AI, Coding, and the New Economy

Two weeks ago, I attended the LearnLaunch conference in Boston. This was an excellent conference with a focus on bringing together an edtech community – from New England and beyond – interested in driving innovation to transform learning and increase achievement using digital technologies.

I’d like to highlight two related topics that resonated with me during the conference. The first came from a keynote from MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson titled ‘Will Robots Eat Your Job?’. Brynjolfsson’s talk centered around the idea that machine intelligence is getting to a point where computers can adapt and learn on their own. With this transformation, we are seeing the creation of an entirely new economy, one where we may see significant increases in leisure time and the creation of a base income for citizens. Tesla CEO Elon Musk touched on this idea with his recent prediction that almost all new cars will be self-driving within 10 years. Despite this radical shift, humans are and will continue to be much better than machines at unstructured problem solving. And, it will be the responsibility of educational institutions to invest more in creativity and interpersonal skills (teamwork, caring, motivating, etc…) with less emphasis on following instructions and rote learning. Brynjolfsson also showed the graphic below, which illustrates the widening wage gap based on post-secondary educational experiences.Screen Shot 2017-02-13 at 2.19.39 PM

Coding was the other topic that was of particular interest and I see several parallels between Brynjolfsson’s talk and the need to provide students with the opportunity to learn coding. Not only does coding provide students with the opportunities to succeed in a ‘knowledge economy’, it also fosters the types of thinking skills, creativity and problem-solving, that Brynjolfsson advocated for in his talk. Done right, students participating in a coding/makerspace environment also develop a number of important soft skills and habits of mind including communication, collaboration, organization, and persistence.

It’s abundantly clear to me that nature of work is changing significantly and that schools must adapt their approach if they are serious about positioning their students to succeed in this new economy. I’ve been in education for close to a quarter-century and the call for change I’m seeing now is unlike any I’ve seen in my career. People are dropping phases such as personalized learning, 21st century skills, rigor, grit, STEM, design thinking, and makerspaces all the time. The common thread that ties all these ideas together is a growing awareness that our students need to be excellent problem solvers, flexible thinkers, independent learners, and skillful communicators. For over a century, the field of education has been resistant to disruptive change. Time will tell of that trend will continue. I only hope we don’t take too much time trying to figure it out.