eLearning in the Age of Automation

In 2011, I took a human-computer interaction course at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. One day, the class collectively decided to discuss automatizing the workforce. I greatly enjoyed musing over the restructuring of society and what it means to be a member of a “work force” who no longer has to work. How could capitalism survive in such an environment?

This conversation agitated one of my classmates so greatly that he loudly refused to participate, effectively kiboshing the class discussion. I was annoyed with him at the time; I found his attitude to be anti-intellectual. But now it’s 2017, and I understand his discomfort. He wasn’t being anti-intellectual: he saw the writing on the wall and did what he could to preserve some sense of security in his world.

I’m going to be blunt: a lot of people are going to be automated out of their jobs in the future. By “a lot”, I mean millions of people. This figure does not refer solely to professions such as factory work or truck driving; office workers and sales people are just as likely to see their jobs automated. Lawyers have already been automating parts of their jobs, putting paralegals at risk.

American workers experience strong cognitive dissonance on this topic. Although most Americans believe that other jobs will be automated, Americans believe theirs won’t be. Considering all the recent advancements in machine learning, natural language processing, image processing, and robotics, these workers are likely to be in for a rude awakening.

This information is unnerving. It’s scary to imagine that many people out of work.

Resist the temptation to despair. Automation may decimate many jobs, but it won’t decimate all jobs. Robots aren’t particularly good at caring for people. They can’t provide emotional support when we’re at our most sick and vulnerable. An algorithm might be able to determine if that mass on a scan is a tumor, but it can’t comfort you after a painful diagnosis. This is an area in which humans have a distinct advantage.

Jobs in healthcare are expected to grow for the foreseeable future. Unless there is a fundamental economic and societal shift that occurs as a result of automation, millions of people are going to need training to find a new line of work. That’s where eLearning comes in. As instructional designers, it’ll be up to us to design effective curricula that will help our learners gain the skills they need to succeed in their new jobs. Because the educational emphasis will be on skills such as creativity, critical thinking, emotional intelligence, adaptability and collaboration, instructional designers are going to have to abandon content-centric SCORM methods of instruction and instead design tools that afford development of social skills.

Don’t avoid the conversation about automation. Let’s deal with it the best way we know how: by designing the best eLearning experience possible for learners.


To learn about other big changes coming to the eLearning space, download our white paper on VR and AR in eLearning.

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