Robot-proof? Universities ‘finally waking up’ to the rise of AI

Joseph Aoun says campuses in North America and Europe are heeding his call for curriculum change

October 21, 2018
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Human touch: university president says that ‘if we compete with machines on their terms we lose, but on ours we win’

Joseph Aoun has led the charge for higher education institutions to make their degrees “robot-proof”. And the president of Boston’s Northeastern University believes that the message that curricula have to change to adapt to the rise of artificial intelligence is finally getting through.

“The reality is sinking in,” said Professor Aoun, citing evidence of change on campuses across the US, Canada and Europe. In particular, he said that universities were beginning to grasp how automated technologies would replace jobs over time but would also create them, and that this meant graduates could not rely on their first degree alone to see them through their careers.

“I’m seeing more receptivity to the idea that lifelong learning is a necessity, but that it cannot be done in the traditional way by universities,” Professor Aoun told Times Higher Education.

In Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, published in August 2017, Professor Aoun outlined how incorporating his theory of “humanics” into university curricula would help higher education adapt to the rise of artificial intelligence. He describes it as the integration of three literacies: technological literacy, understanding how machines function and how to interact with them; data literacy, understanding and navigating the sea of information generated by machines; and human literacy, the focus on what humans can do that machines cannot.

“You need to integrate all three; universities need to be building a curriculum based on the literacies and the idea of bringing disciplines together,” explained Professor Aoun.

If this all sounds a bit too straightforward, Professor Aoun emphasises that his theory of humanics is not a magic bullet; it needs to be combined with an experiential component, integrating classroom learning with real-world experience. “You could spend months studying creativity, empathy, entrepreneurship. But that doesn’t make you a creative or empathetic person – you have to practise it,” he said.

It is something Professor Aoun is known for implementing at his own university. He has expanded Northeastern’s signature co-op programme – on which students embark on six-month internships to gain real-life experience and mentoring in the workplace – to make it global and more flexible.

For Professor Aoun, the ability to transfer knowledge from one context to another – for example, from the classroom to the workplace – is what will always separate humans from machines. “We as humans do that, we practise it, we can deal with an infinity of contexts,” he said.

Ensuring universities are teaching students to do that is one of the key features to making them robot-proof, according to Professor Aoun. He added: “If we compete with machines on their terms we lose, but on ours we win.”

Lifelong learning is central to Professor Aoun’s recommendations for higher education, although he added that the US has not managed to fully embrace it yet. He said that he believes that the university must come to learners, rather than students coming to the university.

As working professionals don’t have time to go back to higher education fully, the university should be embedded in the workplace, he said. “We will, and in some ways already are, seeing the rise of the ‘multiversity’. For example, we at Northeastern have satellite campuses in Seattle, Silicon Valley and Toronto, and have plans for others in Texas and Minneapolis soon, and one day we hope to have them in the UK.”

He added: “We have to provide opportunities in small bursts, with micro-credentials and nano certificates.”

According to Professor Aoun, in the long run universities will adapt – as they have in the past, from the agricultural revolution to the industrial revolution to the information revolution. In the short run, some will adapt but some won’t and those that don’t will quickly become “irrelevant and obsolete”, he argued.

The challenge with this new world for higher education, Professor Aoun said, is that it will require “humility and listening” from academics and professors.

“We ourselves, as faculty, are going to be outdated and therefore we have to learn and relearn constantly; we have to learn to work with other people from other disciplines and to listen to what society is telling us,” he said. “And we’re not known for being great humble listeners.”

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