Higher ed must prepare learners for AI age

Photo by David Fisher for Northeastern

Northeastern President Joseph E. Aoun underscored the role of higher education in the age of artificial intelligence on Wednesday afternoon in a speech at the Oxford Martin School in Great Britain, saying that universities have a “responsibility to make people robot-proof.”

“People are going to be left out of this economy if we do not step in,” he told nearly 200 Oxford-affiliated students, educators, policymakers, and tech entrepreneurs who filled a lecture hall on the prestigious campus.

Aoun’s talk focused on his new book Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence. In the book, Aoun argues that mastering three new literacies—technological literacy, data literacy, and human literacy—will enable students to fill societal needs that even the most sophisticated robots cannot.

Photo by David Fisher

He lays out a framework for a new discipline—humanics—that builds on our innate human strengths and prepares students to compete in a labor market in which smart machines work alongside human professionals. The people who succeed, he says, will be those who leverage the traits that distinguish us from robots and make us uniquely human—including creativity, entrepreneurship, ethical thinking, and cultural agility.

We have to devise curricula that will be delivered to lifelong learners wherever they are.

Joseph E. Aoun
Northeastern president

The need for this new approach to educating the next generation of learners is acute: Aoun pointed to studies that show that close to 50 percent of U.S. jobs we know today will have disappeared in 20 years due to automation and artificial intelligence. As he explained on Wednesday, “We’re going to see an enormous sea change. Many jobs will become obsolete and new jobs will be created.”

Experiential education, Aoun said, will be critical to helping students master this new curriculum. Northeastern is leading the way, placing students in experiential learning opportunities in nearly 140 countries. “Experiential education will allow you to start integrating the classroom experience with the real world experience,” he explained. “These opportunities will show you who you are as a learner—what you’re good at, what you’re not so good at, and how you interact with others.”

Photo by David Fisher

For working professionals, Aoun said, universities must provide opportunities to re-educate and re-tool. Lifelong learning must become a higher priority for higher education. If colleges and universities don’t step in to help professionals brush up on their knowledge and skills, for-profit institutions and corporations will create their own offerings to fill the gap.

“We have to devise curricula that will be delivered to lifelong learners wherever they are,” Aoun said. “We cannot ask them to commit for a long period of time,” he added, describing lifelong learners as those who are “long on experience and short on time.”

After his talk, Aoun had a lengthy conversation with Martin Williams, structural engineering professor and pro-vice-chancellor of education at Oxford. Williams asked Aoun a range of questions, from how the rise of AI could impact vocational professions to the role of critical thinking in shaping the next generation of learners.

Photo by David Fisher

Williams also wanted to know whether Northeastern’s “extraordinary” co-op program, which he viewed as an “integral part of students’ learning,” could be reproduced at other colleges and universities. Aoun said “yes,” so long as educators agree to relinquish some control of the student learning experience. “The barrier to entry is us educators,” he explained. “We’re very conservative and we want to be at the center of the learning process.”

As part of the audience Q&A, one attendee asked Aoun what advice he had for high school seniors on the verge of college. Aoun suggested they step out of their comfort zones to explore their academic options, looking into disciplines that diverge from their primary interests. “Create your own curriculum, you are in the driver’s seat,” he said. “No institution is going to provide you with all the answers you are seeking. You have to shape them yourself. That’s why it’s glorious to be a learner.”