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How will automation change the role of a university educator?

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

There’s an ongoing conversation about the skills students require for success in an automated workplace. But what about university educators? How will automation affect the way they impart the 21st century learning skills students need?

Automation has been creeping up on us since steam engines replaced horses, telephones replaced mail, and electricity lit up the streets of the world. We’re currently facing another technological revolution, but this one seems a little more intense.

Over the last decade or so, automation has gradually been taking over jobs, but the emergence of machine learning is opening the door to exponential technological growth. Algorithms and tech products are getting so advanced they can improve themselves, and this means that human jobs may start getting replaced at a faster and faster rate.

Three years ago, 7% of Asia Pacific companies used artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics in the workplace. 13% use them today, and that figure should jump to 23% in the next three years. Ironically, if you were to lose your job to an algorithm, a robot recruiter would probably be able to help you find another one.

How will automation affect the way people learn?

Much of the information that, historically was imparted by teachers, is now available online. Students can Google anything and find answers – from ‘why does resonance make a molecule more stable’ to ‘what did Martin Luther King eat for lunch when he lived in the Bahamas’.

Plus they have easier access to education through Massive Open Online Learning Courses (MOOCs). Even The University of Melbourne (UoM) offers MOOCs - and recently surpassed its millionth enrolment. On the other hand, it’s been reported that enrolments in traditional tertiary courses are set to plunge.

MOOCs are partially so popular because students can study from anywhere in the world. Currently, 30% of UoM MOOC enrolments are comprised of students from developing countries. Money’s not an issue either – the courses are almost always free. Plus they are self-paced and flexible. And while traditional classroom sizes are limited by infrastructure, online courses can accommodate literally thousands of people at the same time.

Furthermore, many believe MOOCs are the way of the future because employers will expect employees to be constantly learning on the job – and online courses make this achievable.

So will I lose my lecturing job?

Considering the accessibility of MOOCs and Google, you’d think that the demand for teachers is in decline. But actually, the opposite is true. Recently, Job site ‘Indeed’ analysed its search data to uncover the careers least likely to be made obsolete through automation in Australia. They are:

  1. Cyber security expert
  2. Data scientist
  3. Healthcare
  4. Marketing and design
  5. Delivery/logistics management
  6. Gig-worker
  7. Teachers
  8. Chef

Pearson’s own data scientists trawled through massive datasets to identify the occupations that will be most in demand in 2030. ‘Teacher’ appeared on those lists too. But, according to researchers at the Oxford Martin School and global innovation think tank, Nesta, while high-level occupations may remain, the skill mix required within these roles will broaden or, in some cases, change entirely.

If you’re an educator you can breathe a sigh of relief at this point because it seems unlikely a robot will replace you anytime soon. It is likely though, that the nature of your job will change.

When tech meets teaching

Here are two examples of automation in teaching:

1. An overwhelmed university lecturer, receiving thousands of student questions at a time, programmed a bot to respond to them all. The bot never delivered an incorrect answer and was a very patient teaching assistant. Students were reportedly flabbergasted when they were told they’d been communicating with a bot the entire semester.

2. A software company recently debuted its first program for higher education institutions, providing case management and predictive analytics tools to help teachers supervise student progress. At one university, the program was able to identify 26 students who were “probably not going to return” the following year based on their personal backgrounds and performance. The president of the university requested the list of 26 names be on his desk the next day so he could take direct action to make sure they stay.

If AI can take over the ‘number crunching’ and ‘routine’ aspects of an educator’s role, this can actually help university lecturers achieve a more balanced workload – leaving them with more energy to interact with their students.


Flip it, flip it good

We’ve already established that we’re still going to need teachers. But we also know that students will simply jump on Google when they have a question, rather than raise their hand. So we probably won’t need teachers in the same way anymore. In fact, the future demands that classrooms become less about knowledge transfer and more about knowledge creation.

For some educators this is an overwhelming thought: after all, what are you if not a source of knowledge and information? But what this really means is that class time can become less about spoon-feeding information – and more about helping students advance their 21st century learning skills: problem-solving, communication, and collaboration. Which are the skills employers look for and skills MOOCs struggle to provide.

One way to promote knowledge creation is through a ‘flipped classroom’. Students are told what they need to know – and then encouraged to develop their core knowledge around the topic using online resources accessible with smartphones, tablets, and laptops.

Knowledge consumption can therefore take place outside the classroom and lecture time is freed up for active learning work like group tasks, experiments, and role-play. This isn’t a new pedagogical tool: the flipped classroom has already been linked to deeper learning for students and the development of higher cognitive function.

This approach also has the potential to combine the best of the Internet with the best of the classroom, which is why it’s an example of a sustainable way forward for education. But it does require that educators move away from being the ‘sage on stage’ and towards becoming ‘the guide on the side’. In other words, to implement flipped learning, educators will need to learn how to be more like coaches, mentors and facilitators, and less like explicit teachers.

Keep calm and stay human

It’s clear that automation is set to completely transform the workplace – and it will almost certainly take more jobs. But it seems that employers mostly want technology to augment and support human performance – not replace it. The ultimate aim is to give employees the capacity and headspace to focus on higher-value activities.

When it comes to teaching in particular, there are those who believe that there will never be a substitute for face-to-face interaction. Simply, without the human touch, there would be no inspiration. And above all, our students absolutely need to be inspired.

So, as an educator it’s imperative that you hone in on the skills that make you uniquely human, as these are the traits that will make you irreplaceable

“The danger of computers becoming like humans is not as great as the danger of humans becoming like computers.”
 Konrad Zuse
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