Guest View: The Rise of the machines

Originally published in The Register-Guard – August 27, 2019

Beaver State workers must brace themselves for the coming storm – a robot storm, that is. Oxford Economics examined the impact widespread implementation of robots would have on state workforces. The report ranked states according to their vulnerability for economic disruption, and ours topped the list. Thanks to the strong manufacturing economy of the desert east and Portland area, Oregon stands to lose the most economic ground to automation.

This is scary news for anyone, but it’s downright disastrous for educators. Our job is to prepare students to thrive not just in today’s world, but also in tomorrow’s world.

Although the report paints a grim picture, one point of light stands out. “Occupations that demand compassion, creativity and social intelligence will not easily be replaced by machines,” the authors note.

If robots are to become our competitors, the message is clear: Rote memorization, standardized testing and long lectures won’t cut it if we want our students to thrive in a world where they’re up against androids. We must educate and empower all the skills and traits that make them most human – innovation and imagination, communication and creativity.

The good news is that education models that develop these skills already exist. Project-based learning brings students together to address practical problems.

If this sounds like something best left to an outside contractor or a county board, that’s precisely the point. PBL prepares students for the workforce by asking that they see an opportunity for improvement, put practical steps in place and work well with others to execute that plan.

Along the way, PBL students often uncover their unique abilities and strengths. Perhaps they have a knack for mediating conflict among the group members, but realize they aren’t very good at sketching out designs. Someone else might be able to draw brilliant sketches, but struggle to write email correspondence. Experiences like these give students greater insight into what kind of work they might like to do after graduation, plus how they can use their individual gifts to make a difference.

Robots can help do this work, but they cannot replace it altogether. The collaborative, practical problems of PBL require a human touch. It’s eminently practical and totally unquantifiable – in other words, a perfect education to complement a world powered by artificial intelligence and automation.

Oregon must invest in making this kind of education accessible to all students. That’s why, at Destinations Career Academy of Oregon, we’re implementing digital PBL across all of our career-readiness education pathways.

Rather than paying the price of widespread unemployment and all of its economic consequences, let’s invest in our education system. Rather than forcing our students into a rat-race against the robots, let’s empower their human abilities to work alongside this new workforce. And rather than accepting the prediction of the Oxford Economics report, let’s shift Oregon’s educational approach to one that’s focused on career readiness.

Timothy Jalkanen is Head of School at Destinations Career Academy of Oregon, powered by K12, Inc. He lives in Prineville, Oregon.

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