Intelligent as well as artificial assistance needed

I read with interest the coverage in University World News of the OECD Science, Technology and Industry Scoreboard 2017 and the emphasis placed on preparing for digital transformation.

It reminded me that over the summer I read Thomas Friedman’s latest book, Thank you for being late. The book’s cover note suggests that it is an essential guide to the present and the future. It is subtitled "An optimist’s guide to thriving in the age of accelerations".

Friedman suggests that the triple impact of rapid technological change, environmental change and continuing globalisation are combining to create a world that is transforming so rapidly that we are all in danger of failing to keep up. Much of the OECD report covers the same territory and Geoff Maslen’s piece gave us a clear steer that universities need to keep up with technological change or get left behind.

I fear I have already been left behind. I don’t Twitter, I don’t use Facebook and I don’t look at my email on a smartphone in meetings, lectures or at the dinner table. To me this is a kind of badge of honour.

I hope I am not the Luddite that some of you may think I am for being a Facebook refusenik. I can see the benefits of technologically enhanced learning: the engagement that can come from the use of mobile phone responseware in class; I encourage my students to look things up on the internet in my seminars; and I participate in online teaching.

However, I am not looking forward to a world where technology dominates the shape of our lives and changes the way we behave to each other. I’d rather maintain my customary pedagogic practice while using technology as a useful tool.

Thomas Friedman was clearly enthralled by some of the technological innovations and innovators he encountered while researching his book. He tells his readers about the power of big data and the importance of mobile phones and apps to modern lives. He reveals that many young people would rather give up sex than their mobile phones.

But when he eulogises about the benefits of Uber, the connectedness derived from Facebook, LinkedIn, WeChat etc and the fun to be had with the real time streaming app Periscope, his enthusiasm seems somewhat naïve to me.

He wrote the book in 2016. Since it was published we have read about the aggressive business tactics and toxic culture at Uber, we have heard about the way Facebook uses client data and how it has enabled the phenomenon of fake news and we now know about some of the less pleasant users of Periscope.

Perhaps Friedman overlooked these problems and the naysayers because of his determined optimism. I don’t share his unquestioning optimism.

Human contact

Interestingly for those working in higher education, Friedman also charts the impact of technological innovations on universities. He includes stories of those following online degree programmes in previously low-participation parts of the world; for example, a maid in Jodhpur, India, equipping her children with a low-cost laptop so they can watch MOOCs – massive open online courses – produced by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

But despite the wonders of technological change, he ends the section on higher education by referencing the importance of human contact and the need to feel like someone is interested in your personal development. He suggests that even in this new era of artificial intelligence, intelligent assistance will still be needed.

This is an interesting point, and one that we must not forget. Putting it into practice, it is not enough for an online tutor to set up an icebreaker event at the start of an online course. The tutor needs to respond to the information offered and encourage students to offer a bit more at appropriate moments. It is the tutor’s role to foster the development of a learning community, not just a connected community.

Facebook changed their mission statement in 2017 from "Making the world more open and connected" to "Give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together". This change seems to reflect the realisation that the technology to connect people is not enough. It needs to be used to bring people closer together.

A few weeks ago I read a short article in one of the Sunday newspapers about the generation that has forgotten how to talk. The basic argument was that since the advent of calculators, people have forgotten how to do arithmetic; since the introduction of SatNavs, people have forgotten how to read maps and know little of basic geography.

In the same way, the widescale use of text and messaging apps is beginning to have the same impact on dialogue. The author, a young journalist, confessed that she avoided talking as much as she could because it was random. She could not control the encounters if she opened up to a conversation with a colleague, fellow commuter or even some of her friends.

She said she routinely emailed colleagues sitting next to her, she shut herself off on public transport behind earphones and her screen and, perhaps worst of all, when in an Uber (her words not mine) with a friend she will message the friend sitting next to her so as to avoid the possibility of the driver joining in the conversation.

These same behavioural characteristics, in particular the default to staring at a small screen rather than engaging in conversation, are something that I observe every day in the behaviours of my students and increasingly my colleagues.

Empathy and communication

Why is this important? For the past couple of years, a colleague of mine, Frances McGill, St George’s University Medical School, Grenada, has been conducting research on the ability of her medical students to communicate with their patients as they obtain a medical history.

Frances has become more and more concerned that young medical students are finding it increasingly difficult to exchange basic information and empathise with their patients.

Similar concerns exist around the ability of business students to communicate with colleagues, clients and potential customers. It is easy to get the impression that some students would rather email or text than speak.

My concern with the rush into the digital world and the embrace of technologically enhanced learning is that it may have unintended consequences for our learners. Dialogue remains important; a sense of community remains important. We must not forget that intelligent assistance is and should remain prioritised above the use of artificial intelligence.

As Facebook have realised, being connected is not the end position. It is what you do with the connection that is important.

As educators we must not forget to talk to each other and our students. We need to pay attention to what people are saying and to ensure our students can engage in intelligent conversation with the wider community with the aim of bringing the world closer together, not allowing our students to shut themselves off from the world around them, behind a screen and insulated by their earphones.

Philip Warwick is a senior teaching fellow at Durham University Business School, United Kingdom.