North­east­ern pres­i­dent on pre­par­ing stu­dents for AI age

In­sti­tu­tions are ac­cept­ing the need to adapt, says North­east­ern Uni­ver­sity head. Anna McKie writes

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - Anna.mckie@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

Joseph Aoun has led the charge for higher ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions to make their de­grees “ro­bot-proof”. And the pres­i­dent of Bos­ton’s North­east­ern Uni­ver­sity be­lieves that the mes­sage that cur­ric­ula have to adapt to the rise of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence is fi­nally get­ting through.

“The re­al­ity is sink­ing in,” said Pro­fes­sor Aoun, cit­ing ev­i­dence of change on cam­puses across the US, Canada and Europe. He said that in par­tic­u­lar, uni­ver­si­ties were be­gin­ning to grasp how au­to­mated tech­nolo­gies would re­place jobs over time but would also cre­ate them, and that this meant grad­u­ates could not rely on their first de­gree alone to see them through their ca­reers.

“I’m see­ing more re­cep­tiv­ity to the idea that life­long learn­ing is a ne­ces­sity, but that it can­not be done in the tra­di­tional way by uni­ver­si­ties,” Pro­fes­sor Aoun told Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion.

In Ro­bot-Proof: Higher Ed­u­ca­tion in the Age of Ar­ti­fi­cial In­tel­li­gence, pub­lished in Au­gust 2017, Pro­fes­sor Aoun out­lined how in­cor­po­rat­ing his the­ory of “hu­man­ics” into uni­ver­sity cur­ric­ula would help higher ed­u­ca­tion adapt to the rise of ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence. He de­scribes it as the in­te­gra­tion of three lit­era­cies: tech­no­log­i­cal lit­er­acy, un­der­stand­ing how ma­chines func­tion and how to in­ter­act with them; data lit­er­acy, un­der­stand­ing and nav­i­gat­ing the sea of in­for­ma­tion gen­er­ated by ma­chines; and hu­man lit­er­acy, the fo­cus on what hu­mans can do that ma­chines can­not.

“You need to in­te­grate all three; uni­ver­si­ties need to be build­ing a cur­ricu­lum based on the lit­era­cies and the idea of bring­ing dis­ci­plines to­gether,” ex­plained Pro­fes­sor Aoun.

If this all sounds a bit too straight­for­ward, Pro­fes­sor Aoun em­pha­sised that his the­ory of hu­man­ics is not a magic bul­let; it needs to be com­bined with an ex­pe­ri­en­tial com­po­nent, in­te­grat­ing class­room learn­ing with real-world ex­pe­ri­ence. “You could spend months study­ing cre­ativ­ity, em­pa­thy, en­trepreneur­ship. But that doesn’t make you a creative or em­pa­thetic per­son – you have to prac­tise it,” he said.

It is some­thing Pro­fes­sor Aoun is known for im­ple­ment­ing at his own uni­ver­sity. He has ex­panded North­east­ern’s sig­na­ture co- op pro­gramme – on which stu­dents em­bark on six-month in­tern­ships to gain real-life ex­pe­ri­ence and men­tor­ing in the work­place – to make it global and more flex­i­ble.

For Pro­fes­sor Aoun, the abil­ity to trans­fer knowl­edge from one con­text to an­other – for ex­am­ple, from the class­room to the work­place – is what will al­ways separate hu­mans from ma­chines. “We as hu­mans do that, we prac­tise it, we can deal with an in­fin­ity of con­texts,” he said.

En­sur­ing uni­ver­si­ties are teach­ing stu­dents to do that is one of the key fea­tures to mak­ing them robot­proof, ac­cord­ing to Pro­fes­sor Aoun. He added: “If we com­pete with ma­chines on their terms we lose, but on ours we win.”

Life­long learn­ing is cen­tral to Pro­fes­sor Aoun’s rec­om­men­da­tions for higher ed­u­ca­tion, although he added that the US has not man­aged to fully em­brace it yet. He said that he be­lieves that the uni­ver­sity must come to learn­ers, rather than stu­dents com­ing to the uni­ver­sity.

As work­ing pro­fes­sion­als don’t have time to go back to higher ed­u­ca­tion fully, the uni­ver­sity should be em­bed­ded in the work­place, he said. “We will, and in some ways al­ready are, see­ing the rise of the ‘mul­ti­ver­sity’. For ex­am­ple, we at North­east­ern have satel­lite cam­puses in Seat­tle, Sil­i­con Val­ley and Toronto, and have plans for oth­ers in Texas and Min­neapo­lis soon, and one day we hope to have them in the UK.”

He added: “We have to pro­vide op­por­tu­ni­ties in small bursts, with mi­cro-cre­den­tials and nano cer­tifi­cates.”

Ac­cord­ing to Pro­fes­sor Aoun, in the long run uni­ver­si­ties will adapt – as they have in the past, from the agri­cul­tural revo­lu­tion to the in­dus­trial revo­lu­tion to the in­for­ma­tion revo­lu­tion. In the short run, some will adapt but some won’t and those that don’t will quickly be­come “ir­rel­e­vant and ob­so­lete”, he ar­gued.

The chal­lenge with this new world for higher ed­u­ca­tion, Pro­fes­sor Aoun said, is that it will re­quire “hu­mil­ity and lis­ten­ing” from aca­demics and pro­fes­sors.

“We our­selves, as fac­ulty, are go­ing to be out­dated and there­fore we have to learn and re­learn con­stantly; we have to learn to work with other peo­ple from other dis­ci­plines and to lis­ten to what so­ci­ety is telling us,” he said. “And we’re not known for be­ing great hum­ble lis­ten­ers.”

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Hu­man touch uni­ver­sity pres­i­dent says that ‘if we com­pete with ma­chines on their terms we lose, but on ours we win’

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