This blog has its origin in a workshop I attended week or so ago about AI and the future of work – you may recall a blog from me on that topic a short while ago. One of the exercises we undertook was a group conversation about what university education might look like in 2025. There was a fair bit of lively discussion about technology, collaboration and equity of access, but I must say without any definitive insights.
I think one participant hit the nail on the head when they posed the question; will there actually be universities in 2025. The obvious answer is ‘Yes’, but really the question was rhetorical, because while universities will in all probability continue to exist as institutions with that name for decades, the role, constitution and structure of the university is changing, and will continue to change. It is doing so not just under the pressure of technology but from social, cultural and economic developments.
Tertiary education is something I have thought about and discussed with many intelligent people over the years. The main things I got from tertiary study were the importance of structuring my thoughts and learning how to learn – both pretty much learnt by doing. I guess long story short my view is the world of information (how it is stored, distributed, navigated and utilised) has changed immeasurably over the last couple of decades, and the tertiary sector has struggled / is struggling to keep pace and stay relevant.
A key concern, of course, is the question of how participating in university education can remain primary or indeed useful in equipping students to participate in the workforce. There was acknowledgement and some excitement around the current move in university circles to offer micro-credits or if you like ‘à la carte’ selection of elements from their portfolio of offerings. The sensible idea is that students can fine tune their learning as close as possible to their specific needs. This comes close to the position I have arrived at; that ‘just-in-time’ education seems like the best contemporary strategy – a little bit at a time, focussed on a tangible goal or to take the next step or getting that necessary credential. The days of imbibing a large body of knowledge early and living off that for years seems long gone (if it ever really worked).
I reckon there is no wrong pathway but there are multiple pathways. While I respect people who commit to even extended academic journeys, my feeling is that an integrated work and learning pathway will track better in an environment of uncertainty about work futures. One obvious example is the apprenticeship model. In the past this worked similarly in essence for the degree model, in the sense that the apprentice/student gained a body of knowledge that was meant to last a lifetime of employment. One important development for both over past decades has been the recognition of the need for constant skill maintenance, however this still operates within the original silo. What is increasingly necessary is the ability to chart a course between learning models and across spheres of employment, to create an individualised trajectory of knowledge acquisition and value creation.
University of Melbourne has launched a brand campaign showcasing what it regards as its distinctive curriculum, the ‘Melbourne Model’. Its YouTube video presents the idea of education that equips students with world knowledge, so that they can adapt and be ready for every possible future.
As slick as this is, it does strike me however that an important challenge with this approach is sustaining the commercial pressures of running large institutions, exacerbated by the accelerating end of the monopoly on knowledge by traditional education institutions – universities aren’t the only ones using YouTube! How often have you heard someone say, ‘Oh I learnt how to do that from a YouTube video’? The ‘University of YouTube’ might serve as an umbrella term for the ready and instant availability of knowledge and ‘how-to’ instruction on the Internet. Not to mention the access to the vast storehouse of human knowledge Google (and other search engines) have given over the last couple of decades, and the power of social media to foster the rapid emergence of communities of interest and practice to share and develop knowledge. Sure there are quality and trust issues, but that doesn’t stop people successfully using these information resources all the time, in both their personal and professional lives.
In some ways it’s perhaps analogous to the problems facing subscription television – a classic fixed cost versus variable income problem. As their offering is increasingly unbundled and contested by ‘watch only what you want’ streaming services, maintaining the integrated network infrastructure becomes increasingly difficult. Similarly universities require significant financial logistical and educational agility to sustain a coherent offering from a swarm of micro-learning opportunities.
One key aspect of the modern knowledge equation is the advent of AI and big data, and it will be interesting to see how the application of data analysis to educational design and experience will play out. AI will not be monolithic, various actors and agents will contend and contest and are unlikely to be perfect. Humans are likely to be the adults in the room for quite some time to come. In fact it occurs to me that governance will be a growth area in AI-world along with curation and editing of AI-based products to best fit human needs. One very interesting area will be learning and developing ways to interface with AI based systems – the common office screen and mouse systems are likely to go the way of the command line DOS prompt of old, and perhaps work interfaces will come to resemble contemporary digital game environments?
Students will definitely need to get accustomed to an increasingly data dense educational environment. A positive outcome could well be better management of diversity and complexity in catering to individual student needs and wants, enabling a better matching of learning environment, methods and partners. Perhaps AI assisted ‘adaptive education’ could assist managing these multiple pathways?
In this context it was interesting to note the 2017 report from the AI Now Institute at New York University, focused on the use of AI in government and the law. It suggests that “the design and implementation of this next generation of computational tools presents deep normative and ethical challenges for our existing social, economic and political relationships and institutions.”
It cautions that “Core public agencies, such as those responsible for criminal justice, health care, welfare, and education should no longer use ‘black box’ AI and algorithmic systems”, since difficult decisions need to be made about how we value fairness and accuracy in risk assessment. It is not merely a technical problem, but one that involves important value judgments about how society should work. These concerns, expressed particularly about the legal system in the report would seem to be as applicable to educational institutions, which would seem as susceptible to perpetuating AI-driven harm as any other. Thinking about this leaves me to an observation that education can largely be seen as a lagging institution: that is rather than driving our massive social and economic shifts, it is essentially driven by them, adapting and configuring it’s offerings to suit the times.
One notable exception that observation which occurs to me however is the fundamentally role of literacy as a social and economic enabler. Perhaps that is one way of conceptualizing the future utility of education rather than providing intellectual toolbox or skill set it might be better seen as equipping people with the fundamental literacy to be able to devise and guide a learning path as closely aligned to their career and vocational aspirations as possible. Dr Josh Healy Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Workplace Leadership, Faculty of Business and Economics, University of Melbourne writes about what researchers are calling the new literacies, what he terms ‘Literacy 4.0’. Educational institutions and educators will need to consider how they can anticipate to the new and changing lattice of options and adapt themselves to best assist their students to navigate that environment.
The Foundation for Young Australians (FYA) spells out where that literacy might be used (without using the term) when it discusses 7 ‘clusters of work’ – skills that are transferable across jobs – to help young people (and I would suggest people of any age) navigate the new work order. Their conclusion:
By understanding the skills and capabilities that will be most portable and in demand in the new economy, young people can work to equip themselves for the future of work more effectively. Our mindset needs to shift to reflect a more dynamic future of work where linear careers will be far less common and young people will need a portfolio of skills and capabilities, including career management skills to navigate the more complex world of work.
The FYA analysed skills requested by employers across 2.7 million online job advertisements posted over the past two years and the occupations were then grouped based on whether employers demanded similar skills from applicants. These clustered in the following seven groups (take a look at the report to explore them further):
- ‘The Generators’
- ‘The Artisans’
- ‘The Coordinators’
- ‘The Designers’
- ‘The Technologists’
- ‘The Carers’
- ‘The Informers’
A glimpse of the future smart society that these clusters of skills might be used in is given a World Economic Forum (WEF) piece titled: The society of the future looks nothing like you might imagine. A ‘smart society’ is defined as one where digital technology, thoughtfully deployed by governments, can improve on three broad outcomes: the well-being of citizens, the strength of the economy, and the effectiveness of institutions. A natural group of countries to use as role models was the Digital 5, or D5, nations, representing the most digitally advanced governments in the world. The group comprises Estonia, Israel, New Zealand, South Korea, and the UK – sadly Australia does not seem to rate a mention.
The D5 nations are used by the WEF to define a global benchmark for a smart society organized them so that each indicator could be classified under one of 12 broad benchmark components. These broad components are:
- environment and quality of life,
- state of talent and the human condition,
- talent development.
- global connectedness,
- economic robustness,
- entrepreneurial ecosystem,
- innovation capacity.
- freedoms offline and online,
- safety and security,
- public services.
It would be an interesting exercise to map the seven FYA skill clusters more precisely across these WEF smart society benchmarking components – something for another day perhaps. In any event, smart people in future will need to understand and work across both these dimensions – smart educators will help them …