How Schools and Startups Are Preparing for an Automated Future

By Pragati Verma, Contributor

At Big Picture Learning (BPL), high school students create their own curriculum. There are no grades and conventional tests and, for some students, no traditional classes to sit through.

In a small community of 15 students, students work with an advisor to identify their interests and personalize their academic journeys. Each student has an individualized assessment criteria and is expected to publicly display proficiency in their chosen field several times a year, rather than simply collect course credits. For two school days every week, students step out of the classroom to interact with mentors and work at internships that align with their interests.

According to Elliot Washor, co-founder of Big Picture Leaning, most schools don’t listen to students’ needs and work with a pre-conceived notion of what is right for all students. Instead, at Big Picture Learning, students are at the center of learning. “The entire experience is personalized to each student’s interests, talents, and needs,” Washor explained.

When asked what a typical day at BPL schools look like, he laughed. “Is that a trick question?” he chuckled.” There is no typical day and no typical student. We believe in identifying how a child learns best and then play to their strengths.”

What started out as one school in Providence, Rhode Island in 1995, has now grown to 65 BPL network schools in the U.S. and more schools in Australia, the Netherlands, Italy, and Canada.

Educational Updates

Advances in AI, automation, and robotics are challenging assumptions about what education should look like. If McKinsey predictions are any indication, the next generation needs to prepare for jobs that haven’t been invented yet. The 2017 McKinsey report predicts that by 2030—when many of today’s teenagers will graduate into workforce—up to 30 percent of today’s occupations will be automated.

What’s more, investments in technology, including AI and automation, could add 20 million to 50 million jobs globally by 2030, it predicts. The report urges societies—policy makers, business leaders, and individual workers—to prepare for a more automated future by emphasizing new skills and scaling up training.

So, how can K-12 schools pull education out of the Industrial Revolution mindset and better prepare students for a changing workforce, founded in a knowledge-based economy?

“Let me tell you what won’t work,” Washor said, “a curriculum that has been the same for 80 to 100 years, or locking students up in school all the time.” For Washor, it’s critical students acquire hands-on learning by sending them out into the workplace. There, they can interact professionally with adults and experience the challenges of real-world planning, critical thinking and problem solving—skills that will be critical in the agile and automated workplaces of tomorrow.

That is part of why internships are a core part of education at BPL. Each student has an internship whereby he or she works closely with a mentor, learning practical things like how to develop a robot, create a drone, or how to solve real business problems. The idea is that by developing and assessing their own skills, students can proactively steer their development in a way that makes sense for them.

“The whole point of our system is to get young people out and see real workplaces and learn how to do the things they want to do,” Washor said.

“The whole point of our system is to get young people out and see real workplaces and learn how to do the things they want to do,”

– Elliot Washor, co-founder of Big Picture Leaning

Topping Up Skills

So, what about the kids who didn’t get the education and training they need to work in future workplaces? Startups such as MissionU and Lambda School believe the answer is to provide specialized education programs for high-paying jobs in demand.

Y Combinator-backed Lambda School, for instance, is experimenting with a new way to finance students’ journeys to new jobs in the computer science field. Students don’t get any formal certification when they graduate, and they don’t need to pay anything upfront. Instead, they share a part of their income when they get a job that pays more than $50,000 a year.

For Lambda School co-founder and CEO, Austen Allred, this model is simply about realigning the incentives of the school with that of students. “What happens today if students don’t find jobs?” he asked. “Schools are not impacted financially until it builds a negative image.”

At Lambda, the schools’ incentive structure and business model are radically different from traditional schools due to the income-sharing method. “We get paid only if we can help our students gain skills that they get paid for,” he said.

To help increase the odds that students find high-paying jobs, Lambda School has acquired hiring partnerships with 75 companies, including Y Combinator, Slack, and EventBrite. Lambda School administrators speak to these companies and check job listings, then work backwards to build a curriculum that would position their students well for these high-paying jobs, Allred said.

An Informed Future

New educational models to prepare the future workforce are promising. Allred claimed that 80 percent of the students in Lambda School’s first batch of graduates were hired, and 75 percent of the students who graduated in second batch have already found jobs. The median income for these students was $90,000 per year—an average increase of about $52,000 per year compared to what students were making before they enrolled.

Yet, the job market is moving target, as new technological skills for technologies such as AI, robotics, and automation, are perpetually evolving. “Our education system—where curriculum changes can take up to five years—is completely unprepared,” Allred lamented. “We view ourselves as a solution.”

Allred reasoned that wages, for example, are not increasing fast enough despite historically low unemployment because “people are stuck in their career, and economic growth or productivity doesn’t matter to them if they are not trained for the new high-paying careers.”

As Allred pointed out, an education system set to train people up to a certain age will not work in a fast-changing workplace. For him, “the next generation needs to be ready to retrain and re-skill at least two-to-three times in our lifetime.”