When I was in school, computer science was an elective course that focused mainly on teaching kids the basics of how to code. It was definitely a less popular option than taking music or phys ed. and when I entered the technology industry full time in the early 2000s, I kicked myself for not loading up on tech courses (as many of you likely did).
The good news is that basic coding is now a required part of curriculums around the world. The bad news is that it’s all far too little, far too late.
The good news is that times have changed: basic coding is now a required part of the curriculum in school districts around the world, and after-school programs that teach Python, game design, and robotics are completely common. The bad news is that it’s all far too little, far too late—and a focus on coding is woefully behind the times. We are now at the precipice of a long-predicted era in technology, in which artificial intelligence and machine learning will disrupt everything we know and understand about the relationship between humans and computers. For education leaders, this moment—the tipping point of AI innovation and adoption across all job sectors—requires a radical rethink, focused on developing authentic machine learning literacy for students of all ages. And as tech entrepreneurs, you have a vital role to play in kick-starting this revolution.
At its core, literacy around the use of all forms of AI, particularly generative AI, comes down to understanding prompt engineering. Technocrats will see this as obvious, but in mainstream education, this is still a nascent concept—and it’s causing school and system leaders’ heads to spin. But I get it: as the pace of change increases exponentially, it’s logical for them to wonder whether investing time and resources into a major shift in tech skill development is really worth it. When I hear this from education leaders (and I hear it all the time), this is what I tell them (and I encourage you to do the same): understanding how, when, and why to prompt an AI engine is not just a tech skill—it’s a life skill, one at which today’s students must become adept.
Unfortunately, the current dominant narrative about AI in many schools is that it threatens academic integrity. But if the goal of education is to prepare students for the world they are set to inherit, this change must happen now; according to the recently released 2023 edition of the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report, more than 85 percent of organizations cite increased adoption of new and frontier technologies and broadening digital access as the trends most likely to drive transformation.
Major media outlets, meanwhile, are falling over themselves to declare prompt engineering as the next big job opportunity—in April, for example, Time reporter Nik Popli described it as a career that “pays six-figure salaries and doesn’t require a degree in computer engineering, or even advanced coding skills.” All this buzz has also given rise to scores of fly-by-night companies advertising “bootcamps” in AI prompt engineering, designed to appeal to those already in the market for a (new) job. Education, though, often moves at a different pace, which explains to some degree the defensive reaction of many educators who worry about the risks of opening the doors to AI in their classrooms. In my organization’s work in schools and districts, we have already seen exciting new pilot programs and initiatives take root, and though much of the focus tends to be on using machine learning to automate thankless tasks (of which there are many in the world of education), I’ve witnessed some exciting direct-to-student initiatives as well.
So here’s my call to arms: as job creators, innovators, and—in many cases—parents, tech entrepreneurs have a vital role to play in leading schools through this change. Here are three important messages you can take directly to education leaders.
- AI prompting and machine learning literacy is the new coding. Now is the time to ensure that young people have authentic opportunities to build their understanding of how to use AI effectively—not just in tech courses, but across the entire curriculum.
- Prompt engineering is an exercise in critical and analytical thinking. This is important for two reasons. First, presenting AI as a tool to develop well-known skills provides a “softer landing” for a slow-to-change sector like education. Second, these are the skills job providers are calling out for the most; guess which two skills were rated to be of greatest importance in the 2023 Future of Jobs Report? Learning how to use AI effectively is a golden opportunity for students to solve real problems and build critical thinking skills.
- This is just the tip of the iceberg. As transformative and disruptive as ChatGPT has been in the past six months, we know there is so much more to come. Shifting to a growth mindset now around emerging technologies lays the groundwork for other major advancements to come—including infinitely more complex machine learning, not to mention widespread automation, quantum computing, and beyond.
I started Future Design School to address pressing needs in education—and shifting to focus on developing AI skills is absolutely critical at this moment. Innovative people (like BetaKit readers) are lighting the way, and education must innovate accordingly. You are already wagging the dog, so I encourage you to wag even harder! The demand you’re generating for these skills is indeed being heard, and the louder it gets, the more we will all accomplish and the better Canada will be situated in this quickly changing economy.
Learn more about Future Design School’s innovative work around AI in education. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to book a meeting with a member of our senior leadership team or message Sarah directly on Twitter: @sarahprevette.