Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence


In a recent book titled, Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, Northeastern University president Joseph Aoun proposes a way to educate the next generation of college students, supporting society in ways that artificial intelligence cannot. His underlying premise is that the existing model of higher education has yet to adapt to the seismic shifts rattling the foundations of the global economy – I firmly agree. It was Alvin Tofler that said: The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those that can’t read or write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.

This conversation is broader than a focus on school-aged young adults. What Tofler pronounced applies to all of us. In his book, Mr. Aoun presents a new model of learning that enables us to understand the highly technological world around us, allowing us to transcend it by nurturing the mental and intellectual qualities that are unique to humans – namely, their capacity for creativity and mental flexibility. He calls this model Humanics. These Human Traits represent our future skills profile, including many of the right brain characteristics visualized below. We will want explorers, problem solvers, dot connectors, continuous learners, and those not afraid to challenge the status quo.

Rethinking the Future

Will these human traits remain the sole domain of humans? I imagine that question resolves itself in the future, but for today humans still hold the advantage. To nurture these human traits, Mr. Aoun suggests that Humanics focus on three new literacies – technological, data, and human. In doing so, we enable society to network with both other people and machines. Included below is a brief description of each literacy directly from the book:

TECHNOLOGICAL LITERACY: knowledge of mathematics, coding, and basic engineering principles. In much the same way as factory workers a hundred years ago needed to understand the basic structures of engines, we need to understand the elemental principles behind our devices. This empowers us to deploy software and hardware to their fullest utility, maximizing our powers to achieve and create.

DATA LITERACY: the capacity to understand and utilize Big Data through analysis. By understanding both interpretation and context, data literacy enables us to find meaning in the overwhelming flood of information pouring from our devices. Data analysis can foresee everything from the spread of a virus across a continent to an individual’s dating preferences.

HUMAN LITERACY: giving us the power to communicate, engage with others, and tap into our human capacity for grace and beauty. It encompasses the humanities traditionally found in a liberal arts education but also includes elements of the arts, especially design, which is integral to much of digital communication. Workplaces are more collaborative than ever. In every workplace context, we must know how to play well with others, so skills like brainstorming, negotiating, and making collective decisions are increasingly important. Effective relationship work, not just knowledge work, is the key to a winning team. Understanding the importance of diversity is essential to human literacy. If we are to be lifelong learners, we must engage with a diversity of perspectives, including ones that challenge their presuppositions.


This last area of literacy is perhaps the most important. Relationship skills will dictate success or failure both at the business and societal level. As we experience the Rise of Ecosystems in the coming decades, weakness at the relationship and collaboration level will be exposed. Most importantly, the re-skilling that society will undoubtedly require hinges on our ability to address Mr. Aoun’s underlying premise: the existing model of higher education has yet to adapt to the seismic shifts rattling the foundations of the global economy.

If you are interested in the Next Generation of Education, I highly recommend Mr. Aoun’s book. For more great books on a broad list of topics, visit my Book Library.

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