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AI: Learning Nirvana or L&D Apocalypse?

Bob Little 

January 20, 2017

Many of the solutions we see in today’s networked society were unimaginable not long ago.

Ericsson – one of the global leaders in information and communication technology (ICT), an organization that’s active in 180 countries and whose networks carry some 40 percent of the world’s mobile traffic – believes that, “Innovative ideas and forward-thinking pioneers in ICT have transformed society and industry on almost every level, and we envisage the possibilities in the future to be limitless.

This belief has prompted the company to trail a currently fictitious product called “Digital Dude.” For now, such a concept may appear far-fetched but similarly strange and remarkable things have happened in the ICT world – and we now use these things in our business and personal lives.

Digital Dude would prove a popular addition to humanity’s ICT armory and it could help combat the assertion from Bill Joy – the co-founder of Sun Microsystems – that, “No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else.”

The UK-based learning technologies specialist, teacher and internationally-known speaker Donald Clark believes that, “Technology has a massive effect on our lives and this can only continue – particularly as manufacturing industry grows (notably in the USA and China) while employment in this sector falls as jobs are automated.”

Speaking at Knowledge in Focus, the fourth international corporate conference on future learning and innovation held in Zagreb, Croatia, and organized by food manufacturer Podravka, Clark argued that automation was the key reason why the number of agricultural jobs fell significantly between 1840 and 2010. Employment in the manufacturing sector rose until around 1950, but has been declining since then. Service jobs are still increasing but, he said, it’s only a matter of time before the trend to automation hits this sector too.

“A recent Harvard Business Review report states that 54 percent of what managers currently do is ‘administration’,” said Clark. “This administration is a prime candidate to be automated via artificial intelligence (AI).

“Moreover, a study from the University of Oxford has suggested that some 47 percent of all current jobs can be automated. If that’s true, there’ll be some key issues as far as employment levels are concerned – and some areas of the world, such as Southern Europe, are experiencing massive unemployment now!

Increasingly, AI has huge reach and depth. It’s not about ‘robots.’ It’s about networks,” he added, pointing out that human brains are “bad learners.” He said it takes around 20 years to educate a brain because, among other things, it keeps being inattentive. Moreover, ultimately – and inefficiently – it dies.

“AI is about new technology and it’s better than the human brain because AI doesn’t die. The internet is the ‘fuel’ that’s allowed AI to take off in recent years.

“There’ve been no innovations in pedagogy coming from universities or corporate training departments. All the innovations in learning in recent years have come from mathematicians and the AI world.

AI helps us all to learn and to teach. The advent of Google Home and Amazon’s Alexa may even be taking humanity back to a Socratic view of learning. Eventually, thanks to AI, teachers may not be necessary – but then, of course, teaching isn’t an end in itself!”

Digital learning strategist Tim Drewitt, who’s a product innovator at Kallidus, believes that, “For the foreseeable future, corporate learners will need guidance and structure to their learning, so the teacher/trainer’s role isn’t going to disappear.

“Google Home and Alexa from Amazon provide interesting ways to access information – sometimes, spookily, before you know you need it. In time, they may become valuable sources of just-in-time information.

“Currently, though, I under-utilize my Amazon Alexa. ‘She’s’ not yet a key part of my learning ecosystem – and she’ll need to evolve if she’s to become a key workplace learning tool.

“Yet L&D professionals need to make the transition to becoming curators, coaches and mentors if they’re to help learners make sense of the immense amount of information and learning content that now exists. As AI extends its reach, there’ll be an increasing need for L&D practitioners and these will need to be more closely aligned to their organizations’ work – to help learners wade through the amount of content that could overwhelm them.

Drewitt adds, “Trainers could find they become the primary users of AI-generated content, so they can provide that final important organizational filter. That said, if AI continues to develop, the contextual filter might be automated too – and then we might need to be more concerned about our roles.

According to international e-learning think tank The Company of Thought, “The biggest emerging trend in applications that encompass e-learning is in AI and algorithms that respond to human knowledge and behavior. This technology could become our e-learning assistant of the future.

Most learners are used to Facebook and Google adapting to their searches and recommending appropriate other items. Platforms are emerging with machine learning built-in – and adaptive technology for learning is becoming a growth area. Commercial implementation isn’t yet widespread – but it may arrive sooner than we think.

“It’s still early days where AI’s concerned,” agrees Drewitt. “For example, most learning management systems (LMSs) still primarily track compliance-related learning but I’m seeing ‘intelligent search’ engines finding their way into some LMSs’ latest versions.

“Organizations I’ve worked with are keen to see what they term as a ‘Google for learning’ replace their learning systems’ rigid structure. There are also examples of modern versions of the Microsoft paperclip offering suggestions based on content you’ve studied in the past.

I’m excited that innovation in our field is coming from outside of the industry,” he adds. “It’s good to feel you’re breaking new ground but I’m more comfortable applying in a corporate learning context – what’s evolving elsewhere, especially if that means delivering learning in a way that acknowledges how people interact with content and learning in their everyday lives, outside of work.

“Moreover, it’s always easier to sell new ideas to stakeholders when these have a track record elsewhere – but it’s key to react quickly to the new emerging technologies and approaches, so we don’t perpetuate the view that L&D is playing catch-up. The reaction I cherish from learners is, ‘cool, we can have that in work now too’.”

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