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FOTE14 Abstract – Dave Coplin

The future of education

A few weeks ago, researchers at Harvard University, announced the results of an incredible project that enables computers to understand human thought, albeit at a very rudimentary level (the computer was able to understand a single word when the human thought of it). Minutes after the announcement, the world of social was filled with the dystopian visions of digital mind-control and telepathy and before you knew it we were locked back into a conversation that is essentially about the battle for power between humans and machines and how should be wary of our new digital overlords.

Of course, I don’t think the future will play out in anything like the sorts of scenarios that we see in the movies but I am continually bemused as to why we, as a society, so often see this as a conflict. Why is it always about humans vs machines when surely the whole point of what we have been doing for the last decade (although I would argue we’ve been doing it for much longer) is about the incredible opportunity that lies in front of us when instead we think about the potential of humans plus machines? A place where the technology does not replace us, but instead lifts us, it augments our capabilities to help us achieve and do more.

This conversation is becoming more and more relevant in education, if we are to prepare our children for the future world of work, we need to start thinking very differently about the skills they’re going to require in order not just to survive, but to thrive.

The world of technology is going to present more and more challenges to our workforce, as it becomes more powerful it will drive further disruption. This is a world where, when fed with enough data, the algorithms will be answering our emails, planning our projects and more of our working tasks will be automated such that we can sit back on our ample backsides and bask in the glory of all that we have created. It’s usually at this point, someone hits the big red button labelled “panic” and we all start worrying about our jobs because after all, the computers can do all this stuff better than us can’t they?

But, before the knowledge workers of the world rise up and form their own Luddite rebellion (how ironic would that be?) we’ve just got to remember that by getting the machines to do more work, more of the heavy lifting, we should be pushing ourselves to make better use of that platform to extend ourselves further.

It’s no different to the debate we had when I was a kid at school, at a time when pocket calculators were first becoming affordable. I did the majority of my maths exams armed with no more than a slide rule and a log book (and I did OK thanks very much) but let me tell you, I am a better mathematician with a calculator than I am with a book of tabulated paper and slidy bit of plastic. Yes, I need to know the basic principles of arithmetic but I can get the machine to take care of the heavy lifting. We no longer have that debate and our culture and curriculums have adapted to integrate the power of the calculator to lift human beings to be able to do more and more complex calculations. Our relationship with technology, data and algorithms and their potential in our industry should be no different.

We need to remember that computers, algorithms and the data that feeds them are here to help. The success of our future society will depend entirely on our ability to grasp the potential they offer us and for us to avoid, where possible, simply replicating old ways of working. As a result, our aspiration should be to do things differently, not the same things slightly better.

At the heart of the solution for the future of education (and our society) will be skills; and they will have to be flexible, constantly evolving skills – not least as we don’t know how technology will develop.

Remember the 1980s, when we were told that we would have to learn Japanese in order to survive in the world economy? What are today’s “must-have” skill that may be superfluous in five or ten years’ time? Touch typing? Writing computer code? Learning Mandarin? The answer is hard to spot, but thankfully the principle for how to adapt is easy to find.

We need to stop thinking about today’s tools because they will likely not be the tools of tomorrow. Instead we need to focus on skills. Skills that will help us thrive in the digital world – like critical thinking, effective communication, creativity, entrepreneurship and engineering (all in their broadest sense) – will not just always be relevant but also will ensure that individuals can continue to rise up with the flowing technological tide and achieve more than was previously possible.

If we get this right, we humans won’t have to be in awe of the machines; instead, we will stand high and proud on the shoulders of these mechanical giants and accomplish truly amazing things. The time for us to make this happen is now. The rise of the humans has already started – and the world will never be the same again.

posted by Nuwa Enobakhare on September 22, 2014

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