Preserving Academic Learning in the Age of Machine Learning

Photo by Piotr Cichosz

“Alexa, help.”

That phrase is quickly becoming one of the most common in households around the country. And with millions of additional digital assistants sold over the 2017 holiday season, coupled with the “center stage” emphasis at last week’s Consumer Electronics Show, it may soon no longer be a stretch to say that “everyone and their mother” has a digital assistant in earshot.

But, with all this focus on the digital personal assistant, it’s easy to forget the real intelligence behind the artificial: the engineers, designers, developers and programmers who bring the artificial to life.

True, Alexa and its counterparts are an entrée for artificial intelligence in everyday homes. And it’s only the very beginning of a trend to have personal assistants embedded in all we do.

So then, what would happen if we applied that same kind of digital assistance to global issues of the environment? What kind of impact might we have on global warming, ocean conservancy or deforestation?

Earlier last year, that’s just what happened at Microsoft when the company hired its first Chief Environment Scientist, tasked with deploying the company’s deep investments in artificial intelligence (AI) research and technology to help people around the world monitor, model and ultimately manage Earth’s natural systems.

Microsoft for Earth, as the program is called, builds on Microsoft’s commitment to use AI technology to amplify human ingenuity and advance sustainability around the globe. The company is actively working on issues related to biodiversity, water conservancy and the future of sustainable farming, with opportunities for citizen scientists to get involved.

This is the future of sustainability and I believe, the future of what’s possible with AI — beyond the comfort of our kitchens.

I think about this as I look forward to the spring, when thousands of students will graduate from ABET- accredited programs in applied and natural science, computing, engineering and engineering technology.

Many of this year’s graduates will be the future developers, designers and chief environmental scientists of companies working on issues of AI — including many that don’t yet exist. And many of those ABET graduates will be on teams that help predict the effects of climate change or who build the necessary algorithms to solve the problems of today (and the larger problems of tomorrow), on a global scale.

It’s what we do today, in academia, and in coordination with industry, that can help equip students for the unknowns of tomorrow.

At ABET, we know our role is far greater than monitoring the quality of educational programs, we know with certainty that the answer of accreditation is not in cookie-cutter approaches, traditional methods or stifled, static learning experiences. We know that the future of our world’s industry lies in thinking differently about how we deliver education now.

For more than 80 years, ABET has been assuring confidence in programs at the associate, bachelor and master degree levels. We have the largest percentage of industry-leading Program Evaluators (PEVs), embedded within teams from academia, industry and government, who help assess the effectiveness of program elements against what industry requires. With insights from our PEVs, ABET can infuse real-time demands of the global business environment into the higher education system, further bringing innovation to bear for the students of those programs.

Last month, I wrote an article on programmatic accreditation, in which I stated that “ABET-accredited programs are implementing some of the most proactive and innovative steps to completely redesign curricula.” Programs that are learning outcomes-based and informed by real-world business needs are giving students the core discipline knowledge they need, while retaining their ability to explore individual interests. These standards are particularly relevant to ensuring consistent and quality education for the global workforce of the future.

As we enter 2018, with an increased emphasis on the artificial, I am centered in what is real: quality, accredited academic programs driving innovation in colleges and universities across the globe and setting the foundation for a more sustainable future.

Not even Alexa can do that.

Executive Director & CEO of ABET, the global accreditor of college and university programs in the STEM disciplines.