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Are Jobs and Careers in the service sector vulnerable to automation and robotization? If so, how do we address that with adult learners?


An automated wok dumps finished food into bowl at Spyce in Boston. (Boston Globe, January 8, 2019)

Hello colleagues,

Do you have students who work in restaurants and who believe, "I can always get a job in a restaurant"?  Perhaps that's correct for some jobs, those that cannot be replaced by automation and robotization. However, like manufacturing, transportation, and many other industries that are facing rapidly increasing automation and robotization, the restaurant sector will be automated too -- in some cases, like the restaurant in Boston in the photo, and fast food restaurant chains, food preparation in restaurants is already being automated. Are you fascinated, surprised, concerned, worried?

How do you -- how does any teacher or occupational counselor --  advise students in an era in which so many jobs will soon be eliminated by robots? Some careers appear safe, at least for now, but what can be automated and robotized at a cost savings for companies, will be. Are automation and robotization a persuasive argument for your students learning how to learn? For learning critical thinking and problem solving skills? For figuring out what won't easily be robotized? For getting comfortable with digital technology?  Is it an argument for a particular career pathway protected from robot invasion, or an argument against career pathways altogether, and for the kinds of strong basic skills that enable one to shift and quickly learn entirely new work?

As a field, how should we address the issues of automation and robotization so that our students are prepared, and can have lives with family-sustaining jobs? What are your thoughts?

David J. Rosen, Moderator,

LINCS CoP Integrating Technology and Program Management groups





Julie Neff-Encinas's picture

One of the Willy Wonka movies includes information that Charlie's dad lost his job at the toothpaste factory screwing on the tops of the tubes to a robot.  In the end, he becomes the one who maintains and repairs the robot.  In Tucson, AZ, our local community college (Pima Community College) has a robust combination of adult basic ed, career & technical ed and traditional degree programs.  Their IBEST programs are rich and varied.  One that begins this month is focused on Industrial Technology / Mechatronics, maintaining and repairing machinery and robots in commercial and industrial locations.  Our adult ed program is too small and focused to offer such lofty programming, so we send the right students to join those programs and in fact have two signed up for this one.  We view this as collaboration within our workforce system and are so happy to have such opportunities.  Of course, not everyone has the aptitude nor interest in mechatronics to join these programs as alternatives.  Thus we focus on widening students' views of the world and the expansive variety of careers that can redirect the same skills in new directions.  Use of the ONet and similar sites to assess and provide occupation and career options based on student input are critically important to our ability to help our students to not give up and find the right spot for them in the present and future job market.

David J. Rosen's picture
One hundred

Thanks Julie,

These all seem like good strategies.

Thanks for introducing me to "mechatronics".

I would very much also like to hear from others.

David J. Rosen


Michael Cruse's picture
One hundred

I read this blog post from Digital Promise recently.  In it, the writer notes that, conquering digital skills training by promoting resilience is the best path forward.  They also note that, "most of the tools needed to develop learner resilience are free", and provide three key pieces of advice:

1. Meet Learners Where They Operate

2. Use Technology Learners Already Know

3. Use the Language of Skills

I encourge you to read the blog to gain a better idea what is meant by each of these three.  The final paragraph gets to the larger question about the impact of robots and mechanization's impact on adult learners.  I've copied it here in its entirety.  The bold is added by myself for emphasis.

While robots make for great headlines and movie plotlines, the digital skills needed to put adult learners into positions of increased self-reliance and career mobility aren’t as far-reaching as our tech-obsessed future-thinking world might suggest. As adult educators, we need to avoid the lure of looking at technology as being different than any other skill or subject area. Digital skills are not “separate” from the skills we already teach. In fact, if there’s any one universal truth related to technology’s impact on society, education, and the world of work, it is this: “Digital literacy is literacy.”

It is a fool’s errand to attempt to predict ahead to what skills might be needed when we can’t know with any assurance what new tools and resultant processes will even exist in the future. Rather than trying to hit a moving target, we should instead focus on developing a positive growth mindset in the face of learning and applying new technologies. By focusing on learner resilience using the tools already available to them, adult educators have the ability, right now, to unlock this mindset.

What are others' thoughts when it comes to addressing learner resilience in the face of ever changing technologies in the workplace?

Mike Cruse

Career Pathways Moderator 

David J. Rosen's picture
One hundred

Thanks, Mike, for calling our attention to the great blog article by Jeff Goumas in the December issue of Digital Promise: I had not seen it. The point Jeff makes about teaching learner resilience is very important. Jeff, if you are reading this, perhaps you could add a bit more about how to teach this "noncognitive" or "learned" character trait. For example, do you, or do others here, think this article includes some promising strategies?

David J. Rosen

Jeff Goumas's picture

David and Michael, 

Happy to add to this conversation.....and so much to say!! David, I love the article you shared, and I think their are a lot of connections between the points made and what "resilience" looks and feels like for someone in relation to instruction. Disclaimer: I'm not, in this post, diving into the social and emotional factors that play a huge role in this discussion as well.  

I do an integrating technology training with my colleague, Jennifer Maddrell, where the first thing we do is ask some question to participants that is either location- or date- specific, but for which nobody would realistically know the answer and/or for which there are multiple answers. (Ex. "What famous person was born this day?"). We do not prompt anyone to do so, but the phones come out. Within less than 30 seconds, multiple hands are up and ready to answer. We then ask a series of questions (these are mentioned in the blog): 

  • How did you find your answer?
  • What type of application is Google? (Typically this is what they say they used to find their answer.)
  • What web browser did you use to find the answer? (If someone used Safari, we ask "What do you know about that person's phone?")
  • What search terms or key words did you use?
  • On what website did you find your answer?
  • How do you know that is a valid source?

After walking through each of these questions and hearing different people's varied approaches, we ask one final question: "When we asked you our initial question, how many of you sat there and thought, 'There is no possible way I can answer that'?" Nobody raises their hand.

That's the start of the conversation about resilience. The reason nobody gave up was because they all knew they have a tool with which they can find ANY information they need. They have developed the strategic competence to realize they can almost always find the it in a training session, when trying to figure out how to deal with a leaky faucet, or when trying to settle an argument over "who's right?" amongst friends at a party. Different scenarios. Same tool. Typically the same strategy for finding the information you need. 

So, how do we build this resilience in our students? I think posing problems like the one we do at the start of our session is just one way. Here's a sequence that makes sense, and (as I note in the article), follows a similar sequence to best practices in mathematics (with an emphasis on productive struggle and making conceptual connections, two core commonalities amongst the highest performing countries in mathematics):

  1. Pose a simple questions or scenario (such as the one above) that the student has never seen and can't immediately answer. 
  2. Allow students to productively struggle to determine the answer. We are conditioned to jump right in and help students when they are struggling. This article provides a great overview of why we shouldn't do that!) 
  3. Have various students explain their approaches for finding an answer. Within that, explicitly using vocabulary is critical. The follow-up questions we ask in our training session are designed to reinforce the vocabulary one needs to put words to their actions. ("I need to open up my browser application." "I need to enter a relevant search term." "I need to determine if this is a valid source.")
  4. Encourage students to share alternate approaches. This is critical. This helps reinforce to students that there is more than one way to get to an answer! When we don't do this—when we take one answer and then move on—the message to learners who didn't use that approach a) there is only one way to get the answer, and/or b) "My approach was wrong." 

Beyond posing constructs such as this (which can be really fun ways to kick of a class on any topic), being incredibly intentional both with modeling processes and using vocabulary are important when using technology (and when teaching anything, really). Instead of going through the motions of locating information on a company website "Click this link, then go down to the bottom of the page", use terminology. "Look at the webpage's navigation menu. We want find out where their offices are located. Which menu might have information related to where they are located?" Or, if students are having difficulty viewing text on the screen, model your thinking "It's hard to view the text on the screen. What menu heading might help me?" (View) "Have you seen this menu heading in other applications?"

That last question gets into making connections, which is really important. I think part of resilience is knowing that there are a number of baseline commands, page formats/structures, menu formats, etc. that are common across applications, and pointing this out is helpful for learners to understand "There must be a way to do this," regardless of the software they are using. 

So, that was a very long way of saying—instructionally speaking—I think a) posing problems, b) allowing for student struggle and student sharing (and teacher affirmation and encouragement of multiple approaches), c) modeling thinking, and d) using explicit vocabulary are really important for helping learners build resilience. I think the good thing here is these don't need to be "add-ons" to what one does within the classroom; rather, they are a set of behaviors that can be developed over time. I'd love to hear what other ideas or practices others use or feel are effective for developing learner resilience!

Edward Latham's picture
One hundred

Jeff and all, I love what Jeff shared and really think he offered some core elements. In particular, I feel these items are important in the learning process. 

  • Questions that help individuals discover the learning
  • The use of productive struggle is NECESSARY for much learning
  • Sharing and discussing different perspectives, interpretations, methods, experiences all offer learning and acceptance

Building up resilience is a difficult topic. For those that have much resilience, it is particularly hard to remember what it is like to struggle with being resilient. In order for people to exhibit resilience they must experience setbacks or roadblocks and most of our learners have many setbacks to share with us. Many of those setbacks or challenges are associated with experiencing pain, stress or anxiety as well. These negatives inhibit the build up of resilience.

There is one word that jumps to my mind quickly in this whole discussion, "Success". Even if a success is a minor one, the individual needs to realize that they have succeeded and build upon that success to build more successes. This will in turn build up trust. The individual starts to trust in him or herself. They trust that we are there to help them and not just impose some power trip. Most of all, they begin to trust that their goals are achievable.

Do we have safe challenges that allow people to struggle and quickly find success from that struggle? In working with many young adults (and even some of us older adults) I am finding that video games may offer some models to build resilience. People play video games and fail constantly within their gameplay and yet the players will continue to give it "just one more try". When asked why they think that one more try will be different, the player can quickly point out some minor success and something they noticed or felt they learned. When asked what they will do differently, they often have multiple options they share as to how they might respond next time. It is the design in the game system that creates this resiliency and we can steal some elements from that. 

If you are a gamer, what elements of digital game play do you feel might be adoptable in our educational setting?

Some elements that come to my mind are:

  • Groups: When game players work in small groups they learn the soft skills of how to form positive teamwork and to trust each other. Groups offer safety in that if one person struggles there are others that can help share strategies they found for success. In a classroom setting, we may try doing things in small groups, but we find that the groups often dissolve into one or two confident learners taking the lead and dragging others through the experience. In games, the difference is that each player often does not have the same tools, skills, resources, or even the same role. One individual can certainly compensate a bit, but it is the collection of the groups' diversity that is needed for success in goals. In our current social environment, helping to build a celebration of strength through diversity seems to be a great goal that can be included in our work. Our assignments may need specific roles that our "players" would individually choose and those roles all must offer insights to produce the finished product or results needed. For many of us, this whole concept is not something we have barely had much thought about, never mind training or experience in building. 
  • Failure: In almost any game I watch people play, failure happens all the time. In fact, the stories players share with each other weeks after a game session often center on, "Remember that time when you .... and it caused us all to die horribly because ....but then we were able to finally do this ... ." The shared failure created a shared reflection. The reflection includes the elements of how WE were resilient together. Even if our player might have been the one that triggered the entire failure, the fact that we all faced it with even some success is something we all fondly will remember. Introducing failure as part of a learning process is hard in education, especially with our assessment practices and dependency on scores. For so many years our learners have felt that school scores (grades) judge personal value instead of progress in our efforts. See, for a gamer scores are fluid, they are a measure of how successful was one attempt compared to other attempts. These scores are used to gauge if attempts are getting better or worse so one can better choose strategies. Scores consistently are evaluating the same metrics in the current goal and multiple scores are used to self assess and determine if strategies are working to expectation. This is quite a contrast even to our formative assessment practices. Learners feel that most of their academic scores are fixed and finite. Learners begin to feel that they will either "pass" or "fail" and if one fails enough that just means the person is a failure regardless of strategy they employ. The feedback in games almost always offers more constructive feedback of what works or does not work rather than judgemental labeling of some apparently arbitrary number assigned.  
  • Goals: In gaming, there are experiences that dictate very discrete goals that may even be sequentially set up. More popular games offer a totally wide open world in which there are no set goals and players are left to make up their own goals. Even in these wide open worlds, the environment or game play often offers gentle nudges to help push some goals into a player's focus. For example, at night time more aggressive critters come out so having some shelter might be helpful as an immediate goal during the first day. Another example is that our player is freezing, so making or finding some warmer clothes or a warmer environment becomes a much more of a focused short term goal before our player becomes a popsicle.  Perhaps our educational environment adopts this fluid goal setting experience in some way? Maybe our feedback system needs to include much more than some numeric grade so that learners can assess strategies that might improve? Maybe we might offer a long term goal and give it to a group (see Groups above) and have them work together to break that down to mini goals. Our check-in with group or individual progress may focus on what long term goals exist, what strategy is the group using to get there, and what short term goals were set or completed so far? This type of goal check in also helps to reinforce the frequent success we all need to realized in order to push through the negative challenges we face.  

Of course there are non-digital games available today that can really help our learners safely build resilience, but that might be another discussion. Still, I wonder if an adult education family gaming night once a week/month might not see some returns in terms of increasing mental flexibility and resilience in our learners and staff. 

Thank you again Jeff for what you shared. I found myself going, "Yes! Yes! Yes!" in every paragraph. What other ideas to people have about building resiliency in our learners? What works for you? Have you had something you have lived through that helped to make you more resilient? If so, is there some way to integrate that into a classroom experience?