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Skill Enhancement and Digitization of Learning

Both the employment picture and the weak productivity spillover lead one to question the role of technology in higher education and primary education. Do workers not have the requisite skills to compete in the network economy? Can we harness digital technology to unbundle the teaching process, splitting knowledge into two skill groups?

One group, consisting of complex, but repetitive, skills can be moved to online courses, such as MOOCs. The second group, non-repetitive skills, requires an interactive component and, therefore, can only be taught in a lecture- and discussion-based format in a brick-and-mortar environment.9 The moments of actual learning happen when students are engaged and empowered in interactive discussions. So, perhaps, the role of professors is that of a guide or coach on the sidelines, watching players and correcting flaws in reasoning. The Socratic teaching method is an example, where material is taught and learnt through asking and answering questions rather than one-way lectures.

An important feature of interactive discussions is the network effect. When more students are participating in a discussion, the value oflearning increases in proportion to the size of the group. Clearly, this benefit reaches a maximum at some critical group size, since too large a group leads to chaotic learning. According to William Bowen, “a great advantage of residential institutions is that genuine learning occurs more or less continually, and as often, or more often, out of the classroom as in it.” [54]

The evidence on the usefulness of MOOCs is encouraging. In a Carnegie-Mellon University study on a hybrid-mode statistics course, William Bowen and his colleagues found [first,] no statistically significant differences in standard measure of learning outcomes (pass or completion rates, scores on common final exam questions, and results of a national test of statistical literacy) between students in traditional classes and students in hybrid-online format classes. Second, this finding is consistent not only across campuses, but also across subgroups of what was a very diverse student population. [54]

The upshot is that while measures of learning did not substantially change, widely divergent student groups benefited from this hybrid format when compared to the traditional brick-and-mortar only format. What is remarkable about this result is that the worry that learning outcomes will be compromised with the online hybrid format is without basis. This may have important implications for cost-containment in higher education. The conclusion is that continued incremental approaches to this mixed learning format might generate even more favorable outcomes. Along the lines of granularity in the labor market, Bowen says that “MOOCs could allow students to experiment with different classes and get a sense of what disciplines interest them before they ever set foot on campus.”

Artificial intelligence researchers have made the important point (Moravec’s Paradox) that complex reasoning, which requires precision and regularity, is hard for humans but easy for machines, but tasks that require generalization, perception, creativity and interacting with the real world (low-level sensory motor skills) are relatively easy for humans but computationally expensive. Any task that can be described by an algorithm or is repetitive, then, will be outsourced to technology. Pattern recognition, recombinant innovation, multi-sensory communication and developing creative solutions to previously unimagined problems are traits that will be in high demand since they cannot be converted to an algorithm. These are the skills learned in an interactive environment, and are particularly well suited for young adults born between 1980 and 2000 (the millennial generation) who are accustomed to a world, ushered in by the introduction of the iPhone in 2007, of interaction and transparency. The connections provided by learning in a communal setting are fundamental to acquiring non-algorithmic skills. By unbundling basic learning from the interactive component, MOOCs might present a platform for increased interactive learning and foster innovation. Steve Pinker writes:

The main lesson of 35 years of AI research is that hard problems are easy and easy problems are hard. The mental abilities of a four-year-old that we take for granted - recognizing a face, lifting a pencil, walking across a room, answering a question - in fact solve some of the hardest engineering problems ever conceived. [56]

Social media pervade the lives of millennials, who

work more closely together, leverage right- and left-brain skills, ask the right questions, learn faster and take risks previous generations resisted. They truly want to change the world and will use technology to do so. [57]

Organizational structures are adapting to this demand for transparency and inclusiveness which are critical for successful innovation and learning. As firms become granular and each worker is empowered with more responsibility, they will require an open culture of sharing information in order to perform their own task efficiently. There is a natural inclusiveness when workers, particularly in newly formed organizations, participate in formulating the mission and strategizing the goals of their firm.

Companies are now using social networks to create a pool of willing and competent candidates in the inventory of prospective employees. Maintaining ties with recent job applicants and former employees is valuable in screening candidates. The older hiring process requires intermediaries, who post a job, receive resumes and conduct interviews, all on behalf of clients. The interactive environment made possible by social networks facilitates deeper skill-integration of employer and employee. For example, last year Zappos planned to have candidates join a social network called Zappos Insiders where “they will network with current employees and demonstrate their passion for the company” in the expectation that the company will call them should the need arise [58].

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