Should You Be Teaching Systems Thinking?

An article I read suggests that systems thinking could become a new liberal art and prepare students for a world where they will need to compete with AI, robots and machine thinking. What is it that humans can do that the machines can't do?

Systems thinking grew out of system dynamics which was a new thing in the 1960s. Invented by an MIT management professor, Jay Wright Forrester,  it took in the parallels between engineering, information systems and social systems.

Relationships in dynamic systems can both amplify or balance other effects. I always found examples of this too technical and complex for my purposes in the humanities, but the basic ideas seemed to make sense.

One example from environmentalists seems like a clearer one. Most of us can see that there are connections between human systems and ecological systems. Certainly, discussions about climate change have used versions of this kind of thinking to make the point that human systems are having a negative effect on ecological systems. And you can look at how those changed ecological systems are then having effect on economic and industrial systems.

Some people view systems thinking as something we can do better, at lest currently, than machines. That means it is a skill that makes a person more marketable. Philip D. Gardner believes that systems thinking is a key attribute of the "T-shaped professional." This person is deep as well as broad, with not only a depth of knowledge in an area of expertise, but also able to work and communicate across disciplines.  

coverJoseph E. Aoun believes that systems thinking will be a "higher-order mental skill" that gives humans an edge over machines. 

But isn't it likely that machines that learn will also be programmed one day to think across systems? Probably, but Aoun says that currently "the big creative leaps that occur when humans engage in it are as yet unreachable by machines." 

When my oldest son was exploring colleges more than a decade ago, systems engineering was a major that I thought looked interesting. It is an interdisciplinary field of engineering and engineering management. It focuses on how to design and manage complex systems over their life cycles.

If systems thinking grows in popularity, it may well be adopted into existing disciplines as a way to connect fields that are usually in silos and don't interact. Would behavioral economics qualify as systems thinking? Is this a way to make STEAM or STEM actually a single thing?

 


David Peter Stroh, Systems Thinking for Social Change

Joseph E. Aoun, Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence

From Digital Citizen to Robot Citizen

I can remember lots of people talking back in the end of the 20th century talking about people - especially students - becoming digital citizens. You may have read that recently Saudi Arabia gave a robot citizenship. It was mostly a PR stunt to promote that country's tech summit, but some commenters are speculating on what it means to have a citizen that you can buy.

This human-like robot (Are we not using the term "android" any more for humanoid robots?) is named Sophia and has been making appearances. In early October she was at the United Nations to tell them “I am here to help humanity create the future.” And, as the Arab News headlined it, “Sophia the robot becomes first humanoid Saudi citizen.”

We will see more robots like Sophia. Her maker, Hanson Robotics, expects to expand its operations, and China is aiming to triple their annual production of robots to 100,000 by 2020.

Besides the uncanny valley effect of Sophia's humanness, there are plenty of people who are uncomfortable with not only these robots but artificial intelligence in general. Though AI scares Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking, Musk's and Gates' companies are pursuing research into it and using it in their products and services. The idea of a robot developing self-consciousness is a step too far for many people though. 

Is AI in a robot a serious threat to the existence of humanity?


The Highest Paid Majors Demythified

gradsA newsletter from Jeff Selingo pointed to an upcoming piece forThe New York Times that he wrote about the biggest myths surrounding the college major.

How did you pick your major? You probably got guidance from school counselors but also less formally from family and friends,  and from news articles and headlines in the media that talked about the "fastest-growing fields" and who gets paid what.

Selingo cites a report that says all that advice on what to study in college perpetuates myths. This Gallup report details that the majority (55%) of U.S. adults with at least some college but no more than a bachelor's degree list their informal social network as providing advice about their college major. This is the most often-cited source of advice when choosing a major for the majority of U.S. adults.

The past few decades have seen a push to STEM fields. That push last occurred in the 1950s in the U.S. when we were in a space race and seemed to be falling behind other countries. In the 1950s, we were lagging behind Russia and Japan, but today most of the talk is about China and India. 
 
Yes, STEM fields do generally pay well and are we still have fewer students prepared to work in those fields. But the newsletter points to an interactive graphic from Doug Webber at Temple University that shows there is a lot of overlaps plenty of overlap between earnings in different fields. There also is a big difference in being an average or below-average engineering employee and at the top of earners with an English major.  
 
The most popular undergraduate major now is not in STEM but in business. The lifetime earnings of the typical business graduate is $2.85 million, but an English major is $2.76 million, and psychology is $2.57 million and even a history major totals up at $2.46 million.
 
Perhaps the lesson for high school students is that you shouldn't pick a major based on projected earnings.

Education and the Gig Economy

gigI mentioned the Gig Economy to a colleague at a college last week and he said he had never heard of the term. I said that "gig" is a term I associate with musicians who move from job to job, gig to gig. Now, it is being applied to a labor market characterized by the prevalence of short-term contracts or freelance work as opposed to permanent jobs. "But it has nothing to do with education," he commented. That got me thinking. Is it affecting education?

A study by Intuit predicted that by 2020, 40 percent of American workers will be independent contractors. Most discussions of the gig economy talk about job sharing apps like Uber, Instacart and TaskRabbit. There has long been short term, contract and freelance work being done in the labor market. But the type that is being done by college graduates is said to have grown by more than 50% over the last decade.

Jeff Selingo referenced studies that contend that all the net job growth since the Great Recession has been in the gig or contract economy, and that 47% of college-age students did some sort of freelancing work last year, along with 43% of millennials.

My first thought about gig work in higher education is adjuncts. With more and more adjuncts (and fewer full-time faculty) being used in colleges, many adjuncts put together gigs at several schools. If teaching is your only job, that means trying to get three or more classes per semester fall, spring and summer.

I pulled some books off the bookstore shelf this past weekend and looked at what is being written about The Future Workplace ExperienceThe Gig Economy and Thriving in the Gig Economy are examples. 

They talk about dealing with disruption in recruiting and engaging employees A lot of the popular of the media focus is on the low end of the skill spectrum. Less attention is given to college grads and professionals who have chosen this independent employment route.

I found so many different stats on the size of this gig workforce that I hesitate to link to a source. One book says more than a third of Americans are working in the gig economy. That seems high by my own circle of friends and colleagues, but this includes short-term jobs, contract work, and freelance assignments 

I am now officially in retirement - or unretirement as I prefer to say. I have written elsewhere about unretirement and freelance work which is part of the gig economy. I take on teaching, web and instructional design gigs on a very selective basis. I choose things that interest me and allow me the freedom to work when I want to work and from where I want to work.  Sometimes the work comes from traditional places. I did a 6-month gig with a nearby community college that I had worked at full-time in the past. I have two new web clients for whom I am designing sites and e-commerce stores.

But let's return to what this might have to do with education. Higher education as preparation for a job has always been a topic of debate. "It's not job training," is what many professors would say. Employers have always played a large role in the training and professional development of their workers whether they have degrees or not.

In a gig economy, freelancers have to be self-directed in their learning. They need to decide what knowledge they’re missing, where to acquire it, how to fit it in to their day and how to pay for it. The free (as in MOOC and other online opportunities) is very appealing. Do schools that charge tuition and have traditional classes have any appeal to these people?

Certainly, driving for Uber doesn't require a degree, though having some business training in order to be self-employed would be beneficial. But my interest is more with "professional" freelancers. Take as an example, someone who has some college, certification or preferably a degree, that makes them able to promote themselves as an instructional designer or social media manager. I choose those two because I have done both as a freelancer and I know that if I look right now on a jobs site such as Glassdoor I will find hundreds of opportunities for those two areas locally.

Businesses and colleges save resources in terms of benefits, office space and training by employing these people. They also have the ability to contract with experts for specific projects who might be too high-priced to maintain on staff.

For some freelancers I know, a gig economy appeals because it offers them more control over their work-life balance. In that case, they are selecting jobs that they're interested in, rather than entering the gig economy because they are unable to attain employment, and so pick up whatever temporary gigs they can land. The latter is often the case with adjunct faculty. 

To someone mixing together short-term jobs, contract work, and freelance assignments, where would they go to find additional professional development?

Books like The Gig Economy - with its appealing subtitle offer of being "The Complete Guide to Getting Better Work, Taking More Time Off, and Financing the Life You Want" - is more interested in real-world corporate examples (Airbnb, Lyft, Uber, Etsy, TaskRabbit, France's BlaBlaCar, China's Didi Kuaidi, and India's Ola) as crowd-based capitalism.

The freelancer may not be much concerned with emerging blockchain technologies, but she is certainly part of the changing future of work.

The future is always a land of questions: Will we live in a world of empowered entrepreneurs who enjoy professional flexibility and independence? Will these gig economy workers become disenfranchised, laborers jumping from gig to gig, always looking for work and paying heir own health benefits? How will this affect labor unions, self-regulatory organizations, labor law, and a new generation of retirees who have a more limited social safety net? Are long-term careers at one or two companies a thing of the past?

Robin Chase, founder of Zipcar, the world’s largest car sharing company, said, “My father had one job in his life, I’ve had six in mine. My kids will have six at the same time.”

The one thing all observers seem to agree on is that the way we work is changing.

Jennifer Lachs writes on opencolleges.edu.au about that changing working world and the possible impact it may have on education. I hadn't thought of it as a gig economy job but of course substitute teachers in K-12 education have long been employed on a freelance basis. The education and training industry is among the top 5 highest demand industries for freelance workers due to the high level of specialization and rise of virtual education.

I know of a dozen or so teachers who do online teaching and tutoring as a way to supplement their income. For decades, professors have done freelance writing and thesis editing and much of that has moved online. My wife and I are currently editing a dissertation via email and shared files along with the occasional phone conference.

The writing center I helped build at a community college has relied on online tutoring for student writing as a way to supplement the face-to-face tutoring. Online appealed to students, but it also offered additional work for some of out part-time tutors and others who added it to the gig list.

Are we preparing students for the gig economy once they graduate? No. 

A friend pointed me at "It’s a Project-Based World" which was a thought leadership campaign by Getting Smart to explore the economic realities of a project-based world. The purpose of the campaign: to promote equity and access to deeper learning outcomes for all students. There are blog posts, podcast interviews, publications, and infographics around the preparation of students, teachers and leaders for a project-based world. The focus there seems to be less on obtaining deeper knowledge, and more on teaching skills that students will need in the modern working world.

Finally, I think that the gig economy will have a greater impact on traditional education than traditional education will have on the gig economy. It accounts for employment growth statistics, but secondary or post-secondary schools don't prepare students for this type of work.

 

All Your Students Are Generation Z

Gen ZWhen I started working at a university in 2000, there was a lot of talk about Millennials. That generation gets a lot less attention these days. I am not much of a fan of these generation generalizations, but that won't stop them from being topics of conversation. They are particularly of interest to marketers.

The generation that follows the Millennials are those born between 1995 - 2012. That makes them 5- 22 years old. I don't know how we can generalize very much about that wide a range of people. But educators should take note because they do include kids in kindergarten through the new college graduates and all those students in between.

The post-Millennial generation hasn't gotten name that everyone agrees on. I hear them called Generation Z, Post-Millennials, iGeneration, Centennials and the Homeland Generation.

Although "iGeneration" might suggest that they are self-centered, the lowercase i references the Apple world of iPods, iPhones, iPads etc.

"Homeland" refers to the post-9/11 world they grew up in. September 11, 2001 was the last major event to occur for Millennials. Even the oldest members of Generation Z were quite young children when the 9/11 attacks occurred. They have no generational memory of a time the United States was not at war with the loosely defined forces of global terrorism.

I'll use Gen Z to label this demographic cohort after the Millennials.

Here are some of the characteristics I find that supposedly describe Gen Z. You'll notice that much of this comes from the fact that this generation has lived with the Internet from a young age. This is usually taken to mean that they are very comfortable (don't read that as knowledgeable) with technology and interacting on social media.

Besides living in an Internet age, they live in a post-9/11 age and grew up through the Great Recession and so have a feeling of unsettlement and insecurity.

They get less sleep than earlier generations.

They are mobile phone users - not desktop, laptop or landline users.

They are wiser than earlier generations about protecting their online personalities and privacy, but they live in a world that also offers more threats.  For example, they are more likely to create “rinsta” and “finsta” Instagram personas. (Rinsta is a “real” account and finsta is a “fake” or “friends-only” profile.)

They are wiser to marketing and more resistant to advertising. Less than a quarter of them have a positive perception of online ads (Millward Brown). But, perhaps ironically, they trust YouTube stars, Instagram personalities, and other social media influencers and that includes when they make purchasing decisions.

Having grown up with more of it, they are generally more open to efforts to increase diversity and inclusion.

They’re easily bored with an average attention span of eight seconds (Sparks & Honey). Of course, the attention span of the average millennial is supposed to be 12 seconds. That makes them hard to engage, but they self-identify as wanting to be engaged.

That haven't had or expect to have summer jobs.

They are said to be slower at maturing than earlier generations. They postpone getting a driver's license. Many of them even postpone having sex.

Rather than a generation gap, like the one made famous in the 1960s, they are more likely to hang with their parents.

They are very open to sharing their opinions in many ways from consumer reviews and other consumer behavior, and online they like collaborative communities and the exchange of ideas and opinions.

Workplace Skills Shifting - Are Colleges Shifting Too?

Jeff Selingo has been writing about higher ed for two decades and lately he has been looking at some of the "big ideas" that colleges and universities should consider. These ideas are through the lens of the changing workplace.

Whether you are talking about automation or the gig economy and the rise of the virtual (what we used to call freelance) worker, the skills required,or at least desired, have changed in two decades.

In the second part of his paper, "The Future of Work," he shows that more than half of jobs expected to require cognitive abilities as part of their core skill set in 2020 do not yet do so or do to only a small extent. 

 

You would think that colleges are always looking at what the workplace want or demands and are changing their courses and programs to offer those things. You would mostly be wrong in that assumption.

Jeff Selingo is the author of three books, the newest of which, There Is Life After College. He is a special advisor and professor of practice at Arizona State University, a visiting scholar at Georgia Tech’s Center for 21st Century Universities. More at jeffselingo.com