Education and Society - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:17 am on 8th December 2017.

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Photo of Lord Giddens Lord Giddens Labour 11:17 am, 8th December 2017

My Lords, I have spent much of my life in public speaking, in a university context. If you were lucky or you did a good job, students would look up at you. Recently, that has all changed. Now, you look at a lecture audience and half of them are looking down at their devices. I noticed that the most reverend Primate was, if I can put it this way, fiddling with his iPhone quite a bit in the last few minutes.

That sounds like a trivial observation, but this is fundamental. We are on the edge of the some of the biggest changes that have ever transformed human society, which are happening much more quickly and much more globally than ever before. [Interruption.] I hear that I have some help from the outside world, it must be said. Those changes are driven by the digital revolution. I was pleased that the most reverend Primate placed so much emphasis on that. If we cannot compete in this area, all levels of education will be dead in the water, internationally. [Interruption.] There is some continuing disturbance outside.

With being too didactic about it, it is important to understand what the digital revolution is. It is not the internet, nor robotics, nor supercomputing power—it is all of those things, bound up together in a huge rush of change going through our lives.

That is already transforming universities. One of the most notable examples is the emergence of so-called MOOCs—mass online open courses. They are amazing. There is one at Harvard-MIT and one, Coursera, at Stanford. They reach millions of people across the world, who can take part in seminars. You can take part in an online seminar with students from Africa while sitting in London, for example. Those courses are free. There is a huge tension between the emergence of free mass courses such as those and the huge fees charged in full-time higher education. That tension will be very difficult to resolve. My noble friend Lord Adonis was quite right to draw attention to it. To me, the issue is not vice-chancellors’ salaries, which is marginal, but the wholesale marketisation of higher education, with a time bomb of student debt and no thought to the future or to the transformation of labour markets, which, if I get time in my six minutes, I will briefly mention.

What is happening in universities is also happening in schools. Schools are going to change just as dramatically as businesses have changed over the past 15 to 20 years. I will quickly mention some changes that are already happening. First, traditional-style teaching, with the teacher standing in front of the class disciplining children sitting at desks, still exists and will go on, but alongside it and even more important these days is children huddled around computers in groups. It is no longer a simple didactic model with a teacher. The teacher is no longer a repository of all knowledge because all of human knowledge is in the device you have in your pocket or hidden away under the desk. Already the structure of schools is changing.

Secondly, we have radically different models emerging around the world—even though they are in the early days, they are in some sense the future—of collaborative education. For example, in the US you have the home-schooling movement. There are 2 million children in the US schooled at home. It is not legal here, but it is there. It is growing apace. It is mostly done digitally and in collaboration with schools. The idea that school is a fixed place will tend to break down, just as has happened with the workplace. It is already happening in education across the world, even if we are just in the early phases.

Thirdly, as other noble Lords have mentioned, the digital revolution has a very dark side. It has to be a fundamental part of primary and secondary education to allow children to deal with this dark side. I do not know whether noble Lords know this, but it came up in our AI select committee—at least I mentioned it and someone went to look it up on the internet. You can buy an infant’s potty with a bracket on it where you can put an iPad for a newly born infant. [Laughter.] That is supposed to get a laugh, but it is really frightening. A neuroscientist described the effect of iPhones and iPads as crack cocaine for children. They are so addictive and compulsive. All human knowledge, bad and good, is there. This is a huge challenge for education. It must start early on with parents, but it must be embedded in primary school education too.

Finally, we have to look again at the usual things said about lifelong learning, which are a bit crass and simple. Digital skills are not really relevant; they are relevant to people working in the digital industries, but mostly this will be a process of deskilling, as happened in other areas. Unlearning is just as important as learning. We therefore need a completely different model of what the unfolding of a child’s or an adult’s life will be in this imminent future—in fact, it is already here.