Higher Education

How colleges can help their students out-compete robots 

A reader asks: What do colleges need to offer students so they can succeed in an era of automation?

This story is part of our Map to the Middle Class project, where we ask readers what they want us to investigate about educational pathways to economic stability. This question comes from an anonymous reader, who asks: What degree programs do colleges need to offer students so they can succeed in a workplace dominated by automation and high technology?

There’s a lot of anxiety out there about robots gobbling up our jobs. One oft-cited Oxford University study predicts that up to 47 percent of U.S. jobs are vulnerable to automation. Other research suggests the share is much lower — but while the exact numbers may be debated, there’s little question that technology is changing quickly and reconfiguring the tasks many of us do.

As the labor market demands different and evolving skills, what does that mean for higher education? Is a four-year degree still the best way to obtain a well-paying job? And what subjects and experiences do students need exposure to while they’re in college?

Joseph Aoun, president of Northeastern University, has written the book on this question. It’s called “Robot Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence.”

In it, Aoun argues that colleges need to abandon the “false dichotomy” between science and technology and the liberal arts and to blend technical and “humanistic” learning. All students working toward degrees will need to understand technology and data, he says.

But that’s not enough, he told me in an interview: “You need to also focus on what we humans can do that machines cannot do.” That means imbuing students with creativity, empathy, a sense of ethics, historical knowledge and an ability to work in teams — skills that are best acquired through the humanities.

To give young people this robot-proof mix of skills, Northeastern offers majors that integrate very different fields. Students can combine computer science with linguistics, English or journalism, for example, or they can mix cybersecurity and economics. Northeastern also now requires all students in its college of computer sciences to take a theater course called “The Eloquent Presenter,” with the goal of improving their public speaking skills.

But the learning can’t stop with an undergraduate degree.

Because technology is changing so quickly, says Aoun, colleges need to transform themselves into institutions that help people pick up new skills throughout their lives. “We all are going to need to reeducate ourselves, to improve ourselves and upskill ourselves,” he said.

Sanjay Sarma, vice president for Open Learning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, agrees.

“The whole model that you go to college for two years or four years and you’re ready for the rest of your life — that’s predicated on a pace of change of a bygone era,” he said.

In addition to offering traditional degrees that integrate coursework across disciplines, colleges need to offer “smaller modules of learning” — like microcredentials, bootcamps, and programs that blend online and on-campus education — and deliver them in ways that accommodate the schedules of working people, says Sarma.

At the same time, Sarma shares Aoun’s belief in the importance of the liberal arts for shaping well-rounded people who bring a holistic approach to life and work. “One of the challenges we have,” he said, “is that we’re so focused on work — which we obviously need to take seriously — that we will lose focus on the things that make education education.”

For example, artificial intelligence can be very dehumanizing. Students studying the topic need technical knowledge but also an understanding of ethics, history and social science, says Sarma.

Bottom line: Doubling down on technical skills isn’t the answer. Colleges also need to help students gain the ability to think critically and creatively. But that learning must be ongoing.

And if that’s the case, colleges may need to find ways to make their offerings — be they four-year degrees or new, modular programs — more accessible, and cheaper.

This story about the era of automation was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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Caroline Preston

Caroline Preston is a senior editor. She previously worked as a features editor with Al Jazeera America's digital team and a senior reporter with The… See Archive

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