Susskind, R. and Susskind, D. (2015) The Future of the Professions: How Technology will Transform the Work of Human Experts Oxford UK: Oxford University Press US$29, 346 pp
The core argument of the book
This book is about the professions and the systems and people that will replace them. Our focus is on doctors, lawyers, teachers…..Our main claim is that….in the long run we will neither need nor want professionals to work in the way that they did in the twentieth century and before….. We predict that increasingly capable machines, operating on their own or with non-specialist users, will take on many of the tasks that have been the historic preserve of the professions. pp.1-2
Perhaps more important in this case than the argument (which we have heard before) are the people who are making it. The Susskinds are father and son. Richard, the father, is an IT specialist working in legal services and is the IT adviser to Britain’s Lord Chief Justice. Daniel, an economics professor at Oxford University, was a Senior Policy Adviser in the British government’s Cabinet Office. These are what the Brits call ‘powerful Establishment figures’ with tremendous influence.
So how well do they make their case?
The Grand Bargain
The Susskinds argue that professions have earned a privileged position in society, ‘a mandate for control in their fields of specialization’. In essence the professions are a type of social contract: they are the gatekeepers to specialised knowledge and expertise, they are allowed to self-regulate their activities, and we place our trust in them to advise and help us.
The Susskinds argue that this social contract has many drawbacks – in particular the professions are notoriously conservative and reluctant to change – but until recently there was no better system. Now, though, technology allows us to consider alternatives, and it is these alternatives that the book explores.
The book examines how technology is changing a number of professions: health, divinity, law, journalism, management consulting, tax and accounting, and architecture. However, for readers of this blog, the most relevant is education. Here are the examples the Susskinds provide of how technology is changing education:
- adaptive/personalized learning; intelligent tutoring systems (e.g. Knewton, Dreambox)
- social networks tailored to education (e.g. Edmondo, Edutopia)
- learning management systems (e.g. Moodle)
- Khan Academy
- TED talks; YouTube EDU
- MOOCs, including automated testing and peer grading
- learning analytics
- open access (e.g. Wikipedia, online journals)
The Susskinds write:
In all of these illustrations the historical monopoly of traditional teachers, tutors and lecturers is challenged. There is less need for the ‘sage on the stage’ and more of a job for ‘the guide on the side’…There are new roles and new disciplines, like education software designers…content curators… and data scientists.
Pattern recognition across the professions
It is argued that the end of the professional era is characterized by four trends:
- the move from bespoke service (i.e. moving from tailored for an individual to a standardized service)
- bypassing traditional gatekeepers (e.g. educational software designers rather than teachers)
- a shift from a reactive to pro-active approach (e.g. from waiting for a client to anticipating needs)
- more-for-less (more professional service at less cost).
These trends are driven by technology which stores, represents, shares and re-uses expertise in digital form, driven by automation and innovation. Importantly these changes provide more access to expertise, and hence more power and autonomy, for clients rather than service providers.
Another important trend will be the need for different/new competencies and skills from professionals, such as new ways of communicating (e.g. social media), mastery of ‘big data’, and more advanced technology competence, including the acceptance that many ‘professional’ tasks will be better performed by machines than even experts. Several other ‘patterns’ across the professions are also discussed such as new labour models and more self-help by clients.
Theory and prediction
The authors then move from describing and explaining what is currently happening, to advancing a theoretical and predictive perspective on future developments in information technology and their impact on the professions. They argue that the move from a print-based to an IT/Internet-based society changes the nature of how information is not only stored and structured but also processed and analyzed, and this will have profound consequences for how expertise and specialist knowledge are accessed. In fact they argue that this second stage – knowledge management and dissemination – is still in the process of development and has not yet been fully exploited, but is known and therefore we can confidently extrapolate from this at least four main developments in IT over the next five to ten years:
- exponential growth in IT (Moore’s Law): for instance, an average desktop computer will have more processing power than a single human brain by 2020;
- increasingly capable machines: many tasks that currently require human beings will be performed better by machines – including professional services, through a combination of:
- big data
- AI (e.g. IBM’s Watson; speech recognition; brute force computing)
- robotics (e.g. driverless cars)
- affective computing: systems that can detect and express emotions
- increasingly pervasive devices
- increasingly connected humans
In particular, the authors emphasise the increasing ability of machines to replace even sophisticated human abilities in professional fields.
Production and distribution of knowledge
The authors here discuss a particular kind of knowledge, the practical expertise that underpins a professional’s activities. In particular they examine how in the future such expertise will be identified, broken down into tasks, re-organized and distributed. They develop a model showing how professional knowledge is evolving (see Figure 5.1) below.
This model rings true for online learning, where for-credit online courses correspond with ‘charge online’, MOOCs correspond with no-charge online, and open educational resources correspond with ‘commons’.
The authors then list seven models for the future production and distribution of expertise:
- The traditional model
- The networked experts model
- The para-professional model
- the knowledge engineering model
- The communities of experience model
- The embedded knowledge model
- The machine-generated model.
The book ends with two chapters that discuss objections and anxieties about the radical changes the authors are proposing for the professions. I’ll not detail these, because many of the objections will be familiar to proponents of online learning. They have heard similar arguments from faculty resistant to change Nevertheless these chapters are important, because they raise broader questions about what kind of society we want in the future. In many ways these two chapters are the most interesting of all.
My personal response to the book
First, I would strongly recommend anyone concerned about the future of education, and in particular online learning, to read this book. It is a thoughtful, well written and well argued book. It has strong examples and empirical evidence to support its arguments, which are presented in a clear and logical way. It provides a very good idea of how policy-makers are likely to respond to future developments in online learning and more importantly to rethinking the future of education.
I found myself agreeing with many of the book’s main arguments and conclusions. Although the authors’ focus is more on law, medicine and management, many of the phenomena they report have clear equivalents in education and particularly in online learning. There is need for fundamental change in the way we offer education at the moment. There are ways in which technology can and should improve the learning experience. Too much of contemporary thinking in education reflects a fast disappearing industrial and print-based society. We are not doing a particularly good job of developing the knowledge and skills needed in a digital society. And above all, the role of faculty and instructors in higher education needs to change if we are to address these issues.
Despite these positives for the book, though, I have some deep concerns. First and probably above all is the argument that we cannot afford the current systems (law, education, health, etc.) and therefore they need radical reinvention. The book is pervaded by a strongly market-oriented view of the world, that it is narrowly defined outcomes – and preferably cheaper outcomes – more than the way we achieve these outcomes, that matter.
This a basic philosophical difference I have with the authors. Although many of their criticisms and solutions apply to education, others do not. Education is a public good,, unlike law, business management, or health in the USA, and while education should be as efficient and effective as possible, it should not be judged solely by a ratio of costs to limited learning outcomes (more on this in a moment). There are important social as well as economic functions that public education performs. I worry when I hear arguments that trust is less important than reliability, that if machines can more effectively replace humans, then they should.
I was particularly unconvinced by some of the arguments in the last part of the book, where everything proposed is justified by arguing that current services are too expensive, too restricted, and serve the needs of the suppliers more than the clients, etc. Reading it was like listening to a butcher trying to convince turkeys of the benefits of Christmas.
Yes, we need to change, to do things better, to use technology more intelligently, to build new processes, to increase access to high quality services, but this needs to be done within a broader view of the effects these changes will have on society as a whole, and in particular the professional areas being changed. This is an endeavour with a high risk of unintended consequences. In particular we need to be careful that we do not end up with a society where very few – those with control over the technologies that are being used to replace human labour – benefit at the expense of everyone else. I felt that the book did not deal satisfactorily with this issue; it was raised and peremptorily dismissed, although to be fair the issue deserves a book of its own.
The second objection I had was the over-optimism about what technology is capable of, particularly in the field of education, but also, I suspect, in many of the other professions. Like many others, the authors are seduced by the potential of big data and artificial intelligence (AI). I am not denying that big data, and, to a lesser extent, AI, will have many benefits, and will lead to some profound changes in the way professions are organised and delivered. But they are unlikely to address the big issues in education, and that is the development of the core knowledge and skills that learners will need in a digital age, and in particular the development of critical thinking skills, evaluation, creativity and innovation. This is such a major topic for discussion that I will be devoting several posts to this issue in the next week or so. However, I suspect that there are similar key issues in terms of the knowledge and skills needed in other professions that will not yield so easily to big data and AI solutions, or whose application, more importantly, may lead to major failures within a profession, as with derivatives in finance in 2008, if professionals lose control over the algorithms and decision-making.
Despite these criticisms, the real value of this book is that it should prompt such discussion. I agree with the overall thrust of the book, that change is needed, that technology will force some radical changes on the professions, and that this is already happening, particularly in online learning. But we need to be careful what we wish for, and in particular we need to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. This book is an excellent catalyst for such discussions.