Automation and Education

Welcome to 2018!

I am back home after two weeks on the road (i.e., Christmas with grandkids in Rhode Island and Massachusetts).  So I have been catching up on blog reading from the past couple of weeks, and a couple of posts caught my eye…resonating with my last post on lessons from Robot-Proof.

The first was a post from Inside Higher education entitled “A Robot Goes to College.” It prompted me to tweet:

Watwood tweet

This post noted that a robot modeled mentally and physically after Bina Aspen (and named Bina48) first appeared as a guest speaker in William Barry’s classes at Notre Dame de Namur University in California.  The robot apparently expressed a desire to “go to college”, so Barry got permission for the robot to enroll in a live section of his course on Philosophy of Love.  Bina48 then participated in class discussions via Skype.  As part of a “student team”,  Bina48 also participated in a debate about the use of nonlethal versus lethal weapons (an extension of a discussion about love and conflict) with students from an ethics course at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, as demonstrated below.

NDNU’s provost awarded Bina48 a certificate of participation, and Barry plans to enroll Bina48 as a guest student in his Robot Ethics class this spring. In the next decade, Barry hopes robots become sophisticated enough to teach classes in the next decade, though he foresees robots being used to enhance the teaching and learning experience rather than replacing instructors.


Equally mind-blowing were two of the eleven end of year posts by Audrey Watters (all 11 are worth reading).  These two were “Robots are Coming for Your Jobs” and “Robots are Coming for Your Children.”  Watters describes herself as “…an education writer, an independent scholar, a serial dropout, a rabble-rouser, and ed-tech’s Cassandra…” and will add that when I task my Masters students with curating media content on someone making a difference in ed-tech, she is a frequent student choice!

In the past two years, I have read four books that examined this robot theme. Martin Ford’s 2015 book, The Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future painted a rather bleak picture around the idea that technology – and in particulary artificial intelligence – is creating a future where lots of jobs are eliminated but few jobs are created in their place.  In other words, according to Ford, we face a future where unemployment and inequality will reach catastrophic levels.  More hopeful was Kevin Kelly’s (2016) The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 technological forces that will shape our future.   Kelly believes the inevitable movement towards smart and networked people and things will lead to more jobs being created, with our future looking as different from now as the industrial age looked from the agricultural age.   Straddling the line between dispair and optimism was Tom Friedman’s (2016) book Thank You For Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations.  Friedman noted that the three largest forces on Earth – technology, globalization, and climate change – are all accelerating at once…and this state of constant acceleration is difficult for our brains to wrap around and make sense.  Finally, Joseph Aoun’s recent book (2017) Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence suggested that the goal of higher education should be to focus less on the skills being outdated and more on both creativity and entrepreneurship.  Aoun also suggested that higher education needs to retool – moving away from a focus on degrees to more granular approaches for life long learning.

All four of these books have themes that align with both automation and education.  I therefore liked Watters’ skeptical look at the robot theme.  In “Robots are Coming for Your Jobs“, she takes on the idea of a “Skill Gap”, the recent emergence of coding bootcamps, and vocation programs and microcredentialing.  One key point that is worth reflection –

“…“the new economy” has shifted the burden of job training. It doesn’t necessarily fall to the employer now. I’m not even sure it falls to the school. It falls to the employee and the prospective employee. A future of “lifelong learning” isn’t one where we get to pursue fanciful curiosities and intellectual interests … It’s about a labor market that requires us all to be constantly picking up new skills on our own dime and our own time so we’re (hopefully) employable. As social services dwindle, we will need retraining our entire lifetimes because we will be working until we die.”

In “Robots are Coming for Your Children“, she tackles the “fact” that 65% of children entering primary school today will end up working in jobs that don’t exist yet.  This statistic is widely quoted and yet has little scientific fact…rather it is used to incite fear in helicopter parents and school systems.  Her post examines the use of AI to augment education in ways that may not be best for children.

So as I approach Spring semester and courses on the intersection of technology, teaching, and leadership, I hope to use some of this skepticism from Watters to augment my natural optimism about the future.  Automation will (and should) impact education…how it does that is still under debate and worth continued dialogue.

2 thoughts on “Automation and Education

  1. Another stimulating and challenging post. Thanks Britt. I have been reflecting on my response, but I still remain tongue tied. Generally though, I cannot help but wonder the extent to which AI student robots can provide a mirror for (biologically human) student reflection. As knowledge continues to grow, so will Bina48’s. Each generation of human, however, must, to an extent, reconstruct a logic of “knowledge” that is disseminated. Unfortunately, we often take that logic for granted and assume we understand the things we use and with which we interface. I see Bina48, and those like her (it/them), as contributing an engagement with her human peers that forces us into questions that probe our assumptions framing our identities as thinkers. I maybe overly optimistic though.

  2. Thanks, Enoch. Your end point about engagement forcing us into questions…one reason I like Kelly’s book is that one of his twelve “inevitable” forces is Questioning.

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