Monthly Archives: March 2015

Reskilling or deskilling: the advance of the robotic digital age

There has been a recent spate of articles in the press predicting that rise of the robots will take over from humans. This is of course the stuff of science fiction, but there have been other voices that are more considered and perhaps more concerning. These predict that many skills and jobs will be taken by computerisation and robots.

“The upcoming digital age may cause more upheaval than previous technological revolutions as it is happening faster than before and is fundamentally changing the way we live and work. Technology in the 21st century is enabling the automation of tasks once thought quintessentially human: cognitive tasks involving subtle and non-routine judgment. Through big data, the digitisation of industries, the Internet of Things and industrial and autonomous robots, the world around us is changing rapidly as is the nature of work across occupations, industries and countries. Although we can’t predict exactly which jobs will be affected, we do have a reasonably good idea about the type of tasks computers will be able to perform in the near future. Based on this, Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne predict that 47% of the US workforce is at high risk of automation as a result of these trends and low-income and low-skill jobs are now, for the first time, most likely to be automated.”

I would suggest that you check your own career or skill set against the predictions in this report – Technology at Work: The Future of Innovation and Employment. It could be a sobering thought! For example at the top of the list as least likely to be replaced by computerisation are Recreational Therapists. At the bottom of the extensive list are Telemarketers.

An earlier report attempted to predict which professions will no longer require humans and what new types of skills will be required I have summarised this in Table 1 at the end of this post.

The skills that cannot easily be replaced – the so called computerisation bottleneck – will be skills in three main areas:

  1. Perception and Dexterity
    For example, gardeners working in small parks or gardens will not easily be replaced, though in agriculture large machines for ploughing, planting and harvesting will replace most human labour.
  2. Creative Intelligence
    It is predicted that in the legal profession the legal secretary will be increasingly replaced by automated filing, searching, retrieving suites of software, though the actual lawyer will still be required.
  3. Social Intelligence
    Computers will be able to simulate social intelligence but the human customer will continue to prefer interaction with other humans, or at least it is hoped. So hair dressers will still exist.

We will see the proliferation of computing devices in the Internet of Things, so that all walks of life will be networked, communicated with and controlled. This is now starting with the “Nest Learning Thermostat!” for home central heating systems.

It is predicted that the skills that will be in demand are those who can build, control, and maintain computers. Which is why teaching Computer Science at schools should be a very important step in the development of an individual’s career path and also contribute to the competitiveness of the country that educated them.

TABLE I – O*NET variables that serve as indicators of bottlenecks to computerisation

Computerisation bottleneck

O*NET Variable

O*NET Description

Perception and Manipulation

Finger Dexterity

The ability to make precisely coordinated movements of the fingers of one or both hands to grasp, manipulate, or assemble very small objects.

Manual Dexterity

The ability to quickly move your hand, your hand together with your arm, or your two hands to grasp, manipulate, or assemble objects.

Cramped Work Space, Awkward Positions

How often does this job require working in cramped work spaces that requires getting into awkward positions?

Creative Intelligence


The ability to come up with unusual or clever ideas about a given topic or situation, or to develop creative ways to solve a problem.

Fine Arts

Knowledge of theory and techniques required to compose, produce, and perform works of music, dance, visual arts, drama, and sculpture.

Social Intelligence

Social Perceptiveness

Being aware of others’ reactions and understanding why they react as they do.


Bringing others together and trying to reconcile differences.


Persuading others to change their minds or behavior.

Assisting and Caring for Others

Providing personal assistance, medical attention, emotional support, or other personal care to others such as coworkers, customers, or patients.

Transferable skills

Transferable skills seem to divide opinion quite strongly. On the one hand we have some educationalists who like the idea of teaching transferable skills like “critical thinking”, “resilience” etc. And there are others who regard skills as being inextricably interwoven with the knowledge of the subject and the exercise of the skill to achieve something.

As an example think about the selection and evaluation of primary sources in history:

  • The transferable skills group will see this as a way of instilling a healthy scepticism about reading newspapers and other modern sources of information.
  • The knowledge and skills are scrambled group will merely regard it as a teaching children how to select and evaluate primary historical sources.

Who is right?

I am beginning to position myself with the “scrambled egg” theory of knowledge and skills. There seems to be a lot of evidence from cognitive science that this is actually how the brain works. Though I would acknowledge that some macro-skills like use of language, numeracy etc. do cross subject domains and are thus transferable.

What put me in mind of this debate is the following quote from a website from the Michaela Community School

“ICT is taught through the other subjects but does not have its own discrete lesson. For instance, spreadsheets are learned in Maths lessons and the basics of coding will complement the learning of algebra. Digital photo software is used in Art lessons and films can be made using complex technology in Drama and English lessons. Four state-of-the-art computer suites are being built. At GCSE, we plan to offer Computing GCSE (as private schools do, instead of ICT GCSE).”

Interesting. This seems to be a very strong statement that they think all of ICT / CS skills are transferable. And perhaps they are correct. I would agree that my Word Processing skills are not stuck in the subject domain of English. Though I do wonder how they will teach the appreciation of computers in society, operating systems, hardware and other rather singular subjects.

Food for thought.


The Learning Pyramid: Myth!

I have been reading up on the The Learning Pyramid, attributed the National Training Laboratories (NTL) at Bethel, Maine. My tutor mentioned this when we were talking about peer based learning. He remembered that there was some interesting research on the different methods of instruction.

Here is a “version” of it. It has many variants.

The Learning Pyramid

However, the more I have looked at this simple and persuasive little diagram and the more I dig about the less good it seems. Here is a great little blog that attempts to find out more about it. This writer attempts to understand how such an unreferenced, unresearched piece of “wisdom” is repeated so often.

The best scholarly article I have found on this is James P Lalley and Robert H Miller “The Learning Pyramid: Does it point teachers in the wrong direction?” Education, Sep 2007 This article attempts to find out the origin of the Pyramid. The researchers also attempt a review of all the current research for each teaching type.

I would urge you to read it in full. But for the tl;dr crowd I have extracted two sections:

1. No reference found

‘Additional information regarding the pyramid raises questions of credibility. The National Training Laboratories, in response to an email request from a member of the Academic Computing Department at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, stated the following about the pyramid:

“It was developed and used by NTL Institute at our Bethel, Maine campus in the early sixties when we were still part of the National Education Association’s Adult Education Division. Yes, we believe it to be accurate – but no, we no longer have – nor can we find – the original research that supports the numbers. We get many inquiries every month about this – and many, many people have searched for the original research and have come up empty handed. We know that in 1954 a similar pyramid with slightly different numbers appeared on p. 43 of a book called Audio-Visual Methods in Teaching, published by the Edgar Dale Dryden Press in New York. Yet the Learning Pyramid as sucb seems to have been modified and always has been attributed to NTL Institute.” ‘

2. A continuum not a hierarchy

‘If we were to draw any conclusion based on the pyramid, it would be that the methods be thought of as on a continuum as opposed to in a hierarchy. Therefore, the less prior knowledge students have the more likely it is that effective methods would be found toward the direct instruction end of the continuum, and as students’ knowledge increased, they would be more
capable of learning with methods involving discussion and teaching. However, because learning is an ongoing process, this will not preclude that further learning will take place with more direct methods. Thus, even the most experienced learners, such as successful heart surgeons, could learn from a more experienced learner, a surgeon with a new technique, and the best
initial methods would likely be lecture/demonstration which would lead to practice by doing, and possibly teaching others. Not surprisingly, this retums us to the assertions of Dale (1946) and Dewey (1916) that for successful learning experiences, students need to experience a
variety of instructional methods and that direct instruction needs to be accompanied
by methods that further student understanding and recognize why what they are
learning is useful.’

The world is not so simple.

Well. What a surprise. The world is more complex than a simple diagram tries to make it.

The dangerous thing about “The Learning Pyramid” is that confirms what we all know about reading and listening to lectures. They are not only dull and boring, but now we learn they are useless too. Excellent. Let’s concentrate on more modern techniques that the Gradgrinds of Teaching would never use in the dusty classrooms. And off we skip.

24250063The best advice from research seems to be is to use a variety of methods. This is also echoed by research into learning and memory from the cognitive sciences.

I have been reading a modern summary of the learning sciences by Benedict Carey “How we learn.” The research highlighted in this book points out that learning is at its best when it is varied, regular and revisited. Memory is an amalgam of recall and stored information. We seem to store everything we do, along with the emotions and environment in which we study. The trick is is to improve recall and this is best done by studying the same information in different places and in different ways and this assists the recall process winnow out the facts from the noise of the environment.

It’s an excellent little read and has certainly changed my attitude to learning. And it is great to see that the Lalley and Miller study also concludes that variety works too.


Intuition or Ignorance: why teach computational thinking?

I was trying to explain to a friend why I was learning about the Central Processing Unit (CPU) and Arithmetic Logic Units (ALU) on my course training me to be a teacher of computer science.

I did not need to know about the workings of a CPU during my career. Perhaps the only time I considered a CPU was when I was buying a new computer. And even then I did not need to know much more than the relative speeds and power of the CPUs available.

So I was pleased to read this article “Computing is too easy” which makes the case for why educators need to add the study of computational thinking to the school curriculum. And it makes a lot of sense to me. I am lucky enough that I learnt to use computers when knowledge of the command line, knowledge of roughly how programs work was necessary to get the best out of computers. So teaching something about how computers actually work, and why they sometimes don’t work and what limitations they have and what power they have should contribute to the knowledge base of a well educated student.

And I understand the other point of view, put to me forcefully by my boss. All she wanted was the computer to do something. Why couldn’t it just do what she needed to do? She wanted a hammer to do a job, a car to do its job and a computer to do its job too. Was she asking too much? And my patient explanation of a particular computing quirk was just dismissed: “make it work and then come back to me.”

And of course I do prefer to use the modern shrink wrapped operating systems and shiny new laptops and smartphones. I switch them on and they enable me to do stuff. So much better than the old Win 3.11 for Workgroups and DOS 6.22. Though I do dislike Apple computers because they are too shiny and easy, and encourage people to know nothing about the Mac they are using, they just use it. For example the Daily Mirror puts out this explanation of how to turn off a default on your iPhone that most people probably never knew was there because they had just taken the thing out the box, switched it on and then gleefully tell everyone how intuitive it is to use. No, Mac’s infantilise you, more than PCs, at any rate.

In summary: there seems to be two schools of thought. Those who want to know more about their computers so they can understand them, control them, and make informed decisions and those who want to use them as a tool to achieve something.

And this argument will rumble on and on. I think it has more to do with personality than rationality.

My position is that a computer is a too complex and multi-faceted tool to operate like a hammer. But if you want to retain the defaults set for you by someone who makes decisions about things you have chosen not to be aware of, then don’t blame them when some of those decisions come back to bite you or do things you wouldn’t opt for. Do not swap intuitive interfaces for ignorance! But if you do, take responsibility for your choice of ignorance and blame yourself.

Which is why I am willing to teach computer science.

Hopefully I can make a little bit of difference. Hopefully I might contribute to some children’s overall level of education by adding some awareness of how computers actually work.