners are now communicating more and collaborating with practice leaders. Education research—like research in medicine—can help shape the way school leaders approach their toughest problems and emerging needs. It can help leaders, managers, and teachers ensure children develop strong foundational skills so that as future skilled workers, technicians, or entrepreneurs, they can continually upgrade themselves—learning the new skills needed in the 21st century workplace.

Convergence impacts education and the world of work. In an interactive classroom—currently used in over 100 countries—the teacher uses a smartphone to collect data for each student based on an individual card. She gets instant feedback from her students to more effectively manage her class. 

Technology can be scaled up and empower personalized learning. Over the past 15 years, randomized evaluations have shown that teaching to the level of individual students consistently improves learning outcomes. 

A student in Kenya has made great progress in math using Whizz Education’s adaptive platform to address individual learning needs. It is used by over a million students in the United Kingdom, the US, and the Middle East.

Arizona State University also uses adaptive learning with 65,000 students across 12 courses. Its Assessment and Learning in Knowledge Spaces was used in a college algebra course, increasing completion rates by over 20% for average students and 28% for those furthest behind. At ADB, we are discussing with Viet Nam how to expand a successful pilot project in math using this same method. 

Tailored human support is important for integrating technology with education. Artificial Intelligence and adaptive learning software can help students learn at their own pace, learn from their mistakes, and better understand knowledge. Teachers can use data generated by adaptive learning software to cater to each student, focusing on active learning and higher-order skills, combining cognitive and noncognitive skills.  


A cohesive education ecosystem can scale up the capacity to integrate education technology, or EdTech, to improve both teaching and learning. It packages the most effective innovations based on each country’s situation, taking into account all the work done to build a cohesive short-, medium- and long-term plan. 

This ecosystem comprises five pillars—government policies, EdTech infrastructure, schools and teachers, students and parents (or caregivers), and those solution providers who together can transform education. 

This ecosystem approach can systematically identify gaps and opportunities for improvement. For example, simply investing in devices—such as the one laptop per child approach without also improving connectivity, digital quality, and training teachers will fail. It must be developed as a package.


Finally, there is collaboration. Education is most important in moving toward all sustainable development goal targets. For example, a project-based approach focusing on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM education, can help students learn about issues like climate change, sustainable development, and entrepreneurial skills. It also helps nurture collaboration across priority sectors and themes to partner with a variety of stakeholders. 

Three questions

Let me end my remarks by posing three questions for everyone to consider during this Skills Forum: 

First, as part of rethinking and reimagining education for a new or next normal, how can new generation technology like adaptive learning help to scale up learning and increase equity and inclusion? 

Second, given the blurring of post-secondary TVET and higher education, how can TVET and universities collaborate with the private sector to improve employability skills? 

And finally, how can artificial intelligence and big data analytics help develop a real-time labor market intelligence system that links emerging labor market needs with individual skill profiles for those seeking jobs or providing training? 

These are critical questions we need to think about during the forum sessions. Once again, thank you for joining us. And please actively participate in the discussions. I wish you all the best.  

Thank you.


  • Susantono, Bambang
    Susantono, Bambang
    Vice-President for Knowledge Management and Sustainable Development