Aoun’s account imagines how education might be re-framed to respond to rapid technological change, in particular the emergence of super-powered computers and AI that threaten (or promise?) to encroach on what has traditionally been seen as human territory. In the process, these changes challenge the accepted orthodoxy of what higher education is designed for: in a context where computers control information, an education system that prioritises the accumulation of knowledge above the ability to analyse or think critically about the world is without value or a viable future. Humans will need to carve out alternative areas of activity that differentiate them from machines, or else risk becoming obsolete, at least in an economic sense. His analysis seems to build on a type of technological determinism (do we have no control or say in how technology might be developed, licensed or exploited in the future?). It could easily sound pessimistic or fatalistic, but this is counter-balanced by Aoun’s optimistic prescription of an antidote to this emergent threat: a new ‘humanics’, driven by education, that encourages the development of the new ‘literacies’ necessary to survive and flourish in this brave new world.
Aoun identifies three categories of literacy that will be crucial to making human society “robot-proof”: technological, data and human. These literacies will, in turn require development of 4 cognitive capacities: critical thinking, systems thinking, entrepreneurship and cultural agility. In essence, he argues that to survive the world that machines are building, we need an education system that builds on those qualities that make us different from machines: imagination, creativity, empathy, the ability to work collaboratively and to harness diversity in order to build new and surprising things.
Whilst Aoun’s account implies the need for an entirely new approach to education, I was struck by how many of his ideas resonate with the approach to teaching and learning that underpins the courses I teach with colleagues at LCC. Teaching on the BA in Film & TV necessarily involves our students to grasp the challenges of ‘project-based’ learning and of working collaboratively in teams that are diverse in a whole range of ways (culturally, levels of experience, interests and ambitions etc). We also aim to encourage entrepreneurship, with projects that give the students freedom to define and shape projects that grow out of their own interests and enthusiasms and that in many cases connect them with practitioners from the world beyond the college.
One of the challenge throughout this is how to strike a balance between giving our students full creative freedom and defining boundaries or restrictions within which the work should take shape (the sort of limitations that most of them are likely to face when they move on to work in the commercial world of film or TV beyond university). This links, of course, to the issues touched on by Ken Robinson, in the extraordinarily popular Ted Talk that Aoun mentions: specifically the importance of failure as an educational tool. It can often be a real challenge to explain to students that failure has a value, especially as they move closer to graduation. For example, I’m currently overseeing some of our 3rd Year students working on their final graduation films. All of them, for entirely understandable reasons, are focused on producing the most polished and impressive films possible: they are thinking of their show-reels and an artefact that can be their calling card as they seek work after graduation. I want to help them achieve that, but also to re-assure them that the process of making their film (the twists and wrong-turns, the experiments and risks that don’t always pay off) is as important as the artefact that results from that journey. In a world where students are continually asked to project themselves into their own professional futures, how do you create and protect a space where ambitious failure can be an entirely valid outcome that teaches more than a cautious success?