Embrace technological change, but not at the expense of our cultural heritage

Technologies like AI should be fostered to enhance learning, but more attention should also be paid to the core, humanistic missions of universities, writes Lin Jianhua

January 15, 2019
People with robot on bridge
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In recent years, new technologies such as artificial intelligence have developed rapidly around the world, leading to a technological and industrial revolution and profoundly affecting people’s lives. Facing the challenges and opportunities of this revolution, we in the field of education must ask ourselves: can technology guide new changes in education?

Looking back, almost every technological innovation has led to major changes in educational concepts – although some imaginative ideas about how education will look in the future have not panned out. From the advent of printing, broadcasting and the projection of slides, to television and computer networks, it cannot be denied that rapid development and widespread application of technology is an important driving force for reforms in education.

Many countries have already seized the opportunity provided by the rise of AI to release national strategies promoting educational and pedagogical innovation through technology. Since 2017, the Chinese government and education authorities have issued several action plans in which special emphasis is placed on teaching students in accordance with their aptitude and individualised teaching through new technologies.

Changes in universities are already apparent. At Peking University, AI has become an important part of teaching, and more efforts are being invested in basic research related to AI. An increasing number of researchers and outstanding young students are participating in this innovative work.

At the same time, with the wide adoption of new technologies such as massive open online courses, micro-lectures and flipped classrooms, all of which rest on technological platforms, AI technology is becoming a new tool and an important driving force for education reform.

The walls of the university are slowly disappearing. Since the 1960s, higher education has been extended to larger populations, but it remains a scarce resource. However, as the information revolution has changed how knowledge is imparted and gained, the university’s monopoly on knowledge has been disintegrating. If we are looking purely at how knowledge is disseminated, intelligence systems are amassing increasingly rich knowledge reserves, with unlimited replication and extensive accessibility of data, which expands the way people acquire knowledge and greatly expands the pool of learners.

The boundaries of classroom education are also slowly blurring. The modern university system was built on a teaching system based on students attending classes delivered by teachers and studying standardised textbooks. Now, AI technology has eliminated many restrictions on time and space in traditional classroom education, and it has made it possible to abandon many repetitive and inefficient tasks, which has reduced the burden on both teachers and students with an improved efficiency of teaching and learning.

The results of this change are specific and apparent. Students are freer to choose a learning space, and time and auxiliary functions, such as emotion recognition, help students improve their learning experience. Therefore, the knowledge transfer process is simpler and more intelligent.

Meanwhile, the university’s core mission of talent cultivation is being refashioned, with courses being designed according to changes in the social division of labour and the replacement of humans with intelligent systems. The basic ability to operate a computer terminal, interact with a computer, and cultivate lifelong learning, logical thinking and innovative thinking will be more valued, and thus human potential will be fully explored.

The possibility of such changes is certainly gratifying, but we should not be overly optimistic. Apple chief executive Tim Cook said during a speech at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduation ceremony in 2017: “I’m not worried about artificial intelligence giving computers the ability to think like humans. I’m more concerned about people thinking like computers without values or compassion, without concern for consequences.”

The cultivation of values, compassion and awe is an important part of traditional university education. While welcoming new technologies, we must recognise that AI can transcend the scope of traditional science and technology and so requires the intervention of humanities and social sciences.

On the one hand, we should pay special attention to human emotions in the process of technological development and actively deal with challenges in legal norms, ethics and other aspects. On the other hand, it should be recognised that AI education cannot replace traditional university education, especially humanities education.

Technology has brought convenience and efficiency to learning and teaching in universities as well as important changes in educational concepts. The modern university is a vast space that fosters knowledge, vision, creativity, kindness and responsibility. The core meaning of education lies in bringing out humanity’s best qualities. The more progress there is in scientific and technological development, the more attention should be paid to the cultural heritage of modern universities.

Our humanities education, which includes literature and aesthetics, relies more on the accumulation of history, teachers’ words and deeds, and the influence of the environment. The cultivation of students’ outstanding character – which is something we care about – relies heavily on a teacher’s ideological guidance and emotional input and stimulates empathy with empathic psychological activities. A student’s self-control, introspection and ability to self-learn, which includes logical thinking, critical thinking, innovative thinking and other abilities that are necessary in AI education, are not innate, nor are they easily fostered by purely technical means.

Faced with these challenges and the future of the university, Peking University has explored a path of “seeking innovation while remaining true to core principles”. While keeping integrity at the root, we are following the guidelines for the development of higher education, respecting and adhering to the tradition and essence of the university. Innovation is the soul of a nation’s progress. We dare to be society’s vanguard, comprehensively deepening reforms, and leading to the future with constant trial and exploration.

This is one possible answer to questions regarding new technology in the era of AI and the issue of university education reform. Technologies and universities are bridges to the future, but each is charged with a distinct mission. We should innovate, actively embrace new technologies and provide space for technological changes in education while adhering to traditions, the educational bottom line and the core mission of university education. We should find a balance between integrity and innovation. 

Lin Jianhua is deputy director of the Foreign Affairs Committee at the National People’s Congress of China. Professor Lin was president of Peking University from February 2015 to October 2018.

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