BOOK CHAPTER PROPOSAL / PAPER
EDUCATION AND SOCIETY
Education plays a crucial role in today’s western society. In this chapter we will analyse the effect of technology on both education and society. Namely, what could education look like to help society prepare for the effect that technology is creating in the changing nature of the workplace. This includes the impact that artificial intelligence will have in society and in the quality of education available worldwide as well as the different formats that education is now taking thanks to the internet.
“The very rationale of the educational process and the role of the educator is founded on the humanist idea of a certain kind of subject who has the inherent potential to become self-motivated and self-directing, a rational subject capable of exercising individual agency.” Suppes, P. (1966.)
This inspiring sentence summarises the vital role education plays in society in helping people find purpose and relevance in their lives. As university enrollment climbs over eleven million students in the USA, Bustamante (2019), and record numbers are witnessed in England, Sellgren (2019) it seems as if society is in agreement about the value of education.
This chapter will focus generally on society and education from a western perspective. One can reference early Roman times, Chiappetta, (1953), to see the beginnings of a system which would eventually come to look remarkably like our own today. However it is often argued that the needs of industry during the industrial revolution were the root cause of a standardised country wide curriculum. How will education systems adapt to help society?
The rapid increase in digital technology has transformed the economy and society at large. The populations connectivity and data explosion this has created has enabled completely new business types and applications. For example, the internet enabled platforms of AirBnB (2 million guests per night, AirBnB newsroom), Uber (14 million rides a day, Uber newsroom) and Facebook (2.4 billion active users, Statista) have reached incredible scale, reaching billions of people. This has created a noticeable effect in day to day lives in the way in which we communicate and we can be influenced on topics such as politics through our addiction to daily feeds and attention sapping notifications.
But it’s the rise of artificial intelligence and the impending automation of certain jobs never thought possible (self-driving cars and trucks for example) that have made predicting how the future looks, a rather difficult task. With this uncertainty about the future, how should we think about education and its role in society? What are the potential opportunities and also the dangers of this continuing digital revolution? Should we optimise for the individual experience or for the society as a whole?
2.3 Literature review
Ma, J., Pender, M. and Welch, M. p17 (2016) provide a very comprehensive and convincing demonstration of data relating to the value of further education. Page seventeen in their report provides the sharpest insight about how defined the link is between education and income. In the USA, a bachelors degree is worth almost double ($61,000 versus $36,000) in annual income.
The gig economy, whereby “connecting customers directly with individual service providers” allows companies to “conduct their entire core business through workers that they classify as self-employed” Todolí-Signes, A. (2017) has created opportunity for many. It is interesting to note “that algorithmic control is central to the operation of online labour platforms” Wood, A. J. et al. (2019). The gig economy (Upwork for example) is an evolution towards further empowerment of the individual in terms of providing optionality. For example many taxi drivers now work for both Uber and Lyft. But this entrepreneurial approach comes with reduced job security and financial unpredictability that make it difficult to imagine it being the modus operandi form of future work.
“Automation And The Future Of The Workforce“ a report produced by McKinsey Global Institute (2018), establishes predictive data for 2030 that Physical and manual workers in the US were likely to see a decrease of 11% , from 2016 working hours, ”while Western Europe’s would be reduced by 16%“. Also of relevance is ”the strongest growth in demand will be for technological skills, the smallest category today, which will rise by 55 percent.“ They include basic digital skills and also programming in this definition. They also expect to see a sharp rise in the need for creativity in the future workplace. Negatively yet unsurprising is that the automation will mean that ”displacement will be concentrated mainly on low-skill workers, continuing a trend that has exacerbated income inequality and reduced middle-wage jobs.“
The discussion of the severity with which the impact of automation will have on jobs and on society has led many to suggest governments will have to adopt a welfare type strategy of Universal Basic Income. Will technology and thus automation leave us nearly all jobless in the future? With UBI high on political agendas is there a chance that education will once again become a hobby? Something to pursue for the aesthetic pleasure of it or for reasons of personal curiosity? The author highlights the realities of a potential UBI reform – “the objection is that UBI breaks entirely the foundational bonds between social security protection, allowing the hypothetical ‘lazybones’ to free-ride on the contributions of others.” Martinelli, L. (2017) p 69.
In a paper titled “Online Higher Education: Beyond the Hype Cycle” by McPherson, M. S. and Bacow, L. S. (2015) there is detailed analysis on MOOC’s (Massive Open Online Course). The feasibility of this open, democratised version of higher learning actually transferring to re-skilling or entry to the workforce is critically evaluated through the lens of the Gartner ‘Hype Cycle’. While internet technology revolutionises our society and sends shockwaves through the labour force, will internet enabled technology also be the solution? “The evidence suggests that pedagogy is multidimensional in such a way that it cannot be reduced to ‘online’ and ‘offline’.”
Personalisation and feedback on a MOOC course delivered to tens of thousands could be delivered very cost effectively with artificial intelligence. The technology is still in its infancy but Popenici, Stefan & Kerr, Sharon. (2017) highlight a case where:
“The teaching assistant was so valued by students that one wanted to nominate her to the outstanding TA award. This TA managed to meet the highest expectations of students. The surprise at the end of the course was to find out that Jill Watson was not a real person, but a teacherbot, a virtual teaching assistant that was based on the IBM’s Watson platform.“
Their paper also touches on the current and potential viability of MOOC’s as a real alternative to a university education (p8). The ethics of AI are highlighted (p11) cautioning that ”AI software based on complex algorithms (is) designed by programmers that can transmit their own biases or agendas in operating systems.“
With reference to another AI project, the ‘Teacherbot’ experiment, Sian Bayne (2015), yielded some interesting results and led to the conclusion that they initially, “would not see technological development as taking place in order to solve a problem, or address a deficit in teacher ability or productivity, but would rather explore how human and non-human teachers might work together”.
Broom, C. (2015) criticises the current standardised form of education, calling it “Ford’s factory model” and that it incentivises ‘passive’ and ‘compliant’ behaviour to create ‘manageable classrooms’. In this way, education can have a negative impact on society as students don’t reach their potential or worse reject and rebel against the system via dropping out or negative social behaviour. Broom refers to this as ‘dis-empowerment’ of the individual.
University education is often discussed from the angle of economic growth, including topics such as employment levels and degree relevancy. Peter Thiel in a 2013 interview at Yale makes some very original and difficult to dispute arguments for a line of reasoning that states that university education can stifle innovation. In 2014 he also released a critically acclaimed book, “Zero to One” which developed upon some remarks from the aforementioned interview.
2.3 Future developments in education and society
DATA – IS IT WORTH IT?
To discover how education can lead to economic growth for society we should first look for correlation between higher education and positive outcomes. Ma, J., Pender, M. and Welch, M. (2016) have conducted extensive research in the USA which led them to conclude the following:
1)“Individuals with higher levels of education earn more, pay more taxes, and are more likely than others to be employed.”
2)“College education increases the chance that adults will move up the socioeconomic ladder and reduces the chance that adults will rely on public assistance.”
3)“College education is associated with healthier lifestyles, reducing health care costs.“
Whilst highlighting that there may not always be one hundred percent, direct causality, the data shows that those with a bachelors degree have the most positive results in all thirty one topics they tested and explored. They do make the point that enrolment levels differ to a large degree (p7) amongst demographic groups. So with such a positive correlation between higher education and societal ‘success’ what can be done to improve degree enrolment and completion levels in education?
MOOC’s – THE OPPORTUNITY
The biggest opportunity afforded by technology for further education is online learning. Known by the term of MOOC (massive open online courses) three platforms (EdX, Coursera and Udacity) have grown to enormous scale with the hope of democratising learning. They engaged in an “effort to supply college-level courses for free over the Internet to learners worldwide”, McPherson, M. S. and Bacow, L. S. (2015). With world renowned experts producing course material and also material from institutions such as Harvard, MIT and Berkeley it would appear that there is no reason not to educate yourself and move up the ladder in society. One reason for their as yet low impact in society is “the need for users to exert considerable self-discipline to stay with a program that is undertaken individually.”McPherson, M. S. and Bacow, L. S. (2015).
AI AND PERSONALISED LEARNING
So how can we encourage higher participation, higher completion of self study classes in higher education? Popenici, Stefan & Kerr, Sharon. p6 (2017) state that “complex computing systems using machine learning algorithms can serve people with all types of abilities and engage to a certain degree in human-like processes and complex processing tasks that can be employed in teaching and learning.“ This implies a future of adaptive interfaces and machine communication to optimise for your pedagogic requirements as a learner.
To realise the societal potential of inter-connectedness and democratic learning there is a need for ”mass education to replace the cold technocratic imperative”(Bayne 2015).
Personalised AI can help. One can imagine AI having abilities and skills that are based on historical data provide motivation, monitoring, mentoring support and adaptive teaching methods that require engagement rather than passive consumption of a video as warned against by Broom, C. (2015) . Immersive virtual and augmented reality experiences could also help to make education a more practical and visceral experience.
Peter Thiel, a renowned Silicon Valley venture capitalist, has garnered attention for his criticism of the university system in the USA. In an interview at Yale University, Daniel Weisfield (2013) he provides some key arguments for the fact that university can stifle innovation (with innovation being the key for economic growth). These include:
“Education as insurance. We invest in education in order to hedge against future uncertainty.
Education as tournament. Yale and Stanford create a public good by incubating and transferring knowledge, but if they could suddenly triple the size of their student bodies, they wouldn’t. Prestige is un-scalable. Education as a babysitter. ‘Education’ can be a code word for ‘holding pen’.”
It’s hard to refute this, as the conservative, the competitive and the uninspired students are all defined here. Could an improved educational system alter their journey in society for earlier self actualisation about their true reason for enrolling? Could they then contribute to economic growth more effectively?
At a time when higher education is an automatic choice for many, these points are vital to stimulate critical reflection for both students and policy makers. For students they must ask themselves what they really get in return for years of hard work and high financial costs. Do potential entrepreneurs play it safe and follow education and career paths that promise the highest financial reward instead of the one that is the most intrinsically valuable to them?
As self driving car technology nears fruition and entry into worldwide society, it has come to represent a warning sign for the future that hundreds of thousands if not millions will lose their jobs to machines and AI. The Mckinsey ‘Future of the Workforce’ report (2018) doesn’t quite paint such a dramatic picture. In fact only ‘6% of businesses expected to downsize’ with the use of new technology, the majority instead foreseeing a future in 2030 where AI and other technology assists and empowers humans. This is of course educated conjecture and impossible to know. Regardless of the actual number of displaced workers or industries there will be great challenges ahead. The education and required re-skilling will come to play a vital role as another as society experiences a revolution perhaps on par with the industrial revolution.
Although, as stated above, there are challenges for the education system and for society with the onset of ever more powerful technology. Negative dramatic headlines create more attention than the positive ones. ‘Continued economic growth for the next twenty years’ will not generate the clicks (and thus the revenue) that ‘Killer robots to take over the world’ will! But the effect of long term economic growth has tremendous implications for society. To achieve this going forward a society will likely have to be a leader in the revolutionary technology of artificial intelligence whilst providing or producing a workforce skilled enough to take advantage of the opportunity over the long term.
A HEALTHIER SOCIETY
Education that enables ever more ability in the general field of AI has a multitude of benefits. Detection of cancer cells through the application of AI appears to be thrilling achievement on the cusp of application in society. A paper from Google researchers, Liu, Y. et al. (2017) relating to breast cancer detection demonstrated success in finding “92.4% of the tumors. For comparison, a human pathologist achieved 73.2%”.
A digitally skilled and educated workforce operating in an ever more digital society has further health and happiness implications for the individual and economic benefits for the economy. The increasing number of digital, computer based jobs along with improved internet communication abilities (for example Skype, Slack) has created the opportunity for remote work. At the extreme end of the scale, remote work means doing your job 100% from any location in the world. WordPress (HBR 2013) was an early success story of adopting a 100% ‘distributed’ workforce. At the other end of the scale, this could simply mean more flexibility in your current job with a now typical ‘home office’ day amongst IT workers.
An RSPH (2016) report indicates that 55% of commuters feel an increase in the time spent stressed whilst also suffering from a 35% reduction in time spent sleeping. Remote work has the chance to reduce this negative outcome. This could be allowing a commuter to travel outside of peak times (where peak trains see 174% occupation in the London rush! RSPH 2016) or reducing the number of days in the office. Increased flexibility will also allow daily tasks such as shopping, dentist visits or picking children up from school to be done without disrupting ones workflow or responsibilities to an employer. The RSPH (2016) report factors this into measuring stress levels.
Another side effect of remote work is the increased job opportunity with companies located in distant regions. This extra opportunity contributes to economic growth in the form of higher employment levels and increased productivity as exemplified here (HBR 2014).
“The productivity increase, we think, was due to having a quieter environment. They started earlier, took shorter breaks. Sick days for employees working from home plummeted.” Remote employment obviously implies remote education as a feasible outcome. Whether through official institutions such as Noroff at university level (Online Studies 2019), MOOC’s or self learning there is an opportunity for those willing to improve their education and skills.
2.6 Key points
The data is conclusive. Those who achieve a bachelors degree are statistically way ahead of their peers when it comes to measurements of success. So how do we achieve higher levels of education so that not only individuals but also society as a whole can be improved?
The answer lies in technology and pedagogy. AI can potentially perform human like tasks at enormous scale – perfect for the virtual classroom. Thus enabling a more adaptive workforce as the needs of a turbulent economy undergoing digital revolution play out. There is an argument that care must be taken to ensure the university system is not put on a pedestal or seen as the ultimate and only way to be valuable in society. It’s very difficult to predict the future but Mckinsey’s 2018 report highlights the need for creativity and re-skilling, re-training will be substantial while job losses overall will not be as severe as perhaps expected. The increasing shift to remote work will bring about more personal freedom and productivity for the economy. Education and skills in the area of AI could payoff massively for society in terms of solving or improving solutions and treatment in medicine such as cancer detection.
Change is inevitable. The world’s markets are constantly in flux and large scale unpredictable events happen all the time (stock market crashes, natural disasters etc). Technology is developing at an increasing speed and the promises of increased health, employment and educational opportunity via AI and remote digital connections need to be balanced with the realities of fast change. Educational structures in society bare an increasing responsibility of helping to see these positive possibilities come to fruition.
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WHY EDUCATION AND SOCIETY AS A TOPIC?
As an older student at the age of 32, starting this degree had followed a period of reflection on the need for higher education and what it entails in today’s western society. Having pursued a very different, non-digital career path from an early age I had been sceptical of the value of university. This didn’t change too much when happening across the writings of Peter Thiel and his definition of the ‘education bubble’ we are in. But having been involved in a startup accelerator and witnessing the need for digital skills such as coding, my curiosity developed into a hunger for that skill. This viewpoint and my ensuing participance in a MOOC (Coursera) led to my forming of the view of how education will need to adapt to suit the changing needs of society and the digital revolution.