Discussing how education must change for a changing workplace

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Katherine Prince, who works with the Cincinnati-based nonprofit KnowledgeWorks, spoke Monday at the fourth annual Education Summit at the Charleston Town Center Marriott in Charleston.

People are used to thinking about automation changing or eliminating factory work, but it currently is affecting, and may in the future increasingly affect other types of jobs, according to one speaker at Monday’s fourth annual Education Summit.

“We’re going to be looking at a landscape where increasingly complex, cognitive tasks are being displaced by our smart machine partners, and those have the potential to displace or change as many as 47 percent of current middle-class American jobs,” said Katherine Prince, who leads the exploration of learning’s future for the Cincinnati-based nonprofit KnowledgeWorks. She quoted an Oxford University study for the 47 percent statistic.

She said KnowledgeWorks supports personalized learning for all young people, and the organization is primarily funded by an investment fund, supplemented with grants and other sources like fees for assistance it provides to schools.

At least 205 people, including West Virginia Board of Education members, school system superintendents and other education leaders, showed up to Monday’s summit at the Charleston Town Center Marriott hotel, said Education Alliance spokeswoman Emily Pratt.

The Education Alliance — which hosted the event with the help of sponsors, chiefly American Electric Power — is a nonprofit whose stated mission is to help businesses and communities improve public education.

Prince said technology’s changes to the workplace should alter how education helps students prepare for that workplace and develop new skills over their lives.

“We might even be going so far as a society to question the very purpose of education,” Prince said. “To what extent is it to help people get ready for this uncertain world of work, to what extent is it to help people develop as full individuals, to what extent is it helping us to develop as members of a productive society?”

“And those don’t have to be either/or answers to those kind of questions,” she said, “but we’ll be needing to ask some deep questions about what we’re aiming to do in education and how we’re supporting people in preparing.”

But discussions of priorities are important in a state with poor broadband internet access and where many lawmakers have opposed increasing funding for education and for establishing a minimum amount of time students are required to be in classrooms. Such discussions also matter in a state and nation where education policies like standardized testing have been criticized for allegedly shifting education’s focus further away from social studies and the humanities to the standardized exam-tested subjects of math, English, language arts and science.

Prince told a reporter after her speech that one plausible future scenario is a world where people don’t work for a living like they do today, noting some countries and other jurisdictions are considering responses like a universal basic income just for being a citizen.

“Some people look at it as kind of a liberation of people, if we don’t have to work exactly as we do today, what could we do with our time?” Prince said.

She noted this could conflict with a current push in education, both in West Virginia and elsewhere, for “career-readiness.” She said she’s not arguing that push is misguided, but said people are currently thinking about what future skills students need across a changing employment landscape, and some people are advocating for a push back to the liberal arts to help students develop as “whole people” and critical thinkers.

Prince discussed a coming “era-shift” involving humans more often partnering with increasingly smart, affordable and connected machines. She noted robots are starting to work alongside humans in more natural ways, instead of being built for a single application.

“There are many factors contributing to this era shift, including cultural and social shifts, economic ones, environmental ones,” Prince said. “But chief among them — as we look ahead 10 years, and think about what education could look like, what the world could look like — exponential advances in digital technologies are changing our world at an accelerating pace.”

Robots are staffing a few restaurants around the world, providing basic customer support on cruise ships, writing news stories and helping doctors diagnose illnesses, Prince said. She said artificial intelligence is replacing entry-level lawyers because it can “pore over vast amounts of case data faster and more throughly than any person can do,” and the extent to which AI will replace workers and the extent to which it will help humans do “better, smarter, more satisfying work” is a key uncertainty going forward.

“We’re already seeing some shifts, and these are projected to intensify over the next couple of decades, really raising some very profound questions about the structure and nature of work,” Prince said. She noted people are increasingly working in more freelanced, task-based ways, instead of working full time for one organization, and said the decline of full-time employment will be part of that landscape.

She said this could lead to a redefinition of the role of wage labor.

Prince said the shift will create new kinds of work, “but we’re going to need to be thinking about what the role of people is in the workplace and what our unique human contribution is given how much capability our machine partners will have.”

Reach Ryan Quinn at ryan.quinn@wvgazettemail.com, facebook.com/ryanedwinquinn, 304-348-1254 or follow @RyanEQuinn on Twitter.

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