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Need to know: What is the fourth industrial revolution?

Schools and teachers are set to be at the frontline of preparing pupils for the new digital age

fourth industrial revolution, mps, commons, select committee, hafon, jobs, automation, AI, robots, edtech, ed tech, technology, dfe

Schools and teachers are set to be at the frontline of preparing pupils for the new digital age

MPs on the Commons Education Select Committee will tomorrow hear from edtech experts as part of their inquiry into the fourth industrial revolution.

But what is the fourth industrial revolution, and what does it mean for teachers and schools?

Here is what you need to know.

Never mind the fourth industrial revolution, what were the first three revolutions?

The phrase "fourth industrial revolution" has been traced back to the 2011 Hanover Fair, and has since been associated with Klaus Schwab, a German engineer and economist.

In a 2015 book of the same title, he listed its three predecessors as the use of water and steam power to mechanise production, the use of electrical power to create mass production, and the use of digital electronics and further automation from the 1960s.

So, what is the fourth industrial revolution?

There is no single, agreed definition of this concept.

But when the select committee launched its inquiry last year, it said the fourth industrial revolution was “characterised by the emergence of a range of new technologies including artificial intelligence, robotics and the internet of things”.

What are the implications?

The effects of this confluence of technological advances could be profound.

Last year, Mark Haldane, chief economist at the Bank of England, said: “There are good conceptual grounds for thinking the displacement effects of the fourth industrial revolution may be larger than ever-previously”.

The positives are usually said to lie in areas such as improved productivity, the creation of new types of jobs, and better services for consumers.

The negatives tend to focus on the number of jobs that will be rendered obsolete, with Mr Haldane citing estimates of gross job losses as “anywhere between 10 per cent and 50 per cent of the global workforce”.

“Even at the lower end of this range, the societal impact would be significant,” he continued. “At the upper end, they would be truly transformative. If the truth lies in between, this could still make the jobs loss from the fourth industrial revolution greater than its predecessors.”

A World Economic Forum report last year said “routine-based, middle-skilled white-collar roles” will become increasingly redundant, giving examples such as data entry clerks, accounting and payroll clerks, secretaries, auditors, bank tellers and cashiers.

New roles that it lists include machine learning specialists, innovation professionals, e-commerce and social media specialists, and people and culture specialists.

The report says that, overall, the increasing demand for new roles would offset the decreasing demand for others.

What does this have to do with schools and teachers?

Given that schools have a key role in preparing their pupils for their future lives and careers, teachers are in the front line.

For Commons education committee chair Robert Halfon, the UK is already behind other countries when it comes to skills, and the fourth industrial revolution risks us falling further behind.

This is why the select committee decided to examine “how best to prepare young people to take advantage of future opportunities by looking at the suitability of the school curriculum”.

But this is not limited to the school day. There is also an increased emphasis on preparing people to take responsibility for learning throughout their lives and careers.

What could it mean for teachers and schools?

Teaching is often cited as the kind of job which will survive the upheaval because its people-centred skills are not easily replicated by machines.

But the fourth industrial revolution could nevertheless have implications for what teachers teach, and how they work.

Last year's World Economic Forum report concludes that “there is an urgent need to address the impact of new technologies on labour markets through upgraded education policies aimed at rapidly raising education and skills levels of individuals of all ages, particularly with regard to both STEM and non-cognitive soft skills, enabling people to leverage their uniquely human capabilities”.

Former education secretary Lord Baker wrote in 2016 about the need for radical action in schools to prepare children for the impact of the digital revolution.

And Mary Bousted, joint-general secretary of the NEU teaching union, is one of many who has called for the curriculum to be changed to take account of the changes we are going through.

She emphasised a core list of skills she that pupils need to develop.

For the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), “teaching is a profoundly human activity and will remain so. We see the role of AI as enhancing and expanding the role of teachers, not replacing them”.

In its written evidence to the select committee the union says machines can do some of the “heavy lifting” in areas like routine assessment, managing data and “organising a curriculum pathway which meets the needs of individual students”.

ASCL says this could “liberate teachers” to help pupils develop skills in areas such as working in teams, resilience, creativity and problem solving that employers want but which are hard for machine-based learning to deliver.

In its written evidence to the select committee, the DfE says it is “essential” that we are “providing an increasingly technologically-enabled teaching environment”, but warns that schools often do not understand the opportunities of technology for teaching.

It lists a number of ways that educational settings are already using technology to improve teaching, such as digital audio feedback and automated marking, and says that “adopting virtual and augmented reality technologies could create immersive teaching environments”.

However, many teachers will be reassured to hear the department say that edtech “should supplement, rather than replace, good teaching”.

What are the risks for schools and teachers?

A key concern of select committee chair Robert Halfon is the impact of the fourth industrial revolution on disadvantaged pupils.

Launching the current inquiry, he said: “We know that those from disadvantaged backgrounds with low basic skills are most at risk from automation so we must ensure that the fourth industrial revolution works for all by improving social justice and giving everyone the chance to climb the ladder of opportunity.”

In its submission to the select committee, ASCL says machine learning can make accurate assessments and personalise pupils’ “learning journeys”, but warns that if we are not clear how such decisions are made, young people could be at risk of “algorithmic bias”.

It adds that “such bias can lead to misdiagnosis and in extreme situations, if the outcomes are used as determinates for young people, limit or restrict their access to opportunity and progression”.

It also highlights concerns about young people’s privacy and data security, and the risk of teachers being deskilled by an over-reliance on technology.

It calls for a coherent plan for the transition to the use of AI – starting with teacher training.



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