Is education stuck in the past tense?

One of the key issues discussed at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos centred around the imminent displacement of workers brought on by automation

The proposed solutions that are currently on the table range from re-training employees through to designing a new social contract requiring organisations to factor in the needs of employees whilst maximising shareholder value. Solutions that, quite frankly, sound like papering over the cracks.

Education was, of course, discussed and there is little doubt that it has severely fallen behind the business world in realising the potential of new technologies.

However, Gartner clarifies this best when the global research firm talks of ‘intelligent digital mesh’ – something that describes the entwining of people, devices, content and services that will create the foundation for the next generation of digital business models and ecosystems, and will most definitely have an impact on education too.

In effect, all this points to an urgent need to address how we prepare students for a future that will be totally different from anything humanity has experienced to date.

I now realise that my own education was on the very cusp of being adequate for today’s workforce.  I opted to study politics, and really wanted to work in a pressure group.  However,  a twist of fate would have it that a temp job I took one summer led me to discover a love for coding – something that was not remotely on my radar at the time.

Now I run my own successful adtech business, and from this vantage position I can definitely see we have reached a crucial turning point. As my two children go through school I feel we are treading water as we funnel future talent into the narrow and restricted neck of an hourglass. For what reason? To prepare them for a world of work?  But what exactly does that workforce look like?

Before delving into some of the ways I would propose the education system shifts to better serve the next generations, I would like to share an insightful forecast – again by Gartner – because as a businesswoman in this sector, I believe they are spot on when they identify three core trends that are emerging in tech:

  • AI is seeping into virtually every technology and with a defined, well-scoped focus can allow more dynamic, flexible and potentially autonomous systems.
  • Digital is now blending the virtual and real worlds to create an immersive, digitally enhanced and connected environment.
  • As a consequence the connections between an expanding set of people, business, devices, content and services is delivering a new generation of digital outcomes.

What this boils down to is a simple and fundamental truth; technology is poised to complement our human strengths to enable accomplishments beyond what either machines or people can do alone. This is a very exciting and cutting-edge period and we must make the most of it by preparing our children to embrace opportunities that we can still barely imagine today.

So how can we make the most of the tech we have to prepare students for a new era of employment that should be liberating and innovative?

For starters I believe we need a shift in core curriculum. There are enormous opportunities for change in high school education to better inform and excite students about technology – especially girls.

Certainly the increasing emphasis of STEM education is a big first step and one in which schools around the country should be concentrating on. In order to do so, however, school principals need to place a stronger emphasis on computer technology. With all industries becoming increasingly reliant on tech, computer programming should be valued as a science in the same way as biology or physics.

Let’s start maximising on the power of AI. Artificial intelligence and algorithms are now playing a significant role in our everyday lives, yet we are so focused on the lack of funding and the new GCSE syllabus that instead of harnessing this potential, we are wasting huge amounts of human potential, by neutralising the creativity of young minds.

In other industries, AI has been fed by “Big Data” to predict consumer behaviour and to recommend products or target advertising. Education data on the other hand is held hostage in siloed systems. This is keeping educators and students from critical information about their own classroom practices and learning and from the kind of insights that AI could provide when given a complete record of student learning.

Another emerging trend is AI-powered educational games. These can provide teachers with a useful medium to teach education concepts in an interactive and engaging manner. This not only generates curiosity but also motivates through gaming features such as reward points, badges, and levels.

These games embody an adaptive learning feature so that students can be given frequent and timely suggestions for a guided learning experience.

There is also the potential for new AI-guided learner experiences that take advantage of what we know from the learning sciences about how people learn to help students own and optimise their own education. This enhances the work of educators to focus effort on the things that matter most and the things that machines can’t do.

Certainly, there is a raft of new tech that schools can now make use of to improve delivery of their teachings and to enhance teaching techniques of home learning.

By embracing the likes of social media, promoting its safe and ethical use through to maximising on the wealth of quality content there is online (such as Ted Talks), the education system could readily transform itself into a much more agile and dynamic ecosystem.

Whilst funding is tight and the constantly changing DfE policies make it harder for schools to keep up, this kind of paradigm shift in mindset will mean a more focused channeling of funding into training and equipment that will make an impactful difference.

In my opinion, mainstream education needs to acknowledge that tomorrow’s workforce will not be judged on what they know, but rather on their skills sets and their ability to make informed decisions and thrive in an economy that is continually evolving. I am already witnessing a rising need for problem-solving capacity teamed with analytical skills to address causes rather than just managing the effects.

If young people are to succeed in the future, we need to begin considering how we can best teach new competencies, new skills, new applications and new knowledge. We need to shift our educational mindset to ensure our children develop skills that can’t be replaced by a robot.


About the Author

Sharon Baker is co-founder and COO of Mighty Social, a social ad tech company that takes social ad performance to the next level. MightySocial is one of the winners of Deloitte Tech Fast 50 for two years running and ranked in the top 20% of the Inc. 5000 List of Europe’s Fastest-Growing Companies. They are also the 2018 Red Herring 100 Europe winners for their use of AI with a patent-pending super-tool – The Atom – that is poised to build smarter custom audiences at scale. And, they recently won Best Paid Media campaign at the Performance Marketing Awards 2018.

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