What does the rise of the robots mean for education?

robot education

In a recent article for The Telegraph, Pearson CEO John Fallon discussed the prospect of robots taking people’s jobs, a topic which has been the subject of a lot of dire predictions recently. There have been many calls for a tax on robots in response to these misgivings from tech giants and political leaders like Bill Gates and Jeremy Corbyn. However, according to Fallon, having a tax on robots may not be good for innovation. We need to make sure that society benefits from AI, and that rather than replacing people robots empower us in the future. As Fallon notes, the vision of a robot-dominated workplace may be incorrect, as it fails to take into account two important things. 

The first thing to realize is that the future is in our own hands. If we make good choices, we can use robots and Artificial Intelligence (AI) to improve our quality of life. Robots can help us to improve global productivity, which has been declining, and income inequality, which has been increasing. And it doesn’t have to be a case of the machines taking over – there is no reason that humans and machines can’t co-exist and work together in harmony.

Along with Nesta and the Oxford Martin School, Pearson has been researching new ways that humans might be able to work with robots in the future. Beyond the automation of the workplace, this research looks at other equally important trends including globalization, urbanization and demographic change, as well as analyzing how people’s skill requirements are likely to change as a result. When you take these other trends into account, the future of a digital world begins to look much more positive.

Pearson and its research partners have discovered that robots aren’t automatically replacing humans. Instead, what’s happening is that technology is affecting our economy and labor market, and we are having to look again at the skills people need. One consequence of this need for new skills is that education systems are having to be updated to provide them.

In light of this, the first thing aspect of research was to identify the skills that people are likely to need in the workplace of the future. This in turn allowed them to form a picture of which jobs and skills will be most in demand by 2030.

The picture which emerged is a lot more accurate and nuanced than previous attempts to describe what the future workplace might look like. Perhaps unpredictably, instead of a world in which robots do our thinking for us, the research found that cognitive problem-solving skills will become increasingly valuable – as will the capacity for original thinking. In the UK, for example, it was found that cognitive skills such as judgment, decision-making and systems analysis, are all going to become much more in demand.

Another interesting finding is that individuals will need a much broader base of knowledge than is currently focused on in the academic disciplines of STEM. This means that ‘old-fashioned’ disciplines such as English language, history, sociology and philosophy, all of which have lost ground in the last decades, will increasingly become aligned with the needs of the future workforce.

At Pearson, we hope that our research can eventually provide a blueprint for the education system in the new digital age. As our CEO recognizes, we are all living in a time of great change, and a company like Pearson is no exception to this change. Pearson is having to adjust to the demands of a digital world, with all the challenges that brings. We’ve found out that the digitization of education isn’t as simple as moving from CDs to mp3s, for example. It’s much more than just a question of changing the format; it requires a completely new approach to the business of learning.

Of course, Pearson isn’t the only company that is bringing together human knowledge and machine analytics. Many other companies including IBM, Google, and Microsoft are on the same mission. For all of us, the dawning of the new digital age is both an opportunity and a challenge, but for Pearson it has meant reevaluating our old business model.

One thing we’re very conscious of is that our teachers and students need to be supported during this time of change. Teachers need guidance on how to use our digital products, and students need to have better value for money. This also makes good business sense for us. We estimate that students in the US spend approximately $3.4bn (£2.5bn) each year on new materials, but they also spend a similar amount on counterfeit and rental books. What this means is that Pearson loses an average of $45 on every $100 that a student spends on our content. One way we could overcome this is by adopting a digital subscription model to replace an increasingly outdated print textbook model.

For John Fallon, this is just one good reason why Pearson is staying focused on the long-term growth opportunity that the digital world provides. It may be a painful period of change, but in the end the future is in our own hands. The hope is that we can all come together as employers, education systems and policymakers to help build a sturdy bridge to the future digital economy.

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