How will education race the machines?

What will the increasing automation of jobs mean for education?

robot_caughtcoding_jurvetsonThe concept is pretty well known by now.  We assume that automation of job functions will keep increasing, via robotics, software, or both.  Automation will replace individual jobs and even professions in field like food service, driving (think driverless cars), customer relations (automatic checkout, “showrooming“), and military support (robots carrying supplies).  Recent examples include the fates of travel agents and record store employees.  A recent Oxford study (pdf) sees nearly half of American jobs “at risk”.

If this trend continues, how should education respond? Schools currently focus strongly on preparing students for a world of work; how will that change?

I’ve been discussing this topic over the past year, and wanted to share some thoughts:

Soft skills Robots and software work best on functions involving hardware and data, so perhaps people will do best who excel in other ways.  Interpersonal relations will become the growth (or economic survival) area of the near future.  If so, schools should focus more energy on those, including emotional intelligence, interpersonal communication, group work, and leadership.  In addiction, automation hasn’t cracked the creativity world (yet!), so schools can expand their work on arts and imagination.

NB: this has much in common with Jamais Cascio’s Pink Collar Future model.  Race Against the Machine contains this idea, too.

Technology skills Robots need to be built and maintained, as do software applications.   Therefore K-12 and higher education can expand their curriculum on computer science, robotics, electronics, etc.

Management Perhaps increasing automation will yield a growing cadre of workers who manage the machinery.  In this case schools redouble their efforts in information management, along with automation-biased entrepreneurship, leadership, and general management.

Information literacy and critical tech thinking Automation could reshape the face of information, as programs create articles and aggregate knowledge.  In this situation we need to update and re-energize information literacy teaching.  Alongside such a development schools can teach students how to think critically about the new machine age.

Politics: the neoLuddite option Rather than adapting to the new age, educations could choose to resist it.  The number of people working in education (teachers, museum workers, librarians, support staff, researchers) is significant, and they have historically wielded some political clout from time to time in (parts of) the United States.  Imagine if, say, the AAUP, ALA, and NEA led a campaign for legislation to restrict automation.  Especially if automation started working in those fields: think of grading and assessment programs.

Eloi without Morlocks. Automation may well lead to Jeremy Rifkin’s end of work future (but not Bob Black’s abolition of work).  If this occurs after some transition period, how can education best prepare students for it?  One solution would be focusing schooling on the life of the mind, rather than on job training.  Another, and perhaps parallel move would be to advocate politically for policies making such a future as humane as possible.  For example, teachers could participate in campaigns to establish a guaranteed minimum wage.  Our population tends to dislike social arrangements like “cyber-peasants tending (or loitering on, more likely) the feudal lawn of the machine-owning rich”.

Identify new jobs and skills Perhaps automation won’t just eat current jobs, but also enable the growth of new professions. This is what The Economist thinks:

Just as computer-games designers invented a product that humanity never knew it needed but now cannot do without, so these firms will no doubt dream up new goods and services to employ millions.

The Second Machine Age

If so, the entire education system needs to watch carefully for those new developments, and gear up to educate students to enter into them.

Which of these seems most likely to you?  What other options lie ahead for education in an automation-driven world?

I’ve been looking at this question for a couple of years, and am ramping up my interest of late.  It feeds into my presentations, and is starting to pop up in consulting.  Soon I’ll participate in an online reading of The Second Machine Age.  More to come.

(photo by Steven Jurvetson)

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3 Responses to How will education race the machines?

  1. I read Learning Futures by Keri Facer some years ago. The book inspired me to think a lot about how the future is not a fixed place we’re traveling to. We have the power to create the future we want. Even if it’s not entirely truth, I think it’s a healthy way of looking at the future and the time we live in. I want my students to be aware of the impact we have on our lives. What kind of society do we want? What effects do different technological solutions have on our future?

  2. Quite true, Karin. The future is one of multiple possibilities.

  3. Pingback: Texas Rolls Out an ‘Affordable Baccalaureate’ Degree, a For-Profit U will accept MOOC credits, & other HE-related items

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