The theme for #FutureEd this week was expressed in a Toffler quote (which turns out to not quite be a Toffler quote):
The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.
I find this quote a bit frustrating. For one, I agree with Tom that “unlearning” is just learning. For another, I’m troubled by the notion that previous generations didn’t engage in lifelong learning. Surely a cobbler, physicist, or reporter continued to learn throughout their career? I prefer Harold Jarche’s formulation of this phenomenon:
In the near future, the edges will be where almost all high-value work will be done in organizations. Change and complexity will be the norm in this work. Most people will work the edges, or not at all. Core activities will be increasingly automated or outsourced. This core will be managed by very few internal staff.
This is a sea change in organizational design. Some companies are already playing with new designs, tweaking their existing models. A few, mostly start-ups, are trying completely new models. Any work where complexity is not the norm will be of diminishing value. Freelancers and contractors, already increasing in number, will be needed to address continuously evolving markets. The future of work will be in understanding complexity and dealing with chaos.
It’s not just that we continue learning, it’s that automation of known processes and replication of digital content keeps pushing us to the edges. A decent newspaper reporter of ages past continued to learn her core craft throughout her career. But there’s something decidedly different about a reporter who moves from reporting to blogging to blogging plus photography and basic number crunching along with online research and analysis. As history proceeds, it’s the knowledge and process integrator that is becoming more valued, and the nature of what needs to be integrated is a moving target. We can certainly teach our students that intersection of geology, engineering, and statistics that is petroleum engineering today (a great example of demand for integrated skills) — but there is simply no way that much of what we teach today won’t be automated in five to ten years. And what then? The predictable does not have much of a future.
A lot of the educational debate breaks down into debates between the robo-believers and the robo-doubters. The robo-believers believe the emergence of technological solutions, AI, and networked knowledge can obviate the need for traditional teacher-powered education. The robo-doubters believe no app will ever capture the feel of an afternoon on the quad reading Keats with your class. Robo-believers accuse robo-doubters of living in Brideshead Revisted. Robo-doubters accuse the robo-believers of constructing Minority-Report-As-a-Service.
Left out of the public conversation quite often is a third point of view — that the robo-believers are right, but they are focussing on the wrong robots.
Because, if you believe, like I do, that technology will be doing amazing things in fifteen years, that AI *will* finally start living up to its promise, that vast advances in the machine processing of distributed knowledge will radically change what is possible, then the education “cost crisis” will solve itself. (And if you buy into Moore’s Law, the fact that that educational revolution is 15 years away predicts that our educational solutions tapping into into these AI technologies will suck for the next 10 years, and then suddenly become viable. Getting a head start here isn’t going to help much.)
But what about the next fifteen years? The automation that is here now, today, the nature of distributed knowledge, here, today, makes our pedagogy of the center increasingly obsolete. The nature of the robo-future (and my partner Nicole tells me to stop using robot when I mean automation because I sound insane, but there you go) — the nature of the robo-future is that the predictable, the central, the places that exhibit best practice and utilize core domain knowledge will be hollowed out. *Are* being hollowed out.
Calls for efficiency in education are fine, and talk about afforadibilty and social justice is critical. But by the time that teaching — one of the hardest jobs to automate — is significantly automated we will be at the end of the robo-revolution, not the beginning. And if we really think that’s the case, what we’re teaching students now seems a much more pressing issue than how we’ll teach them years from now. What we need above all else is not an education that is powered by automation, but an education that is a response to it.