Colleges should educate students to be ‘robot proof’

AACC President and CEO Walter Bumphus chats with Northeastern University President Joseph Aoun. (Photo: Adam Auel Photography)

DALLAS — A key challenge for community college leaders is the need to educate people to be “robot proof,” as artificial intelligence will make many jobs obsolete.

Joseph Aoun, president of Northeastern University in Massachusetts and a keynote speaker at the annual convention of the American Association of Community Colleges, offered his prescription for how higher education should respond to the changing landscape wrought by AI.

“Fifty percent of jobs in the United States and industrialized world are going to disappear,” Aoun told the audience. “Every job that can be turned into a process will be replaced by smart machines,” he said.

Human intelligence

In this environment, higher education is responsible “to make people robot proof for life,” said Aoun, who wrote Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence.

That means ensuring students have technological literacy (understand how machines work), data literacy (understand the sea of information generated by machines) and “humanics” literacy (to be innovative, creative, entrepreneurial, empathetic and culturally agile – the skills that machines are not able to do well yet).

“The more we see advances in AI, the more we have to focus on human intelligence,” Aoun said.

He called for colleges to integrate those three literacies into classroom instruction while also providing experiential learning through internships, externships, apprenticeships and similar real-world learning experiences.

“It’s not enough to proclaim we are embracing lifelong learning,” Aoun said. It has to be on demand, it has to be relevant to what’s needed in the workforce and employers have to be at the table.

He called for higher education leaders to rethink the idea of degrees, as people are increasingly seeking other credentials, such as micro-certificates. Colleges should also work with companies to create education models that can be offered at a workplace, as “we can’t expect learners to come to us.”

Lifelong learning

In a dialogue with AACC President Walter Bumphus, Aoun told the community college audience that they “are particularly well-positioned to lead this charge to make people robot proof for life” because they serve nontraditional students and are focused on lifelong learning.

Higher education is already exorbitant for many students, Bumphus noted; how can colleges make the robot-proof model affordable?

Redesigning the curriculum to incorporate the three literacies won’t require extra funding, Aoun said. “It’s about breaking down the silos,” he said.

He suggested employers could help pay for experiential learning. Companies have a huge demand for people with certain skills, such as cyber security, so they are ready to finance that training.

“We will all have to continue to upskill ourselves,” Aoun said. “No one is set for life.”

About the Author

Ellie Ashford
is associate editor of Community College Daily.