By Paul McKean
If you’ve heard that robots are taking over the world, don’t panic. While the World Economic Forum (WEF)’s 2018 Future of Jobs report urges businesses to identify areas of work that computers can do as well if not better than humans, it also predicts that machines will do the more mundane, repetitive tasks, leaving people to innovate, create, analyse, and have productive debate with other humans. Far from stealing your job, as Industry 4.0 takes shape, robots will be doing your admin and inputting spreadsheets.
Change starts with disruption
Lots of jobs are already changing with automation. If computers are ‘bean counting’, accountants’ time can be spent on analysis and offering personalised advice. Our paralegals’ knowledge and critical thinking remain essential while less humanistic aspects of their role are being done by robots. And in customer services, while straightforward questions are addressed by chatbots, humans can deal with issues that require flexibility and empathy. Those sectors aren’t seeing a decline in human recruitment.
At Jisc, our response to this changing landscape is a technology-enhanced vision we call Education 4.0. As teaching changes, artificial intelligence and automation presents both challenges and opportunities. I believe that by embracing digital evolution, the further education (FE) sector, its teachers and learners, will thrive.
Recent Office for National Statistics (ONS) research backs this up. It states that 1.5m jobs in England are at ‘high risk of some of their duties and tasks being automated in the future’ – and teaching is highlighted as an area to watch. This doesn’t mean we’ll need fewer teachers. Rather, it predicts that around a fifth of teachers’ workload can, potentially, be automated – and that will release practitioners to focus on interpretive and empathetic work. The dotted line between the ONS’s forecasts and Education 4.0 boils down to one simple question: what kinds of things do teachers currently do that they’d rather not? I think it’s things like registration, quantitative assessment and paperwork – all of which can be automated. In recognising the role of educators, we can see how their working lives can be transformed for the better.
Personalised and adaptive learning
Every teacher knows that 30 learners on a programme won’t all start or finish in the same place, or experience learning in the same way. Yet in a didactic, traditional classroom, everyone is taught the same thing at the same time. With Education 4.0, adaptive systems allow students to learn at their own pace. Some aspects of assessment may be automated and AI may help teachers understand how learners are progressing. Machines can release learning content at a time that’s appropriate to each individual student – whether that’s video or a simulation or written documents. We’re approaching an era where learning is almost 24/7 and where, in FE, a teacher may have different types of learner all studying for the same qualification in the same cohort. A 16-year-old coming through from school will bring different skills and experiences to, say, a 50-year-old who’s studying around employment. Personalised and adaptive learning will tailor the pace and type of learning so that everyone is challenged. Decisions are made by a teacher and discussions take place between educators and learners. AI can sort the allocation and admin.
The heart and soul of teaching
People working in FE sometimes tell me that they’re losing interest in their job because they aren’t in the classroom doing the work they love and spending time with the learners they want to support. They go into teaching to teach but find they’re buried in bureaucracy. The aspiration with automation – reflected in the government’s 2019 edtech strategy – is that it cleans up the audit trail. If you think the robots are coming, you may be right – and in the future they will free-up teachers to teach.
Paul McKean is head of FE and skills at the education and technology not-for-profit, Jisc. Hear his talk on effective use of technology at the AoC’s Teaching Learning and Assessment Conference at 14:35 on 5 December.