Tag: Ben Williamson

The robot economy and social-emotional skills

Ben Williamson writes:

The steady shift of the knowledge economy into a robot economy, characterized by machine learning, artificial intelligence, automation and data analytics, is now bringing about changes in the ways that many influential organizations conceptualize education moving towards the 2020s. Although this is not an epochal or decisive shift in economic conditions, but rather a slow metamorphosis involving machine intelligence in the production of capital, it is bringing about fresh concerns with rethinking the purposes and aims of education as global competition is increasingly linked to robot capital rather than human capital alone.

A plethora of reports and pronouncements by ‘thought-leaders’ and think tanks warn us about a medium-term future where jobs are ‘under threat’. This has a concomitant impact on education:

The first is that education needs to de-emphasize rote skills of the kind that are easy for computers to replace and stress instead more digital upskilling, coding and computer science. The second is that humans must be educated to do things that computerization cannot replace, particularly by upgrading their ‘social-emotional skills’.

A few years ago, I remember asking someone who ran different types of coding bootcamps which would be best approach for me. Somewhat conspiratorially, he told me that I didn’t need to learn to code, I just needed to learn how to manage those who do the coding. As robots and AI become more sophisticated and can write their own programs, I suspect this ‘management’ will include non-human actors.

Of all of the things I’ve had to learn for and during my (so-called) career, the hardest has been gaining the social-emotional skills to work remotely. This isn’t an easy thing to unpack, especially when we’re all encouraged to have a ‘mission’ in life and to be emotionally invested in our work.

Williams notes:

The OECD’s Andreas Schleicher is especially explicit about the perceived strategic importance of cultivating social-emotional skills to work with artificial intelligence, writing that ‘the kinds of things that are easy to teach have become easy to digitise and automate. The future is about pairing the artificial intelligence of computers with the cognitive, social and emotional skills, and values of human beings’.

Moreover, he casts this in clearly economic terms, noting that ‘humans are in danger of losing their economic value, as biological and computer engineering make many forms of human activity redundant and decouple intelligence from consciousness’. As such, human emotional intelligence is seen as complementary to computerized artificial intelligence, as both possess complementary economic value. Indeed, by pairing human and machine intelligence, economic potential would be maximized.

[…]

The keywords of the knowledge economy have been replaced by the keywords of the robot economy. Even if robotization does not pose an immediate threat to the future jobs and labour market prospects of students today, education systems are being pressured to change in anticipation of this economic transformation.

I’m less bothered about Schleicher’s link between social-emotional skills and the robot economy. I reckon that, no matter what time period you live in, there are knowledge and skills you need to be successful when interacting with other human beings.

That being said, there are ways of interacting with machines that are important to learn to get ahead. I stand by what I said in 2013 about the importance of including computational thinking in school curricula. To me, education is about producing healthy, engaged citizens. They need to understand the world around them, be (digitally) confident in it, and have the conceptual tools to be able to problem-solve.

Source: Code Acts in Education

Intimate data analytics in education

The ever-relevant and compulsively-readable Ben Williamson turns his attention to ‘precision education’ in his latest post. It would seem that now that the phrase ‘personalised learning’ has jumped the proverbial shark, people are doubling down on the rather dangerous assumption that we just need more data to provide better learning experiences.

In some ways, precision education looks a lot like a raft of other personalized learning practices and platform developments that have taken shape over the past few years. Driven by developments in learning analytics and adaptive learning technologies, personalized learning has become the dominant focus of the educational technology industry and the main priority for philanthropic funders such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg.

[…]

A particularly important aspect of precision education as it is being advocated by others, however, is its scientific basis. Whereas most personalized learning platforms tend to focus on analysing student progress and outcomes, precision education requires much more intimate data to be collected from students. Precision education represents a shift from the collection of assessment-type data about educational outcomes, to the generation of data about the intimate interior details of students’ genetic make-up, their psychological characteristics, and their neural functioning.

As Williamson points out, the collection of ‘intimate data’ is particularly concerning, particularly in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica revelations.

Many people will find the ideas behind precision education seriously concerning. For a start, there appear to be some alarming symmetries between the logics of targeted learning and targeted advertising that have generated heated public and media attention already in 2018. Data protection and privacy are obvious risks when data are collected about people’s private, intimate and interior lives, bodies and brains. The ethical stakes in using genetics, neural information and psychological profiles to target students with differentiated learning inputs are significant.

There’s a very definite worldview which presupposes that we just need to throw more technology at a problem until it goes away. That may be true in some situations, but at what cost? And to what extent is the outcome an artefact of the constraints of the technologies? Hopefully my own kids will be finished school before this kind of nonsense becomes mainstream. I do, however, worry about my grandchildren.

The technical machinery alone required for precision education would be vast. It would have to include neurotechnologies for gathering brain data, such as neuroheadsets for EEG monitoring. It would require new kinds of tests, such as those of personality and noncognitive skills, as well as real-time analytics programs of the kind promoted by personalized-learning enthusiasts. Gathering intimate data might also require genetics testing technologies, and perhaps wearable-enhanced learning devices for capturing real-time data from students’ bodies as proxy psychometric measures of their responses to learning inputs and materials.

Thankfully, Williamson cites the work of academics who are proposing a different way forward. Something that respects the social aspect of learning rather than a reductionist view that focuses on inputs and outputs.

One productive way forward might be to approach precision education from a ‘biosocial’ perspective. As Deborah Youdell  argues, learning may be best understood as the result of ‘social and biological entanglements.’ She advocates collaborative, inter-disciplinary research across social and biological sciences to understand learning processes as the dynamic outcomes of biological, genetic and neural factors combined with socially and culturally embedded interactions and meaning-making processes. A variety of biological and neuroscientific ideas are being developed in education, too, making policy and practice more bio-inspired.

The trouble is, of course, is that it’s not enough for academics to write papers about things. Or even journalists to write newspaper articles. Even with all of the firestorm over Facebook recently, people are still using the platform. If the advocates of ‘precision education’  have their way, I wonder who will actually create something meaningful that opposes their technocratic worldview?

Source: Code Acts in Education