the limits of rules

Dancing with Robots

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.

DSC01184This 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?


2 thoughts on “the limits of rules

  1. We keep talking about jobs and careers as the reason to get a bachelors degree. But it’s so much more than that. The bachelors degree, and general education in particular, should help someone become a globally curious lifelong learner, able to cognitively adapt to an ever-changing environment. Too many folks – legislators, prospective students and their parents, journalists, pundits – see a university education as merely a tool to get a better job, but it’s like grabbing a Swiss army knife and complaining about the quality of the screwdriver. I’m a firm believer in more GE, and more rigorous GE, not less. I’m also a firm believer in letting students take all the time they want to declare a major, or (gasp) not declare one at all.

    Maybe it’s unrealistic of me to maintain these beliefs. Maybe the fundamental purpose of a university education has changed in the 21st century. But I also see too many bright, wide-eyed undergraduates with the world as their oyster complaining that they have to take astronomy and comparative government when they’re in school to become a nurse or a computer scientist. It hurts my heart to hear this, especially since I know that the “you’ll change careers seven times on average” or the “what if you can’t be a nurse” speeches will fall on deaf ears.

    Call me an old fuddy-duddy, but whenever I hear anyone talk about an undergraduate university degree being a means to an end and not an end itself, my ears deafen just like an undergraduate.

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