How do we future-proof education with technology?

We were recently asked to provide some thoughts on the government policy of a small nation-state as to how to best leverage technology and ensure that their citizens benefited from the acceleration of the digital economy.

Which got me to thinking: If you had the benefit of a blank slate (and did not need to worry about politics) what type of policies would a government seek to implement and what technology could it use to leapfrog its development?

The first and most critical area that came to mind was education. Most modern educational systems focus too heavily on “teaching for the test”. Teachers are incentivized to ensure their students rank high on normalized tests like Common Core in the US or GCSE/A-Levels in the UK and Bac in France. Teacher focus on repetition of facts over learning how to learn.

So, could an educational system better use technology to allow students to both learn at their own pace and learn how to learn? HBS professor Clay Christensen has been a longtime-advocate of the concept of Blended Learning and the Christensen institute has a whole research area dedicated to K-12 and adult education.

On the assumption that a clean slate allows us to create a K-12 educational model that, through technology and data, is more student-centric and teaches students to learn how to learn, this will hopefully translate into an economy where individual reinvention is engrained from an early age.

The reality is that accelerated automation and the combination of AI+Robotics will lead to many of today’s jobs to disappear. As the World Economic Forum stated:

“The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs study predicts that 5 million jobs will be lost before 2020 as artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology and other socio-economic factors replace the need for human workers.

The good news is that those same technological advances will also create 2.1 million new jobs. But the manual and clerical workers who find themselves out of work are unlikely to have the required skills to compete for the new roles. Most new jobs will be in more specialized areas such as computing, mathematics, architecture and engineering.”

Research by David Demming of Harvard maps out what skills are most likely to be needed for future re-invention and they can be narrowed down to 2: Social skills and mathematical numeracy.

On numeracy, as Stanford Professor Jo Boaler highlights in her research and this TED talk,the required mathematical skills are *not* knowing all multiplication tables up to 12 by age 9 (ahem, UK Education system!) but rather a concept of number fluency in which young students learn to handle, manipulate and recombine numbers easily and with dexterity. Computer Science, statistics, data science all rely on this required notion of manipulation, which Prof. Boaler calls “Number Sense”.

To quote Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg from their book How Google Works:

“We are in the era of big data, and big data needs statisticians to make sense of it. The democratization of data means that those who can analyze it well will win. Data is the sword of the twenty-first century, those who wield it well, the samurai”

The third axis that one could argue could be added to Demming’s graph could be called “Interaction skills.” Given that future jobs will require a close collaboration and co-existence with computational agents, having the soft and hard skills to direct and manipulate those agents will be key.

Until General AI comes about, narrow-AI agents such as bots or natural language interfaces will require some nuance from its human operator to obtain the desired result. As Prof. Alan Black of Carnegie Mellon states

“Looking ahead, another big issue is how to get people to learn to do new things with their devices.”

The technological advances to reframe the educational model, to enable lifelong learning paradigms and to reinvent jobs and workforce are all coming together today. The challenge in capturing the opportunity still lies in the political and bureaucratic implementation, but opportunities exist for small and large nation-states to prepare for the future today.

Opportunity also exists for small and large companies to help disrupt education at an individual, classroom and nation level. Be that skills-training platforms like General Assembly or Code Academy, educational content plays like Udacity or “snack-sized” skills tools like Duolingo or Enki.

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