On education racing the machines

Pew Internet logoHow is education responding to new technologies of automation?  I’m quoted on this in a new Pew Internet report.

“The education system is not well positioned to transform itself to help shape graduates who can ‘race against the machines.’ Not in time, and not at scale. Autodidacts will do well, as they always have done, but the broad masses of people are being prepared for the wrong economy.”

Let me unpack that a little.

If we want to consider the intersection between future automation and education, we need to choose a model of how that kind of technology will shape society.

automated factoryPerhaps automation will have a moderate impact on American (and global*) life, with some types jobs being replaced, leaving the rest unwarped.  In that case schools at all levels need to respond.  That probably means, first,  de-emphasizing curricula aimed at those replaced jobs and expanding technology programs.  Second, schools will have to look carefully for emerging needs made possible by automation: new types of employment, new ways of living and thinking.

Or maybe automation will have a deeper impact.  Imagine a larger number of jobs being replaced, including blue- and white-collar ones.  In this situation schools have to rethink most of what they do, as they prepare students for a very different world.  Said world could be a sweet one where many people have lots of time for leisure and self-actualization.  Or that world could be awful, with mass unemployment wrecking family income and self-worth.

Perhaps this means a labor market dominated by classically “feminine” skills, including relationship development, careful communication, and emotional work.  Or jobs will rapidly appear, development, then disappear, requiring continuous retraining and deep, lifelong learning.  Or schools will have to prepare graduates for a life of little work, much reflection, and self-revision.

Utopia or dystopia, it wouldn’t make sense for K-12 and higher education to teach for the 1990s (which is, at best, our current target). (Here are several related scenarios)

But at present American education is only slowly, slowly turning to regard these possible futures.  Powerful forces keep us anchored in the present (if that): commitment to public standards, formulated years ago; generational bias from older faculty and administrators; a lack of foresight capacity.  We can’t figure out how to win girls and young women to technology-related classes.  We don’t teach a lot of computer science in K-12. We need to rethink our future, and soon.

*I wrote “American” because most discussions of U.S. education remain very US-centric.  We need to stop this, but that’s for another post.

(automated factory photo by Steve Jurvetson)

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