WASHINGTON, D.C. As the 2015 International Consumer Electronic Show (CES) comes to a close in Las Vegas this Friday, one thing is certain: we’re better off when our computers do the thinking for us.
Audi’s self-driving car trekked 560 miles from Silicon Valley to the show, changing lanes and adapting speeds without a problem. Not too far down the hall, digital learning giant, McGraw Hill, unveiled its adaptive reading platform, SmartBook, which assesses students in real-time, highlighting information they should review.
Both companies boast big advantages for consumers. Automakers point out that decisions made by cars are prone to be safer – they don’t drink, fall asleep or text. And educators have shown that SmartBook, on average, improves student performance by one letter grade. But the time saved by drivers, professors and students seems to be the biggest benefit from automation.
With the dawning of the digital age, Adam Smith’s invisible hand has continually opted to tap a touch screen over getting itself dirty. And rightly so. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports there are 1.2 million traffic related deaths each year around the world. In the skies, where recent Asian airliners have crashed supposedly due to human error, consumers are slowly showing machines more and more deference. And where education is concerned, stress is building on students and faculty to do more and more each year. With more time and safety the biggest selling points, the inevitable is obvious.
Ironically, the largest economic cost of automation in the future will be human. In mid-2014, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey among experts entitled “AI, Robotics and the Future of Jobs.” Of those interviewed, 48% agreed with the statement that “artificial intelligence applications and robotic devices [will] have displaced more jobs than they have created by 2025” potentially creating a “permanent underclass” with no employable skills.
So while the dream of piloting (or rather, co-piloting) a self-driving car seems economical, even those with a formal education (or perhaps, especially with a formal education) will be unemployable. Bus and subways routes will be automated. Caregivers and yard maintenance workers will be turned on and off by a switch.
Labor is not the only thing being outsourced in the tech revolution. Our simple thought processes are being coded and digitized now, too.
Looking to the past, we can see that this workforce crisis is unprecedented. The industrial revolution transferred priorities from agriculture to manufacturing, prompting mass-migrations into cities. Labor, in this case manufacturing, was still the common denominator. Now with one of the last labor sources being economized and automated (i.e. the service industry), a paradigm shift is underway.
Throughout Pew’s survey, however, experts continually emphasize the role of education as the only way to avoid disastrous social unrest. To be sure, focusing on more STEM career tracks for more students is crucial. But the problem does not lay with what we teach. Computer scientists, lawyers, former CEOs and professors all stress the need for fundamental change in how we teach.
Hal Varian, chief economist of Google, aptly summarizes the problem in the following paradox: “What should people be taught when they can access all human knowledge all the time?”
Now, an even better paradox. Experts agree that certain un-teachable skills –communication, collaboration, information sharing, and knowledge-building– should be the priority for future generations. So, how do we teach the un-teachable?
To paraphrase Friedrich Nietzsche, let’s start with a simple assumption: knowledge is dead. Knowledge remains dead. And we have killed it. How? By demystifying it and providing individual access to all with internet access. Let’s be clear, facts and accuracy are extremely important, but critical-thinking is the true life-blood of our next generation’s workforce. Just as “Are You Smarter Than a Super Computer” will never be a big hit game show, the what has lost its relevance. Knowledge is a given, while manipulation of certain knowledge –perhaps called skill– will be the new global commodity.
How do teachers develop skills if they are un-teachable? Think back to McGraw Hill’s SmartBook. What does it teach? If it’s a history book, then probably it mentions how George Washington’s Continental Army navigated the icy Delaware River to carry out a surprise attack on the Hessian forces in Trenton, New Jersey on December 25-26, 1776. Should students gain discipline for retaking a quiz five times to master this information? Maybe. But only if we still hold the static notion that teachers impart knowledge and students simply receive it.
Thanks to digital interactive media like Khan Academy, SmartBook, and Duolingo, teachers have more time to focus on getting their students to apply problem-solving skills in the classroom. In this sense, teachers become George Washingtons on the Delaware, leg cocked, eyes forward, guiding students through the icy blocks of knowledge and challenging them with opportunities to develop critical-thinking skills, empathy and collaboration.
Digital interactive media learners to digest the information at their own pace, reviewing key concepts through videos and online lectures. They become sources of knowledge. Teachers, on the other hand, spend more time refining that knowledge into meaningful, employable skills sets during classroom time. They become mentors of experience. So while SmartBook will quiz students on “What had happened to Washington’s army before the crossing?”, teachers can allow groups to discuss “Why was Washington willing to make such a dangerous gamble in crossing the Delaware?”
Digital interactive media is not only redefining classroom roles, but also how we perceive what “literacy” is. Webster defines literacy as “the ability to read or write” and “knowledge that relates to a specific subject” (i.e. “computer literacy”). In today’s world, literacy means simply navigating the web in search of answers, without ever making a single connection. Google analytics surpassed this definition when I searched “Washington crossing of the Delaware.” It had 1.39 million answers, with images and the nine most appropriate results for my inquiry in under a second. No one alive can live up to that kind of raw processing power. So why over-emphasis its importance?
Luckily, being literate also means “being educated, cultured,” evoking ideas of understanding, respect, team-work, and many more of those un-teachable skills. Teachers can thank the automation of lessons for allotting them more time to develop engaging lessons plans that involve collaboration and creativity among students.
Why use digital media to substitute classroom lectures? Several reasons. Personalized learning allows quick learners to move ahead faster, while others can pace themselves by reviewing and solidifying basic concepts. Class time is now a student-centered space, where students come prepared to perform, creating bottom-up motivation. And finally, with less time spent on imparting lectures, teachers can now engage students as experiential guides.
The response to how to utilize teaching time should follow these trends:
- Use digital media to do the teaching for you. Studies show that those who want to learn, learn better. Students now have total access to lessons and become more responsible for their knowledge. Teachers should focus on clarifying and refining concepts on a student-by-student basis.
- Utilize the classroom for project-based activities, group-work and developing critical-thinking skills. Typical language learners, for instance, bemoan the lack of speaking/listening practice in class and are less prepared to hold a conversation. What is a more real-life application than communicating? Encourage students to make and correct mistakes in class so they won’t repeat them later in life.
Automation in the tech age implies three major outcomes:
- Reforming how students learn, including redefining roles and terms, is the only course of action for avoiding a future workforce crisis.
- Human labor and even minor thinking processes will be obsolete causing those with a “formal education” to become unemployable.
- We will have more time on our hands to think about what to do next. Maybe about how the following generations will outsmart and survive their own innovations.
Why would we teach our children to be robots when there already are more efficient ones out there? After all, in many ways we still are smarter than super computers. For now.