Technology in higher education - a "future" scenario

The discourse on technology of late is dominated by the so-called "4th Industrial Revolution" (4IR) made famous by the 2016 World Economic Forum in Davos. In Malaysia, there have been flurries of activities across many sectors especially among academics and professionals. In fact, universities are instructed to come out with a corresponding "curriculum 4.0" to cope with the new technological development encompassing artificial intelligence, automation and the Internet of Things among others. 


Unlike the announcement on Sustainable Development Goals that was officiated in New York around the same time in 2016, the 4IR seems to capture the interest of the policy makers overwhelmingly. Most seem intrigued in the way it was promoted as the next "big" thing without which one would be left behind, if not made redundant. It looks like the last point is most persuasive which can be very daunting in the context of (un)employment in particular.


This phenomenon however is not exactly new because every "industrial revolution" posed the same dilemma since the first one in the late 18th century. Yet the world continues to "function", and some would even claim that it is now better than what it used to be, thanks to the "disruptions".


The frenzy is somewhat reminiscent of the turn given the millennium scare attributed to the Y2K bug. It was perceived as another technology "threat" forewarned to create global upheavals if not properly handled. Arguably it was part of the 3rd Industrial Revolution scare although no one touted it that way.


Fortunately, when the new millennium came, it was business-as-usual, an anti-climax of sorts. Likewise, today we are staring at the 4IR not knowing what to expect yet again, with many opting to embrace it as a way out. In so doing, one recognises the many uncertainties that lay ahead leading to a number of dilemmas in HE.  As suggested by the late Stephen Hawking to BBC: "The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race."


That said, many developing countries like Malaysia have no option but to play "catch up" framed on pre-set standards (curriculum 4.0?) so as not to be left behind. By failing to do so, they risk being cast aside as "redundant" and then what becomes of the ambition to be a "developed" nation? And being technologically advanced is often billed as an important criteria. 


Malaysia has the Vision 2020 framework (1990-2020) that has to be translated into reality in the next two years. In devising the Vision three decades ago, the 4IR was hardly in the air, although it can be fitted into the existing framework especially relating to science and technology. However, to do so at this late stage can be "messy"   based on how the question is being fashioned. For example, a recent major Megatrends Forum that was held to sort this out framed it as "Cerebrum X Algorithm" where "X" is merely an acknowledgement of the way two factors interact depending on "how we treat technology".


Paraphrasing this at a more macro level for HE can mean "Human X Machine," and thus one is tempted to interpret it as interactions between two types of "intelligences" - the "natural" (primordial) and "synthetic" (artificial), in the broadest sense, respectively. It follows therefore that instead of depending on how we treat technology; the bias is to ask how we treat "humans"?


After all natural/primordial intelligence competencies are defined as inherent parts of being human, beyond just the cerebrum. It is known to deliver insights and foresights (like the 4IR) and inclusive of those that are "spiritually inspired". It therefore is capable of journeying into self-discovery leading to transcendental self-awakening where conventional (secular) thinking can never reach, let alone understand. 


In other words, we need to be cautious to avoid the tendency to over concentrate on the "artificial" and totally ignoring the "imperatives" of being human as part of holistic education, particularly of human metaphysical experiences (some would call it spirituality or conscience) that technology has long made redundant. 


In short, there must be ample room and space in HE for the naturally endowed intelligence to duly recognise the aspects of being human that machines are not privy to. This is just one of several possible challenges that must be anticipated when dealing with next technological megatrends in HE.  


We must, ultimately, be "human" enough to courageously assert our humanity over a piece of technology that tends to dehumanise the human species as increasingly predicted by many "experts" in the field.  It has to go pass the anatomical cerebrum, and its product – the algorithm. Machines, for all their algorithm and synthetic (super) intelligence can be a mismatch to the primal instinct upon which "human development" should be predicated and (re)oriented. This is to enable us (humans) to create our own "disruptions" for a more humane sustainable future that is now sorely obscure globally.


Otherwise we are back to the dehumanising set pattern of one-size-fits-all overlapping into the domain of machines known for their "efficiency" in the advent of "transhumans" - leading into an era which is even more daunting as the future scenario in HE.


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IAU blog on the role of technology in higher education 

International Association of Universities, UNESCO House, 1 rue Miollis, 75732 Paris cedex 15, France

The International Association of Universities (IAU), created under the auspices of UNESCO in 1950, is a membership-based organisation serving the global higher education community through: expertise & trends analysis, publications & portals, advisory services, peer-to-peer learning, events, global advocacy.

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