The traffic in Dublin is rarely light but in November it’s appalling. In November, the days are short and it rains a lot. Collisions on the ring road around Dublin (the M50) are a regular occurrence. On my way up to Drogheda last week to give a talk in a Further Education college, there was a major accident and the 40km trip took me two hours.
As I sat in the car, the main thought that I kept revisiting was this: despite all the rhetoric about the rapidly-changing, increasingly-complex 21st century, many things have not changed much since the 1980s when I first started working. People get up, commute to their workplace where most will sit at a desk with a computer on it, do their work and drive home. Day after day. A small minority can work flexibly but many who do find the experience of working from home isolating and even depressing.
But hasn’t the workplace itself been transformed? Yes it has, but in my experience the real decade of change was the 1990s. Faster desktop computers (the Pentium chip!), laptops and ultimately the World Wide Web fundamentally changed how we worked and communicated – for the better. Since then, with the exception of the invention of the smartphone, change has been incremental.
But what about AI, you might say? And robots!
What about them? People were talking about expert systems in the 1970s (medical doctors were supposed to become obsolete) and neural networks have been around for decades. I studied AI with the Open University at least 10 years ago. I’m sure the science of AI has advanced considerably since then but where’s the evidence that AI has significant impact on our lives or is likely to in the near future? And crucially, what is the connection between ‘new’ technologies like AI and education?
I watched a well-known and highly-regarded professor of education give a keynote address at a conference recently. The basic message of the talk was this: the world is changing rapidly and it’s getting increasingly digital and complex; therefore education needs to be fundamentally reformed. The only real ‘evidence’ presented was one of those lists of skills for 2020/2030 that the World Economic Forum churns out regularly. Guesswork.
The entire talk seemed to be premised on the idea that the graduates of the future will all work in STEM disciplines (there was a heavy emphasis on active learning in partnership with corporations who would supply lots of ‘stuff’- at a cost presumably.) The underlying assumption seemed to be that the purpose of education was solely to prepare students for the world of work, and technical work at that. Another presumption seemed to be that by engaging in various STEM activities, students would acquire skills that they would then be able to employ in other areas of life and work.
None of these ideas are new. In fact they are at the root of the old cliché about preparing children for jobs that don’t exist.
The problem with all of this is that it is based on a belief that because the world is changing at an unprecedented rate (debatable), education must be radically reformed. Unfortunately many educators see this as obvious and don’t question it.
There is a fundamental problem here that the world of education has not addressed and it’s this: many reforms are based on beliefs and predictions that cannot be proved or disproved until after the event. Even then, reforms are often embarked upon without any real plan to evaluate them in a meaningful way.
There is a strong ethical argument to be made that reform of education should be an incremental process. But academics, and people generally, become very attached to their ideas and very few are willing to change them especially if they have made their careers out of them.