How to ‘robot-proof’ students for the age of AI

Lifelong learning, real-world experience and a focus on ‘uniquely human attributes’ are key to preparing students for the future, says Joseph Aoun

November 4, 2017
robot with girl
Source: Getty

Thousands of years ago, the Agricultural Revolution transformed our foraging ancestors into farmers. Hundreds of years ago, the Industrial Revolution turned farmers into factory workers. Dozens of years ago, the Digital Revolution changed factory workers into knowledge workers.

Today, a new technological leap – the Artificial Intelligence (AI) Revolution – is again upending previous certainties about employment.

That is because smart machines are getting smarter. Several studies – including from the University of Oxford, McKinsey and PricewaterhouseCoopers – predict that up to half of all jobs performed by humans could disappear within the next 20 years. At the same time, new jobs will emerge, including ones that we can’t even imagine today.

Learning has always been the surest antidote to technological redundancy. This remains true today; it is now the obligation of educators to ensure that our learners become “robot-proof”.

This will present both a mandate, and an opportunity, for higher education to change. A robot-proof education will prepare learners to perform those jobs that only humans can do.

What is needed to meet this challenge is a new blueprint for higher education, which must include three important components.

First, we need a new curriculum involving the integration of technical literacies, such as coding and data analytics, with uniquely human literacies, such as creativity, entrepreneurship, ethics and cultural agility. This integration will develop a creative mindset and the mental elasticity to invent, discover and produce original ideas in the AI age.

Second, we must allow students to hone their uniquely human attributes. They will learn to collaborate better with other people (and machines) while performing the complex, highly skilled work of tomorrow. We can also teach students to recognise when technology is not the answer, when we must rely on human qualities such as empathy and teamwork. In other words, we can give them the tools to succeed at any situation.

To fully master this curriculum, however, classroom learning is not enough. Unlike machines, human beings don’t improve simply through exposure to ever greater volumes of information. Ideally, we learn by putting knowledge into use in different living contexts. Experiential learning transforms theory into real knowledge. Co-ops, internships, research and global experiences help students to deepen their understanding beyond “what” into “why.”

Integrating classroom learning and real-world experience bridges the abstract and the tangible, teaching students to transfer knowledge to unexpected situations – a talent lacking in even the most brilliant machines.

A robot-proof model must also account for the fact that learning cannot end on the day a person graduates. No one is set for life. As machines continue to improve, people must follow suit, honing their mental capacities, skills and technological knowledge. Lifelong learning is no longer optional, which means that universities should promote it from the sidelines of higher education to the centre of the educational enterprise.

To reach lifelong learners – many of whom work full time – universities will need to meet people where they are. The idea that a mid-career professional can take one or two years out of the workplace to pursue an advanced degree is increasingly unrealistic.

Universities should, therefore, seize the opportunity to partner with employers, keeping content relevant to workforce needs. They can embed educational programmes directly into workplaces, reaching employees in the conference room and on the factory floor. They can organise content in flexible ways, shedding the constraints of traditional degree programmes by offering learning in modular blocks, stacked according to demand.

For centuries, the great universities of the world have played a leading role in creating knowledge and preparing students for active and engaged lives within society. For learners to master the economic and social challenges brought on by smart machines, higher education will need to adapt.

The solutions necessary to make our citizens robot-proof are clear. All we need now is the courage to make them a reality.

Joseph E. Aoun is president of Northeastern University and author of Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, published by MIT Press.

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