Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence by Joseph E. Aoun
This extremely insightful book by President Aoun of the Northeastern University in Boston on the future of higher education in an age of significant technological evolution driven through advances in robotics, artificial intelligence and data analytics provides much food for thought.
This (very) brief summary provides a useful overview of some of the points raised in the book which will be useful for educators everywhere to mull over. Anyone interested in the future of education and learning should get a copy and read it!
A key hypothesis laid out in the book is that we’ve reached an inflection point in time where machines (coupled with big data and underpinned by deep learning systems) have reached a position where their full transformational impacts will be felt by society.
There changing employment landscape (from the rising levels of automation and introduction of robotic algorithms) coupled with changing consumer behaviours will require higher education to introduce transformational changes that ensures relevancy and societal cachet.
The books lays out a new model of higher education that will ensure individuals progressing through the institutions will be able to thrive and prosper in an economy and society transformed significantly through technology.
President Aoun describes the need for higher education to “refit (their) mental engines, calibrating them with a creative mindset and the mental elasticity to invent, discover, or otherwise produce something society deems valuable.”
A framework for a new discipline called “humanics” is set out in this book which calls for education to develop individuals who can work alongside machines.
Humanics will consider the following two areas:
- The building of ‘new literacies’ such as data literacy (the ability to read, master and analyse and drive insights from data); technological literacy (the ability to code and understand engineering principles); and human literacy (the development of what some consider to be ‘soft skills’ such as communication and design). These will need to add on from old literacies such as reading, writing and mathematics.
- Development of cognitive capacities or higher order mental skills which will include: systems thinking (the ability to view businesses, technology and machine in a holistic way and considering them in an integrated manner); entrepreneurship (applying a creative mindset to an economic or business sphere); cultural agility (which allows for individuals to adapt to a global environment); and critical thinking (which fosters discipline, rational analysis and judgment).
President Aoun’s hypothesis is that this will enhance individuals’ ability to prosper in a world of highly sophisticated machines powered by AI.
The fourth transformational force
The first three transformational forces that have shaped society and the economy have been fire (a point raised very eloquently by the good Bishop Michael Curry in his speech at the latest royal wedding!), steam and electricity.
The fourth transformational force shaping society is information (the life source fuelling the sophistication of machines and algorithms).
Aoun touches on the history of how technological advances have often caused great societal divisions and consternations, from the rise of the Luddites to John Maynard Keynes’ view that machines will cause “technological unemployment” to letters by academics to President Lyndon Johnson warning him that technology could undermine the value of all human labour. There is also a further description of how universities approach towards education has been shaped by societal changes from the rise of government funding to build a robust educational ecosystem in the 1800s to the introduction of the G.I. Bill (or the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act) to provide tuition support to returning soldiers from WW2 to the increased levels of federal funding to support university research and development.
There is also a good discourse in the first chapter to consider different views to how technology and automation may shape the future of work. Although the gig economy has been shown to be an increasing alternative to traditional work regimes, there is a suggestion that individuals who rely on the gig economy do not make enough to support themselves and only earn supplemental income.
Given this current state, Aoun postulates that it will be (wo)man’s innate ability for imagination and creativity that will help her/him in thriving in the new world and the power of higher education to further develop and build on this ability.
The view from employers
With the rise of robotics and advanced machines, even traditionally ‘safe’ knowledge sectors such as law and finance are being impacted. However, despite the increasing demand for individuals with skills in computer science, algorithms and data science, one of the skills most desired (from a 2016 survey) by employers is that of leadership followed by ability to work with people – both very social skills.
Whilst companies need engineers, software developers and data scientists, the area where there will be a significant demand is for someone who has the ability to integrate all the various areas and adopt a holistic ‘systems thinking’ approach.
As employers expect the technical knowledge to be a minimum requirement, they look for other softskills or a high dose of ‘human literacy’ such as the ability to collaborate well, take a team-based approach to development, or demonstrate ‘deep listening skills.’
As professionals begin working with sophisticated algorithms and machines, there needs be a further demonstration of cognitive capacities by employees. Employees need to be able to better observe, reflect, synthesize and analyse information better.
Aoun’s conclusion is that critical thinking and systems thinking need to be instilled into the students of today and tomorrow to ensure they remain relevant for the workplace of the future.
A learning model for the future
A LinkedIn review shows that the top ten most desirable skills center around technology. Even though technology cannot provide jobs for everyone, it has also given rise to new industries and employment opportunities. Aoun argues that education has always had a central role in ensuring that people are elevated to the next levels of economic development. His view is that as the workplace of tomorrow demands more of individuals, there is a greater demand on how education supports people.
Aoun argues that the learning of the future needs to consider not just what technology can do but rather what technology cannot do and how a robot-proof education can further nurture’s man’s unique capacities.
There is a need for education to inculcate and cultivate the creative spirit of people. This necessitates an increasing focus on divergent thinking (as opposed to convergent thinking which leads to a single result). Divergent thinking focuses on the multiple outcomes to issues and stimulates creativity, curiosity and willingness to take risks.
Aoun states, “We need a new model of learning that enables learners to understand the highly technological world around that and that simultaneously allows them to transcend it by nurturing the mental and intellectual qualities that are unique to humans – namely their capacity for creativity and mental flexibility. We can call this model humanics.”
Here Aoun explores the new literacies that education should imbue into learners. Fredrick Douglas says that literacy is the path from slavery to freedom and Aoun argues that the deficit of literacy will lead to a slide into powerlessness.The new literacies include firstly, technological literacy (knowledge of mathematics, coding and basic engineering principles). He argues that as coding is the lingua franca of the digital world (a similar point was made by President Obama who incidentally was the first American President to write code) and the need to be conversant in the language of code.
Next the need for data literacy is made which is about the ability to understand, analyse and utilise data to drive insights. Finally, there is elaboration on the importance of human literacy which is about imbuing in learners the ability to collaborate, communicate and interact with one another and the world around them so that they make the right choices in life.
This chapter also considers how the new literacies need to be coupled with cognitive capacities that will help students participate more effectively in a digital world. These cognitive capacities include critical thinking, systems thinking, entrepreneurship and cultural agility. The role of educators in building these cognitive capacities is crucial.
Higher education provides an opportunity for learners to learn these cognitive capacities in a safe environment which allows them to understand context better and crucially fail and develop their resilience before they apply the lessons in the real world.
President Aoun stresses that the role of higher education is not to merely provide information and content but to help teach the new literacies and cognitive capacities. He argues that teachers need to be more explicit in what they are teaching to students and help students demonstrate to students how each area of their syllabi helps nurture each of the literacies or cognitive capacities. Students will need to be taught how these skills will support their own ambitions in life and contribute in the modern workplace.
A great quote from this chapter attributed to Desh Deshpande that bears thinking about is, “There are three types of people in the world. There are some people who are oblivious to everything, some people who see a problem and complain, and some people who see a problem and get excited to fix it. The difference between a vibrant community and an impoverished community is the mix of those people.” This is a quote that applies to any business as well!
Here president Aoun underscores the need for classroom learning to be coupled with experience so that the learning retains its immediacy and relevance. Mastery of the literacies and cognitive capacities along will not help learners be robot-proof, they need to be able to synthesise humanics with experience. Students should be able to apply their knowledge in real-world situations and understand and reflect on the implications and outcomes.
In essence, Aoun describes this as flinging ‘open the gates of the campus and making the entire world a potential classroom, library or laboratory.’ It will be important for learning to follow a structured sequence and indeed the cognitive apprenticeship model describes how in order to master any complex subject, learners need to first acquire component skills. These skills must then be practiced in given context and finally apply them to different contexts.
This sequence of acquisition, integration and application leads to expertise. Aoun explains how students are first in a stage of unconscious incompetence (where they don’t know what they don’t know) to then progressing to a stage of conscious incompetence (knowing what you don’t know) to a stage of conscious competence (where they perform well but with deliberation) to a final stage of mastery (where they instinctively operate at the highest level in their domain).
Aoun shares how one of the most direct forms of experiential learning is “cooperative education” – an education model in which students alternate their classroom learning with sustained, full-time immersion in the professional workplace and then integrate with the two. The co-op model is different from internships in that it is much more sustained and go deeper into the learning by experience approach.
This model ultimately leads to greater employer satisfaction and there is a statistical significance in the levels of satisfaction displayed.
Educators also play a crucial role in helping students and learners understand their own experiential learning to maximise the impact of the lessons learnt through their experience in the real-world.
Aoun touches on the effectiveness of apprenticeship models (strongly prevalent in Austria, Germany and Switzerland) and how the education-employment collaborations have helped benefit both employers and learners.
President Aoun discusses how higher education can serve learners in a personalised and customised manner and will over time be compelled to serve people throughout their careers rather than at specific points in students’ lives. This will therefore require higher education to bring lifelong learning into the center.
Aoun also argues that it is lifelong learning that will help further drive down social inequality as it ensures everyone has the opportunity to develop and maintain valuable skills throughout their careers.
Higher education institutions need to see themselves as not just education providers towards undergraduate, post-graduate education or research but more as being in the business of lifelong learning. There has been a rise of for-profit education institutions and of “corporate universities.” These corporate universities have seen large corporate employers such as AT&T working with MOOC partners to deliver corporate training.
Aoun argues that these developments demonstrate that higher education is sidelining lifelong learning to its detriment. He also strongly encourages higher education institutions to partner with employers to create the relevancy required by the employment sector.
There will be a need for universities to customise courses to ensure they are designed and delivered in a manner that most appropriately provides education to learners, regardless of where they are on the career journey using the full extent of technology available to them.
The above developments will mean universities will need to consider how they package the content and learning and offer it in a way that allows for universities to consider how they award degrees or credentials. Universities may need to consider developing smaller blocks o knowledge that can be stacked in a way that may be suitable for traditional degrees but to offer it in a way that offers much more permutation, customisation and combinations.
There is also an opportunity for universities to consider how they should engage with their alumni and offer potentially subscription based opportunities towards learning.
Finally, Aoun discusses here the advent of multi-university networks which has universities adopting a multi-campus, multi-modal, multi-national approach to provide students with different learning experiences and environments, and enhancing their own cognitive capacities and contribute better to the world they live in.
The book touched on some of the important changes universities must consider as they seek to retain their relevance in being institutions that help societies adapt to an emerging and evolving world.
Education has a place in equipping society with the skills needed to thrive in a future which will look fundamentally different to present day. In a world where we see rising social and income inequality, education becomes a key driver towards social mobility and plays an instrumental part in alleviating the inequality we see in the world today.