Preparations must start early to combat threat of AI

Narelle Allen working with young school children as part of PwC's Hive Academy
Narelle Allen

THE educational reformer John Dewey is often quoted as saying: “If we teach today as we taught yesterday, we rob our children of their future” and, in this 24/7, always-on world of technological disruption, this challenge no longer only faces just educators, but parents and business too.

We're on the precipice of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, or Industry 4.0, where we estimate that as many as 30 per cent of jobs are potentially under threat from advances in artificial intelligence (AI). In some sectors, half the jobs could go. That means we need to prepare our young people for a world where the jobs they will do have not yet been invented and where the skills they need can only be imagined.

But how do we prepare seven year-olds for this brave new world where robots may take our jobs, edible barcodes will safeguard our food and having a conversation with a domestic appliance will seem natural? The answer: we start getting them curious about technology when they're six.

Notice I said ‘we'. This isn't something that teachers can do on their own - and nor it is something they should be expected to. It's why UK Education Secretary Damian Hinds has challenged the tech industry to launch an education revolution for schools, colleges and universities. The aim is that together we can create sustainable, focused solutions which will ultimately support and inspire the learners of today and leaders of tomorrow.

Industry need to link to and complement the curriculum so that teachers readily engage with it to increase their digital skills, and embed them into their teaching - without seeing it as extra work.

Young people must be exposed to the megatrends of coding, design thinking, data analytics, VR/AR, cybersecurity, AI, robotics, drones and prototyping. And, once they understand that, the next step is teaching them how to market their skills.

I've been doing just that over the past year with the PwC NI Hive Academy. Through its two free education outreach programmes - Hive Hackers and the Tech Academy - I've worked with over 3000 students, 200 teachers and 78 primary and secondary schools across Northern Ireland and, as a result, hundreds of primary school children can now code and develop their own simple computer games

It begins with teacher development sessions, where we upskill teachers and provide resources like lesson plans, worksheets and powerpoint presentations. We then turn our focus to delivering the innovative programmes to pupils either at our offices in Waterfront Plaza in Belfast or in the schools themselves.

They aim to empower young people with the essential skills they need whilst infusing them with inquisitiveness and a love of all things tech. We want to inspire them so they are able to recognise the limitless possibilities that technology offers their future careers. We teach them to dream big, be innovative and to take risks.

The local tech sector is thriving but we cannot be complacent. Through industry initiatives like the Hive Academy, we can help students from Newry, Lurgan, Belfast and elsewhere in Northern Ireland to achieve their potential.

As we prepare to start the new term, it's comforting that some things stay the same. Clarkes will create orderly queues in their stores as parents wrestle children into new shoes, name labels will be abandoned for Sharpie pens and it'll start to be sunny again. But other things need to change if we're to help the next generations succeed in the digital era.

:: Narelle Allen is Hive manager at PwC Belfast

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