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Can K-12 Education Prepare Students For 'Jobs of the Future?'

Experts in the technology and education fields are concerned that advances in automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence will leave education and training systems struggling to prepare students for a rapidly changing workforce, according to a new report.

One-third of the 1,408 experts surveyed by the Pew Research Center thought that education systems would not evolve enough within the next 10 years to prepare workers for "the jobs of the future."

Programs won't be able to train workers quickly enough in relevant skills, said technology researchers, practitioners, and education leaders surveyed. Some said automation and AI may even make jobs, as we know them, obsolete in the future.

Others saw the education field undergoing major changes in the next decade, and outlined their vision for the future, identifying online learning, competency-based credentialing systems, and 21st century skills as the foundations of a new instruction system.

Post-secondary schooling and job training were the main focus of the survey, though the changes anticipated by the respondents have implications at all levels—including K-12.

Pew conducted the non-scientific study in summer 2016 in collaboration with the Elon University Imagining The Internet Center. The report, released yesterday, is part of the "Future of the Internet Series," an ongoing partnership between Pew and the center, that has also covered topics such as free speech and privacy online.

For students at all levels, mixed-method instruction and blended learning will soon become the norm, explained Barry Chudakov, founder and principal at Sertain Research and StreamFuzion Corp., in the the survey.

"[T]he walls of the school (physical and conceptual) need to shatter and never go up again," he wrote. Instead, he argued, education should take place in digital learning environments.

Chudakov and other survey respondents also predicted the use of virtual reality, gaming, and simulation to "gamify" learning and provide hands-on experience. These methods all serve to further personalize learning.

Education can no longer exist as a "supply-side model," wrote Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center. Instead, students must be able to leverage technology to keep up with ever-evolving instructional needs.  

"Traditional models train people to equate what they do with who they are (i.e., what do you want to be when you grow up) rather than to acquire critical thinking and flexible skills and attitudes that fit a rapidly changing world."

Many respondents identified tech competencies—like computational thinking, programming, and data analysis—as integral skills for employees who, soon, may be working alongside robots and AI. And while some surveyed lauded coding and computer science initiatives like CS4All, others warned that any skills-based education would set up future workers to be replaced.

"Increasingly, machines will perform tasks they are better suited to perform than humans, such as computation, data analysis and logic," wrote Susan Price, a digital architect at Continuum Analytics. "Functions requiring emotional intelligence, empathy, compassion, and creative judgment and discernment will expand and be increasingly valued in our culture."

These abilities—often referred to as 21st century skills—can't be learned online, wrote Larry Gallagher, an organizational insight analyst at Stanford University.

"These are attitudes that are best inculcated beginning in kindergarten and nurtured through continuous modeling in the K-12 and higher education systems."

To develop specific competencies, workers can undergo skills training as needed, as "part of a lifetime of learning for those switching occupations," said Frank Pasquale, author of "The Black Box Society: The Secret Algorithms That Control Money and Information" and professor of law at the University of Maryland.

Credentials and badges, achieved throughout someone's career, can "provide more granular opportunities to document and archive learning," said Ian O'Byrne, an assistant professor of literacy education at the College of Charleston.

"[T]urning high school and college into narrow vocational education programs," said Pasquale, "would make their graduates more vulnerable to robotic replacement, not less."


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