Online Education's Next Twenty-Five Years: Will the Academy Lose its Sense of Purpose?
Concurrent Session 2
A panel of leading educators will speculate on what the next twenty-five years will bring to online education. The discussants will consider both the near future (2020s) and more distant future (2030s and beyond) and will explore advances in adaptive technology, brain-machine interfaces, and artificial intelligence on teaching and learning. These evolving technologies have the potential to change the traditional role of professionals in our colleges and universities to the point that educators will have to redefine their purpose as teachers, administrators, and researchers.
In February 2019, an article in the New York Times described a global competition that hundreds of scientists enter every two years. Referred to as the “World Cup” of biochemical research, teams of scientists tackle a biological puzzle called “the protein folding problem.” Essentially, they try to predict the three-dimensional shape of proteins in the human body, a problem that no one has ever been able to solve. Past winners have chipped away at it but a solution still eludes the scientific community. In 2018, the Critical Assessment of Structure Prediction contest was not won by academics. It was won by a team at DeepMind, the artificial intelligence (AI) lab owned by Google’s parent company, Alphabet, Incorporated. In describing DeepMind’s accomplishment, Mohammed AlQuraishi, a biologist at the Harvard Medical School, who has dedicated his career to protein research commented that he felt “a melancholy” after losing to DeepMind. “I was surprised and deflated. They were way out in front of everyone else.” He criticized big pharmaceutical companies like Merck and Novartis, as well as his academic community, for not keeping pace. “The smartest and most ambitious researchers wanting to work on protein structure will look to DeepMind for opportunities” (AlQuraishi, 2018). He urged the life-sciences community to shift their attention toward the kind of AI work practiced by DeepMind.
DeepMind’s victory predicted the future of biochemical research, increasingly driven by machines and the people who oversee the machines. Another researcher, Derek Lowe said “It is not that machines are going to replace chemists. It’s that the chemists who use machines will replace those that don’t” (Metz, February 5, 2019).
AI development of this magnitude requires enormous amounts of data. DeepMind can lean on the massive computer data centers that underpin Google as well as many of the world’s top AI researchers who know how to get the most out of these facilities. “It allows us to be much more creative, to try many more ideas, often in parallel,” said Demis Hassabis, the chief executive and a co-founder of DeepMind (Metz, February 5, 2019). Universities and big pharmaceutical companies are unlikely to match these resources.
Kai-Fu Lee, a former senior executive at Google and Microsoft, stated that humanity is moving towards the establishment of a “new world order” dominated by AI, cloud computing and robotics (Lee, 2018) that will have significant ramifications for many aspects of human endeavors. How will our species respond? Lee believes that many workers will experience a “psychological loss of purpose” as AI changes the nature of their occupations (Lee, 2018, p. 21). A more pessimistic prediction comes from Yuval Noah Harari, bestselling author of Sapiens, who commented that AI has the potential to create a “useless class of superfluous people” (Harari, 2017, p.322). The term ““useless class of superfluous people” surely attracts attention but it may be a bit too extreme. In a later book, Harari takes a more moderate stand and discusses at length the merging of workers with large-scale integrated digital networks (Harari, 2018, p. 22). There are no firm estimates of the number of jobs in this country that will be displaced by AI and other forms of automation. While one estimate suggests 47 percent (Frey & Osborne, 2013), another poses 38 percent (Berriman & Hawksworth, 2017), and yet another puts it as low as 9 percent (Artnz, Gregory, & Zierahn, 2016). The fact is that no one really knows. One aspect of this displacement is certain, and that is that many of these displaced jobs will be in white collar and professional areas such as teaching, law, and medicine as well as the corporate sector.
The purpose of this session will be to speculate specifically on the future of higher education as online technology, such as AI infused adaptive software and analytics, changes the traditional role of educators in our colleges and universities. Online and adaptive learning have already advanced within the academy, but the most significant changes are yet to come. This session is meant to complement another session examining the role that online education has played over the past twenty-five years.