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When Automation Alters the Education Landscape

Shifting from “mastering content” to developing expert learners — how an evolving society requires the learning environment to adapt.

From Novelty to Common Practice: Automation

Several years ago, as I was walking through a grocery store in Florida, I saw a smart machine that was working alongside human workers. When I asked the human employees about the machine, they quickly replied that it was one of their best employees: it always showed up on time, scanned all of the inventory correctly, and was efficient. Before the COVID-19 pandemic this was a novelty. It was pioneering technology that helped cut down on costs while increasing productivity.

Image of a robot at a Wal-Mart in Florida. The robot scans inventory and places orders. Image source: Kasia Derbiszewska © 2022

Fast-forward to the present day where automation is no longer a novelty but rather a common practice. Food courts and fast-food restaurants now rely on kiosks to take orders and payments. Airport vending machines provide everything from snacks, essential items, electronics, and makeup to health foods and diapers. Stores now rely on robots to scan inventory and mop floors. The common denominator: machines are progressively replacing the need for people to work on tasks that are predictable, repetitive, or that don’t require creativity.

Image of vending machines that replace human capital. One vending machine has fresh food. The other vending machine sells diapers, bottles, toddler cups, toys, formula and snacks. This illustrates how typical jobs are being automatized. Image source: Kasia Derbiszewska ©2022

Changing the Education Landscape

While there are many benefits to robots (e.g., fewer long lines, smaller margin of error, lower costs for the business) it’s undeniable that automation is shifting the trajectory of what future jobs will look like. As a result, if we want our learners to thrive in an ever-evolving marketplace, the education landscape must change. Gone are the days where mastering content is critical; instead, we must ask whether we are preparing learners to become expert learners — learners who know how to learn. Information is universally available everywhere via smart devices, but do learners know what to do with it? Expert learners know how to learn, and not just what to learn. They are

  • Purposeful, motivated
  • Resourceful, knowledgeable
  • Strategic, goal-directed (CAST, 2018).

Developing Expert Learners

Image of two learning environments. Learning Environment 1 is where a student completes a worksheet. Learning Environment 2 is where a learner sets a goal, selects resources, chooses scaffolds and supports, monitors progress, expresses information, and reflects on the process. © Learning Key, 2022

In education we must therefore ask ourselves, does the assignment or task lead to expert learning? Consider, for example, Learning Environment 1 where a student does a worksheet. We should ask ourselves whether recall questions develop expert learners? Do recall worksheets develop learners who know how to learn and not just what to learn? Arguably, no. On the other hand, consider Learning Environment 2 where a student is arguing a thesis on the impacts of herbicides and pesticides on health and well-being. To convey their perspective they can either develop a podcast, blog or promotional video as a way to influence community practice. In the first scenario the student is in a prescribed learning environment: everyone is doing the same task with the same materials. The goal is to master content. In the second scenario, the student is actively making choices, choosing resources and supports, determining credibility, monitoring progress and expressing their ideas with the appropriate medium to influence community practice. One learning scenario is prescribed; the other allows for the learners to make decisions and to leverage critical thinking skills.

Call to Action

When we look at the trajectory of our global marketplace, we can quickly see how educational tasks that are repetitive and focus solely on mastering content will eventually no longer be transferable to the marketplace. Things that are repetitive and routine ultimately lead to automation. We must do more in the educational landscape to foster critical thinking skills and skills that lead to learners who know how to learn. As Margaret Mead once said, “Children must be taught how to think, not what to think.”

Where have you seen an example of automation? Share with us below. How does this impact what we must do in schools? How does this impact the learning landscape?

If you enjoyed this post, visit learningkeyworks.com for more content on how to design flexible learning environments. If you’re ready to unlock potential and develop expert learners, schedule a discovery call today.

Kasia Derbiszewska

Instructional designer. Speaker. Author. Change agent. I help experts design flexible curricula.


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