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Back to the future

Last month, Robert Adams mentioned that one of his co-presenters at the World Federation of Colleges and Polytechnics (WFCP) World Congress was Dr Marilyn Herie from the Centennial College in Canada. Her talk introduced the idea of ‘paleofuturism’, which explores the present and future through the lens of historical ‘futurist’ predictions.

Herie showed an image of Push Button Education, a concept devised by Simon Ramo, who is also considered the  father of the intercontinental ballistic missile. In 1957, Ramo argued that for the sake of national security education should be intertwined with scientific and technological advancement ‒ for example, automation and teaching machines. As Audrey Watters explains in a 2015 article, Ramo wanted to  harness the power of the machine so that  teachers could  provide more individual tuition and mentoring. If the people at the Digital Lab at TAFE NSW (who were at the congress) get their way, that’s exactly what will happen. They have a vision for teachers having avatars, so they can offer one-on-one sessions with dozens of students across the world, all at the same time!

As we contemplate what the future of learning means in the age of artificial intelligence (AI), it’s also timely to remembers how attitudes about what we want our robots to do have changed. For example, one of Westinghouse’s early robots, Willie Vocalite, was taught some of the manners of polite society: Willie could both smoke and offer a light to his companion.

Futurist Charles Fadel, the founder and chairman of the Center for Curriculum Redesign, also spoke at the congress. He set out some of the limitations of AI that point to the areas where education and training needs to focus:

  • cognitive skills so that human beings can conceptualise and create
  • affective skills needed for compassion
  • psychomotor skills that give humans high dexterity.

This was also one of the key messages emerging from the AIS Industry Skills Forums. So-called ‘soft skills’ are becoming increasingly important as employers seek workers who can communicate effectively, solve problems and lead others. One participant at the Canberra forum observed that it might be time to change this terminology to help emphasise that these skills are integral to 21st learning.

In a further reference to the past, Fadel argued that the future will need to reinvent the Renaissance person, the polymath who can range across disciplines and use their mind, hands and heart in their creative endeavours.

Importantly, Fadel acknowledged that in rethinking what needs to be taught in the 21st century, one of the most difficult decisions is what to remove from the curriculum. For example, when employers are demanding new entrepreneurial and digital skills, is it time, he asked, to abandon teaching elements of mathematics that are easily surrendered to the calculator or other software. Unfortunately, in his paper about knowledge in the era of AI Fadel is less expansive on this tricky question. At least the issue has been raised.

Another of the congress’s keynote speakers, David Finegold, President of Chatham University in the United States, likewise drew on history to chart a way through the current wave of disruption. He reminded us that it was the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik in 1957 (yes, the same year as Ramo’s push button education) that aroused fears of losing the space race and spurred an upgrade of science and maths education. In the 1980s it was the rise of the German and Japanese economies that prompted a national commission during President Reagan’s administration to say the US had been ‘committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament’ by allowing education standards to slide in comparison to other advanced countries.

Finegold listed income inequality, an ageing workforce and climate change as the contemporary threats that should be driving skills policy.

For further wrap-ups on the congress, see:

TAFE Directors Australia: New gold in Victoria

VET Development Centre: VET College leaders from around the world meet in Melbourne