For many attending the Future of Work symposium on Wednesday, there wasn’t any question whether automation is going to take over jobs—but rather when, and how education should respond.
Hosted at Stanford University, the day-long event brought together dozens of minds who are thinking about what careers and skills students need to prepare for, and how an increasingly digital higher-education system will need to adapt to help get them there. Speakers including edX CEO Anant Agarwal, associate dean and director of Stanford’s Diversity and First-Gen office Dereca Blackmon, and Deborah Quazzo, a co-founder of investment firm GSV, shared their ideas on what that might look like.
Here are a few major themes we heard throughout the day:
Online courses will supplement, but not replace in-person ones
For many speakers, challenges such as tuition costs and changing workforce demands due to automation have made online courses—and for some, alternative credentials—an appealing solution. Their idea is that as jobs come and go, online platforms will be quicker than current higher-ed systems to offer training to more people.
Of course, some of the biggest champions for digital supplement courses were those creating them. Agarwal, who is also a professor at MIT, told the audience he envisions a future where students do not pay $50,000 for a college tuition, but instead “get a subscription to college” through which students might continuously acquire skills throughout their career.
However, Coursera vice president Julia Stiglitz added that even platforms like her company’s likely won’t eliminate the traditional college model. “I don’t think the Coursera experience will replace what happens in a residential [college] experience,” she said in a panel about college majors. “I think what changes if you have all that content online freely accessible, though, is what kind of pressure gets put on the institutions… about what you should be getting out of each of these experiences.”
Arts & creativity will be in high demand
Panelists expressed concerns about not just how automation will impact manufacturing jobs, but software and computer-based careers as well. If programming and software development—today’s most in-demand and highest-paying careers, are replaced by robots—will “re-skilling” and “upskilling” be necessary in the future? Perhaps not, argued some. Instead, creative and critical-thinking skills may be even more valuable.
“I’m excited about seeing the value of arts and humanities come back in the coming years because there are some things robots cannot do,” said Farouk Dey, the dean of career education at Stanford. In a morning panel, Harry Elam Jr., senior vice provost for education at Stanford, gave an even stronger stance: "Arts are going to save the world."
Even those coming from the corporate world tended to agree with Dey. Students currently invest a lot of money to get a computer science degree, “when that [career] might in 10 years from now be done by a computer,” noted Coursera CEO Jeff Maggioncalda. “[A CS degree] might not be the best investment for your money... I would love to see an undergrad [system] that gets more towards the liberal arts.”
Others pointed out this idea didn’t come from futurists, but rather something liberal arts colleges have long strived for:
Inclusiveness is imperative to success
“Effective learning around diversity and inclusion needs to be at the heart of what we are doing building modern enterprises,” Quazzo, who invests in education technology companies, said in a morning panel. “It is slow and tough but I am encouraged by the conversation around diversity issues… I think we are seeing some positive shots.”
Later, Blackmon explained that diversity is not the goal—it’s what exists around us, and what companies and institutions must work to reflect. Her advice and clarification to anyone looking to change systems of work and education in the future: “Diversity is a fact, inclusion is a practice and equity is the goal.”
That resonated with the audience and other speakers on her panel, which included social entrepreneur Tomás Alvarez, journalist and activist Jenara Nerenberg, reacHIRE’s Addie Swartz and Kathryn Gillam, the executive director at Stanford’s distinguished careers institute.
They also recognized that diversity can take a lot of forms: from race and gender to cognitive experiences and abilities. “The neurodiversity movement is seen as another wave of the civil rights movement,” said Nerenberg, referring to efforts to include people with differences in brain function and traits.
Employers will play a larger role providing those skills and educational opportunities
With limited and decreasing financial support from government, several speakers believed that private companies will play a bigger role in providing education and education opportunities for their employees.
“It is on the employer to provide some space for [learning],” said Kristen Swanson, Slack’s director of learning. “We provide every employee with resources for professional development so they can engage outside of the work environment.” She adds that it isn’t as simple has handing over resources: “For this to become a practice, managers had to encourage employees to do this.”
Earlier in the day Maggioncalda had similar notes to share: “The learner is trying to figure out what the employer will want, because they know that’s how they get the job. Universities have been slow to figure out… but the employer is the one calling the shots since they are employing, and they will play a much bigger role in the future.”
The government ought to step up its efforts as well, said Guy Berger, LinkedIn’s economist. “If you want someone to learn new skills, our society and government need to be willing to pour into the resources to do that. It’s not fair to ask a machinist in Wisconsin... to figure this out [alone].”
Editor's note: GSV is an investor in EdSurge.