the limits of rules
At last week’s annual meeting of the AAC&U, Frank Levy delivered the closing plenary. It was a summary of his work in “Dancing with Robots, Human Skills for Computerized Work,” a look at how technology is changing the nature of human life and work, and therefore influencing what we need from education.
I like these observations and draw on them often, describing how robots and computers are acting like other kinds of outsourcing, effectively offshoring high-end administrative jobs to virtual lands.
The key to automation, Levy pointed out, is that a job has to be reducible to rules. To a computer, playing chess is far easier than walking into a room and finding the chessboard. (He thinks we’re a long way from the truly self-driving car.)
Those remaining spaces of human judgment – the tasks that require adaptability, nuance, intuition – are also the ones left behind by my own sphere, public policy. There is simply a point beyond which you can’t write rules, and need to authorize someone to step in and decide.
Levy observed that if you want to keep your job, and win the next one, then you need to exploit our remaining competitive advantages: discernment, creativity, flexibility. As Levy put it, “You’re drilling your students on memorizing a set of facts? Great. Then they’re going up against Watson.” But what computers are bad at, so far at least, is rolling with the punches.
There’s another way this picks up where policy leaves off. A few weeks ago I was meeting with researchers from around California, who are all contributing to an evidence base for changing the state’s general education and transfer.
Despite my best efforts, the researchers kept coming back to the value of faculty meeting regularly to talk across institutional lines, ideally to compare samples of student work, and calibrate their expectations for mid-college learning.
This is state-of-the-art higher ed thinking but a public policy nightmare. The current GE transfer policy runs nearly on autopilot, with questions of course credit essentially outsourced, delegated, or automated. The result is what Levy predicts: fast, cheap, and hidebound.
I went into this reform project hoping participants would rewrite those rules, applying some temporary attention to a moribund status quo, and creating a new and improved structure that would hold us for the next few decades.
What we’re finding is that there’s no such thing. Instead, the value resides in the sheer work, collaboration, and attention of this project itself.
So what do we do when the grants run out?