Technology and education has been a personal interest for nearly 25 years. As a board member of McDonogh School in Owings Mills, Maryland, I was part of an ad-hoc committee to recruit a technology director in the early 1990s to spearhead the utilization and standardization of personal and faculty computers, classroom projectors, learning management systems, etc. For more than 13 years, I have been a leader in advancing online education at APUS, and we have continually analyzed and implemented many types of software as PCs have evolved from desktop machines to mobile smartphones. As bandwidth increased exponentially in speed and availability, the online classroom morphed from a flat, text-oriented design to a multi-media, interactive format, sometimes incorporating adaptive learning modules, depending on the subject matter and desired learning outcomes. The increased availability and utilization of online courses and programs has impacted all but the elite institutions.
The most ardent advocates of online education talk about the wonderful opportunities to expand higher education access through more affordable options such as MOOCs (massive open online courses). I count myself among them. However, after reading Rise of the Robots and The Second Machine Age as well as a few other thoughtful times, I am concerned that expanded access is not enough given the potential shrinkage of the traditional job market. Since the 2008 recession, most job growth has been in lower-wage jobs, including part-time positions. Rise of the Robots author Mark Ford provides example after example of jobs that have been, or will, be eliminated as technology continues to leverage vastly improved processors (influenced by the continued achievement of Moore’s Law) and supporting software, wireless Web access and other computing devices. Ford believes that half of all jobs in the U.S. will be eliminated over the next 10-20 years. He only lacks confidence in the exact date when that will occur.
If Ford’s assumptions are correct, what should educational institutions do to prepare their graduates to thrive versus survive in a future where automation will no longer be limited to jobs with routine functions and actions? Clearly, computers of the future will have the power to displace knowledge positions as mega-processor devices like IBM’s Watson continue to evolve and learn more broadly, efficiently and effectively, exceeding the capacity, accuracy and speed of the human brain in some areas. Will specialization become more valued in college graduates than critical thinking on a broad scale? Is continued education (master’s vs. bachelor’s and doctorate vs. master’s) of college-bound students a solution when computers like Watson can theoretically ingest and extract all knowledge and data that has been digitized? Will many different nanodegrees such as those proposed by Udacity be more valuable than the traditional degrees we offer today?
The loss of 50 percent of all U.S. jobs is difficult to imagine and will likely not occur overnight. Regardless, if that occurs over time, there will be major changes in federal, state and local tax revenues as well as the government’s funding of various initiatives, including education. Will the higher ed survivors continue to expand access or will they be a smaller group whose focus is job placement for their recent graduates?
While I haven’t yet settled on a particular scenario or solution, I hope that I can engage others who may also be interested in considering these issues as well as tracking the likelihood that they occur sooner or later. What are your thoughts?