Curriculum needs to change to help students navigate the rise of ‘smart’ technologies

UNSW Sydney academic calls for changes to the education system so future workforce can challenge artificial intelligence technology

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So-called ‘smart’ systems could cause great harm to individuals and the wider community if today’s students aren’t taught how to critically engage with them, a UNSW academic said.

Director of the Allens Hub for Technology, Law and Innovation and UNSW Faculty of Law Professor Lyria Bennett Moses has proposed updating the Australian curricula on statistics and modelling after being commissioned by the NSW Department of Education’s Education for a Changing World initiative to explore the implications of developments in AI and automation for education.

Professor Bennett Moses says current school students are growing up in a world where such technologies are increasingly being applied in ways that affect what information they see, what choices are available to them and what decisions are made about them.

“Social media and commercial platforms such as Google are classifying and individualising content to a point which could have a direct impact on an individual’s life. Whether it’s creating filter bubbles which polarise political debate or presenting fixed prices based on a person’s past shopping habits, students need to be able to understand how this data is being used,” Professor Bennett Moses said.

Her paper, Helping future citizens navigate an automated, datafied world, proposes an update of the current curricula on statistics and modelling to include more recent examples of data processing, such as search engines and social media.

“While not every high school student needs to be able to code a machine learning algorithm, young people need to understand what’s going on behind these systems so they can properly assess their use as future citizens, consumers or in a professional capacity,” Professor Bennett Moses continued.

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Associate Professor Lyria Bennett Moses says so-called ‘smart’ systems could cause great harm to individuals and the wider community if today’s students aren’t taught how to critically engage with them. Photo: Quentin Jones

Alongside broader computational thinking skills, students who can apply ethical reasoning and diverse knowledge and skills to applications of machine learning and statistics will be in a better position to challenge potentially harmful forces of automation, the paper suggests.

Professor Bennett Moses said: “Determining what statistic fairly represents racial groups in policing or sentencing tools for example requires an understanding of the broader social and historical context. Today’s young people need to be able to assess the applicability of such tools so they are used in a way which is fair, appropriate, safe and effective.”

The paper argues it’s crucial for schools to offer learning opportunities – whether embedded in a regularly scheduled class or at a special day of activities – where students can engage in problem-based and interdisciplinary thinking about important contemporary issues which cut across the curriculum. 

One example would be examining ethical considerations for data-driven inferencing and decision-making using an example like sentencing, policing or even national assessments of student capability, the paper says.

According to the NSW Department of Education Secretary, Mark Scott AO, education has a responsibility to ensure students are equipped to make the complex decisions needed to thrive in an AI augmented world.

This is more than a case of preparing students for future employment; education must prepare young people to be future citizens given the demands of a rapidly changing world. 

“[I]t will be critical that we foster digital literacy and that our students are skilled in designing creative solutions to take full advantage of emerging technologies,” Mr Scott said. “Equally, young people need to be able to engage with the profound ethical questions that these technologies raise for us all.”

Professor Moses is leading the UNSW Grand Challenge on Living with 21st Century Technology.