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Thursday, March 23, 2023
Opinion: Doublethink education and democracy


Disruption doesn’t necessarily mean progress, and reform doesn’t always equal improvement. What these terms do mean is change, and the next big disruption on the horizon will be in education.

Much of the political and corporate messaging regarding automation and AI is that it will transform society but, as in the past, new jobs will emerge. No reason to worry.

And that will be true for some.

Meanwhile the political landscape is shifting right.

We are moving away from a philosophy that supports improving the quality of life for all its citizens to being ‘open for business’ and investing in strategies that improve our global competitiveness. But who is really benefiting from this global race for wealth and power?

The data clearly show the income gap is dramatically widening, the middle class is shrinking, and it’s more difficult for people at the bottom to move up.

Education is now under attack. Higher education as a good investment for individuals, taxpayers, or corporations is being questioned. Communication, and critical thinking skills are valued less than specific technical skills and aptitudes that align with automated or AI platforms and systems.

It has been estimated that in Ontario 450,000 unskilled workers won’t find jobs and do not have the skills necessary to fill the one million jobs that exist.

Politicians tell us we need to fill the gap and traditional education – at all levels – is failing us. These facts may be true but do not tell the whole story, blurring the larger problem that is facing us.

Digital literacy is seen as a basic requirement for the new economy. But Stats Can revealed that 47.7 per cent of Canadians score either at level one or two on the five-level prose literacy scale. According to Literacy Link Niagara, almost half of us can’t work well with words and numbers, and ten percent of Canadians have learning disabilities.

This means many adults and young people have difficulty doing basic tasks such as filling out job applications. Bottom line – they don’t have the literacy and essential skills to effectively participate in the current economy, not to mention the emerging ‘gig’ economy. This is not merely a failure of the education system. It’s a reflection of many socio-economic realities that we have not properly addressed.

What has also become apparent is that the new generation of digital natives will not symbiotically integrate themselves into this new economy. Most use their electronic devices in traditional ways – word processing, email, social media, and web browsing. A minority create multi-media content or are able to determine fact from opinion or context. When we couple this with the fact that 30 percent of students didn’t pass the 2017-18 Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test, we need to think about what the future holds for these people, and for the rest of us.

AI experts have stated that this mismatch of skills that is being touted as an opportunity gap to be filled will be temporary. It’s merely a short-term anomaly that will disappear once the economy is transformed to its next stage of evolution when many of these transitional jobs will disappear. Our youth are being told they must be more mobile, flexible, and continually learn new skills to compete. This doublespeak means less job security, fewer full-time jobs, less benefits, and social upheaval.

Those who aren’t motivated or don’t have the resources or capability to learn new skills at an ever-quickening pace of change will be left behind. It’s no wonder anxiety and depression among young people is pandemic.

An effort to disinvest in public education and promote online self-education, home-based schooling and more specialized training offered by private companies is growing. It will definitely benefit some, but for most, it will be disastrous.

Cutbacks rarely translate into efficiencies that improve academic or essential skills. A disruption in education can only be justified if it improves the quality of life for the majority of citizens. And an economic system that diminishes the value of human contribution should be seen as an enemy of the people.

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