This blog came about as a result of a conversation that we were having about the future of education (which can be seen in the video below). We thought it would be enlightening to expand more upon some of the topics, so we put together this post.
The future is impossible to predict, and these ideas need exploring further, but we believe thinking about the future world grants us the opportunity to prepare and anticipate change. As educators, we want to understand the world that young people will need to confront.
As a tutor, I have always tried to understand the motivations and aspirations of students. I have always felt that if students feel open and forthcoming, addressing their academic issues becomes far easier. Encouraging this openness is crucial because a child learns more efficiently when we understand how concepts relate to their worlds.
Occasionally, students put me on the spot and ask me about what I think about their chosen career path. Questions are welcome, as I have always encouraged curiosity, but this makes me think deeply about how technology will continue to affect education and the labour markets.
Education and its role
Politics and education have always had an inseparable relationship. There is mounting pressure on governments to build education systems that are both efficient and create world-class workers. These world-class workers can help generate high-quality goods and services. If one takes a more Hobbesian perspective, education also maintains control over the savage nature of humanity. This moral component is where programmes such as PSHE (Personal, Social, Health and Education) intercede within our system.
The government of the day inserts their values into the curriculum. For instance, our current Conservative government emphasises the importance of the nuclear family in its guidance on the teaching of health and relationships. In Communist China, they emphasise the value of being a model citizen for the state. Every citizen is closely monitored and given a social credit score. This score is similar to the credit score that companies such as Experian, Transunion, etc. but is far more all-encompassing. A citizen’s social credit can even affect a bus fare. Being a ‘bad’ citizen can be expensive.
Our advantage is that we can operate slightly ‘outside the system’, which, I believe, leads to students having more of an ability to think and problem-solve.
At university, I studied economics and politics, and one of the most intriguing ideas that arose was the idea that capitalism changes over time.
Some economies are far along in their development, and technology has also matured, so it has become far quicker to produce and manufacture goods. Amazon, Google, Apple, Tencent etc. are the most efficient of the lot and have therefore commanded considerable market power.
This efficiency is brilliant for the consumer, who has access to goods more cheaply; however, as labour value erodes through mechanisation, workers’ wages decline overall compared to the capital (goods, services, profit) created. Even as consumption increases the supply of goods can meet that demand, and prices can stabilise at a lower level.
These low prices mean, however, that large corporations are able to improve their profit margins and the owners and upper management benefit. Most companies do not operate as employee-owned entities, so there is usually a large disparity in wage compensation.
There are three aspects to the dominance of the technologists that are crucial to the future of work and education:
- An increase in surveillance and reliance on big data
- Reduction in costs of production and delivery through automation
- A ‘flattening’ of the earth as services move online
All of these aspects will have an impact on both the classroom and the workplace.
Throughout lockdown, many children around the world and in the UK, have experienced online lessons. The delivery of these lessons has been unequal and in many cases inadequate, because of the differences in infrastructure (broadband and access to computers), varying levels of teacher training in using online tools, confusing advice from the government, and a lack of preparation and planning.
Parents have confided that they have not been happy with the situation. They have found that their children’s concentration has suffered, brought up the lack of intense exercise, and some have found that their children do not enjoy the experience.
I notice that some children are less responsive online, as they rely on non-verbal cues such as gestures and eye-contact. In some cases, they even seem more self-conscious about using a microphone and webcam. At the moment, we are a million miles away from the ‘virtual classroom’ experience. Despite these issues, there are advantages to online learning that companies, schools, universities and governments will not ignore.
First, data collection will become easier as machine learning becomes more integrated into video call software. Imagine teachers getting notified about how a child is feeling in real-time, from minute facial expressions. This new information would help teachers as they can better understand their students and respond proactively to concerns. The insidious downside is the ability of governments and companies to delve into students’ thoughts and feelings.
Second, cost reductions in terms of hosting a class online grant significant benefits to educational establishments. It is possible to reach more students, gain more profit, reduce teacher costs etc.
Third, education can reach students in the remotest areas (if internet infrastructure is in place). Scalability becomes possible, and geography becomes less of a limit.
The future: AI and VR
VR or Virtual Reality is the way online classes can work effectively. Imagine students being able to feel like they are interacting directly with each other as if they are in a classroom. Imagine students studying a Christmas Carol being brought back in time to Dickensian England so they can see the workhouses. Imagine students visiting Mars without a rocket. All of these possibilities are magical, but could one day soon be possible.
It is an exciting future for education, but the first challenge will be making the experience as visceral and realistic as possible. The second will be one of accessibility. In my view, the second problem is a truly difficult one.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is also the future. In my view, there is little that cannot be replaced by an AI. Teaching is no exception. Alan Turing devised an experiment, originally called an ‘Imitation Game’. In ‘an Imitation Game’, a remote human interrogator must distinguish between a computer and a human. He does this based on their responses to questions, posed by the interrogator. Although the bar has risen since Turing devised the experiment, it may one day be possible for an AI to simulate a teacher. Think about the deep fakes that have become hyper-realistic and the ‘Alpha Go’ project developed by Deepmind and IBM’s ‘Watson’. These developments may mean that even teachers could be replaced by intelligent assistants.
My final thoughts for this blog and words to our students are that you need to be the creator. Don’t just watch the world go by and despair, but learn how to be its architect or own it. Look for opportunities to improve the lives of others around you and be a problem-solver. Moreover, be a generalist. Aim to build your knowledge on a vast array of subjects, as automation will continue to pose a present threat to the job market.
AI and automation may make many jobs obsolete, but you can always exercise your judgment. In a modern world that thrives on efficiency, think about how you can market yourself as unique and freethinking.