Thursday, June 28, 2018

The Impact of AI on Higher Education: Time for a Revolution?

Is it time for higher education to find better ways to meet the needs of today’s learners? Joseph Aoun, President of Northeastern University, clearly thinks so. During an interview with MIT Technology Review (2018), Aoun discussed the impact of AI on higher education and outlined the urgent need for change in institutions of higher learning. Much of what he stated will not be new to most readers, but I recommend viewing the 29-minute video (at the link below) since the brief summary below hardly does the interview justice.  

Firstly, in terms of how the average, degree-seeking higher education student is educated, Aoun advised a greater emphasis on humanics (defined by Merriam Webster as “the subject or study of human nature or human affairs”), which he described as the interweaving of three literacies: tech literacy (the ability to grasp how machines function and how to interact with them effectively), data literacy (the ability to understand and navigate volumes of data generated by AI), and human literacy (the development of soft skills that cannot be duplicated by machines). Aoun also recommended a combination of real-world (experiential) and classroom education to teach learners to identify personal skill gaps, develop empathy, and better understand the world. 

Secondly, Aoun observed that many lifelong learners have ceased looking to universities for their professional development needs; they are turning to employers instead, and although some organizations are meeting this need, they are also questioning whether it will be worth it in the long run, given that most employees no longer remain with a company for extended periods. Other employers, seeing that their employees’ skills are already obsolete, are taking the initiative to provide training, but they’d prefer that higher education do this so that they can focus on business instead.

One solution, according to Aoun, is for higher education to offer customized, flexible options, consulting with learners to determine their desired outcomes, just as businesses do with their customers, rather than restricting options to degrees and research in a time when learners are already customizing their learning.  As long as institutions continue to restrict admission to their programs based on an established set of criteria, they are turning “customers” away, which no business in its right mind would do. This statement really hit close to home for me—as a lifelong learner who sought information on some courses offered by a local university only to be told that they were strictly for undergraduate students (despite there being a diploma option), I can identify with this. I felt exactly like a customer whose business was being turned away. Like others in this type of situation, I looked elsewhere and found the training I wanted for a reasonable fee at a small, private institution that offered flexible options.

Aoun also suggested that perhaps it’s time for the governments that fuel research and innovation and provide funding for education from Kindergarten to higher education, to consider offering incentives to individuals to encourage lifelong learning in ways that suit them best.

The labour market worldwide is quickly changing: new jobs are being created on an ongoing basis, and it won’t be long before many others become obsolete. A quick Internet search will yield possibly hundreds of results on the topic of job automation, with varying projections on the types and numbers of jobs at risk (Winick, 2018).  Although the news is not all doom and gloom (Lund & Manyika, 2017), Aoun asserted that institutions that fail to place a greater emphasis on lifelong learning are like the railway industry that saw the advent of the airlines but continued with business as usual, assuming that their jobs would not be impacted.
Advances in technology have made it necessary for higher education to rethink the options they offer to all types of learners, but according to Aoun, this is not an easy sell. Ironically, though, the same institutions that are hard at work teaching today’s educators to embrace the latest learning theories and adapt their teaching practices to give this generation of learners the skills needed for success in the 21st century, may find one day that their faculties of education have done their job all too well, as the current generation of students become autonomous learners with well-developed growth mindsets who are capable of customizing their own learning and have little or no need for the traditional options offered by institutions of higher learning.


Humanics. (n.d.). In Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary. Retrieved from

Lund, S. & Manyika, J. (2017, November). Five lessons from history on AI, automation, and employment [Web log post]. Retrieved from

MIT Technology Review (Producer). (2018). Robot-proof: Higher education in the age of artificial intelligence [Video webcast]. MIT Technology Review. Retrieved from

Winick, E. (2018, January 25). Every study we could find on what automation will do to jobs, in one chart. MIT Technology Review. Retrieved from

Recommended Reading

Aoun, J. E. (2018). Robot-proof: Higher education in the age of artificial intelligence. Education Technology Insights, February-March 2018, pp. 11-12. Retrieved from

No comments:

Post a Comment