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Billion Dollar Questions

A temperature check on skills-based hiring and AI's impact on education+work.

Leaders in education and tech dish on AI and skills-based hiring. Also, we’ve launched a podcast, The Cusp, about AI and economic mobility, and the American Council on Education announces plans for a Global Data Consortium focused on improving the student experience.

Photo by Elyse Ashburn for Work Shift

Billion Dollar Questions

San Diego—The ed-tech world made its annual pilgrimage here this week for one of the biggest networking and deal-making events of the year. Artificial intelligence, of course, was all the talk.

Just like e-learning platforms, MOOCs, and gamification were at previous ASU+GSV Summits—all innovations that have left an indelible mark on postsecondary education, but haven’t exactly revolutionized it.

But those technologies were essentially just new-use cases for the internet. AI and the change it may bring are entirely different—more akin to the internet itself than to just another way to use it. And, taken in all its forms, the internet has been game-changing for higher education.

“We’ve seen similar disruptions, but we haven’t seen this disruption,” Debbie Wasden, senior vice president at the Burning Glass Institute, says.

Of course, the big question is, “What will it look like?”

The Big Idea: Nobody here, including executives at Google and Meta that are leading on the tech, had a clear answer—or even a consistent timeline for widespread impacts; within months, a year, or, at most, five years were common guesses. The tone was both certain big change is coming and surprisingly sober.

There was a clear consensus that uncertainty doesn’t mean educators can just sit on the sidelines. Now is the time for experimentation. That message came from longtime innovators like George Siemens, a pioneer in online learning and creator of one of the first MOOCs. And it came from less-expected places like Jimmy Fisher, a high school principal in Gwinnett County Public Schools, which has been an early leader in bringing AI into teaching and learning.

“Find a way to incorporate this technology and this work into the classroom,” Fisher says. “Don’t wait. It’s just going to pass you by if you do.”

Beyond the classroom, big questions swirl about AI’s impact on work and economic mobility. Google Cloud announced a new suite of certificates on AI, cyber, and data analytics, meant to prepare people for today’s and future jobs. The U.S. Department of the Treasury has signed on as a hiring partner.

Skills-First: The hype cycle for AI may be just beginning, predicts one summit attendee. But skills-based hiring appears to have entered the trough of disillusionment.

Many sources here acknowledge that few examples exist of employers moving seriously to hire workers based on skills rather than relying on the four-year degree. Most people I spoke with predicted it would take years, or even decades, for real results to emerge.

That’s understandable, many argued, when you’re trying to fundamentally reshape how people break into careers.

“The change is hard,” and requires a “cultural shift,” Shannon Fuller, vice president of talent for the Health Care Service Corporation, said during one panel discussion.

Even so, cautious optimism could be found in the packed hallways, and not just among the startups. Some said they base that hope on the growing skills focus among educators, a likely lift from AI on personalization and skills-matching, and mounting desperation for talent across many industries. If real change is coming, it will be driven by employers.

“We got the message in the private sector,” Fuller said.

Most state governments have bought into economic and workforce development as a top priority. Support is strong across the partisan divide for efforts that seek to improve connections between education and work, and to increase career opportunities for lower-income Americans.

“Not every young person is going to go to a four-year college. And that’s OK,” Randall Woodfin, the Democratic mayor of Birmingham, Alabama, said on-stage here.

Of course, government officials use different words to describe those efforts—prosperity and economic development in Red states, equity and inclusion in Blue ones. But the goals are largely the same.

The term “DEI” has been politicized and weaponized, said Michael Collins, a vice president at Jobs for the Future, during a panel on diversifying the workforce. Be clear about the substance of the work, he argued, rather than getting hung up on terminology.

AI could change what’s possible in hiring, many said here. For example, some are hopeful the technology will help reduce bias in the process. But intent will matter at every step. And vigilance is necessary to make sure the technology does more good than harm with economic opportunity.

The Kicker: “The buck has to stop with the human,” one attendee said.

Introducing The Cusp

We’re thrilled to launch The Cusp, a Work Shift podcast all about AI. 

It’s hosted by Paul Fain, editor of this newsletter and a podcast veteran. The show features interviews with decision makers and innovators at the forefront of how AI is changing economic opportunity and the ways we learn and work.

Listen and follow wherever you get your podcasts.

In the first episode, Fain talked with George Siemens, a trusted, veteran thinker about technology’s impact on learning. 

A professor of psychology who has taught at several universities around the world, Siemens these days is helping lead a project on artificial intelligence at Southern New Hampshire University. It just announced a new collaboration with ACE on a global data consortium, powered by AI. (More on that here and below.)

We’re facing a systems-change event—one college leaders must take on more proactively, including with strategies for workplace skills and social impacts, says Siemens. Here’s his take on the technology.

He likens the moment to the early days of MOOCs. Thousands of colleges stayed on the sidelines, only to find themselves later buying services from an OPM or flat-footed during the pandemic.

“We want to be producers, not consumers of the AI landscape,” Siemens says. 

Hear more of his insights in the first episode of The Cusp, and also check out a bonus episode recorded live at SXSW EDU that features Riddhima Mishra, research director at Learning Collider; Edith Yang, senior associate at MDRC; and Wasden of BGI. 

The Cusp, and all our independent journalism, wouldn’t be possible without financial support. A special thanks to Walmart Foundation, GitLab Foundation, Cognizant, and Kapor Center who collectively supported the launch of the podcast.

Finding AI Allies

Beyond a smattering of projects at big-name universities such as Arizona State University and the University of Michigan, higher education has not taken a real leadership role in shaping how AI develops, spreads, and gets used.

Experts in both tech and education, like Siemens and Philipp Schmidt at Axim Collaborative, see real risk in this. The stakes, Schmidt says, aren’t just which students get immediate access to AI tools, but what kinds of students the tech and teaching approaches are designed for in the first place.

James Larimore, co-founder of the EDSAFE AI Alliance and a longtime student affairs leader, agrees and says more colleges need to be joining forces to explore the potential of AI.

“Most campuses working on AI are working on it independently,” he says. “Who are the natural allies?”

A few may be starting to emerge. Axim, for example, is supporting a project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Georgia State University, and Quinsigamond Community College. The coalition is exploring the potential for an AI-based tutor to support students at a range of institutions, and focusing on computer science education to begin.

“When you have different institutions with different student bodies working together, you’re going to get really interesting insights,” Schmidt says.

Jeff Maggioncalda, CEO of Coursera, says a handful of its partner universities approached the company about putting together a set of courses focused on how higher-ed institutions can build an AI strategy and incorporate the tech into their teaching, student supports, and business enterprise. The working group also includes corporate partners who can lend expertise.

“Too many universities just don’t know what to do,” Maggioncalda says. “And things are going to move fast.”

AI-Enabled Consortium on the Student Experience

The American Council on Education, the umbrella organization for higher ed, is also jumping into the mix, announcing plans to launch a new Global Data Consortium in 2025. The idea is to eventually bring together hundreds or thousands of institutions—and their data—to use AI to better understand and improve the student experience.

The new consortium, Mitchell says, will pull in a broader range of information than existing datasets, potentially on everything from students’ co-curricular experiences—internships, work, student leadership—to when and how they reach out for support such as tutoring or mental health counseling.

“We envision the student experience being the dataset,” Mitchell says.

The consortium would launch with records on 30 to 35M students worldwide if all the organizations—mostly colleges, but also testing companies and the like—that have committed to the effort move forward. The consortium was built in conjunction with the AI study team. SNHU’s president, Paul LeBlanc, sees huge potential for colleges both small and large.

At that scale, he says, “You can start to get insights you weren’t even seeking.”

Read the full story on ACE’s Global Data Consortium, including how to get involved, at Work Shift. By Elyse Ashburn

Open Tabs

Banking Workforce
Artificial intelligence may be the most important issue faced by JPMorgan Chase & Co., writes Jamie Dimon, the company’s chairman and CEO. The world’s largest bank now enrolls more than 2K AI and machine learning experts. “We anticipate that our use of AI has the potential to augment virtually every job, as well as impact our workforce composition,” he says, adding that JPMC will “aggressively retrain and redeploy our talent.”

Career Navigation
The SkillUp Coalition has teamed up with several groups to develop an AI tool for career navigation aimed at job seekers without four-year degrees. The project’s partners include Brighthive, AdeptID, and the Burning Glass Institute. CareerNavGPT is expected to be available this summer. It will be an open-source large language model and agent framework. The groups will share the technology and its data and outcomes.

Skills-First Hiring
A bipartisan congressional bill that would drop degree requirements for federal contractors was passed unanimously by the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Accountability. The ACCESS Act would prohibit minimum educational requirements and instead emphasize skills-first hiring. Workday and IBM are among backers of the bill from Nancy Mace, a South Carolina Republican, and Raja Krishnamoorthi, an Illinois Democrat.

Nondegree Credentials
The U.S. Army is considering cuts to its Credentialing Assistance Program, Army Secretary Christine Wormuth said this week. Launched in 2020, the program pays up to $4K per year for nondegree credentials and certifications. Wormuch cited the benefit’s “catastrophic success” and expanding price tag. More than 64K soldiers have participated in the program, which cost $60M last year, reported Steve Beynon for Military.com.

Submarine Manufacturing
The industrial base of the U.S. submarine fleet faces a severe workforce crisis that threatens the ability of the Navy to operate an adequately sized force, reports War on the Rocks, citing federal analyses. Fully 20% of critical industrial jobs for the submarine fleet are currently unfilled, and 100K new employees will need to be hired by 2032. Experts call for more regionally targeted recruiting of workers that reaches into K-12 schools.

Semiconductor Fabs
The U.S. Department of Commerce and Samsung have reached an agreement on $6.4B in federal funding to back semiconductor manufacturing in Texas. The Biden administration said Samsung is expected to invest $40B in the region, with more than 20K in projected job creation. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo told CNBC that the department is on track to dole out the $39B under the CHIPS and Science Act by the end of the year.

Digital Credentials
A new coalition of college associations is seeking to accelerate the adoption of Learning and Employment Records in postsecondary education. The LER Accelerator coalition aims to increase awareness of the need for and use of digital credentials, reduce obstacles to adoption for institutions and employers, develop guidelines for implementation and application, and demonstrate successful models and examples.

Job Moves
Anthony Carnevale announced his retirement as the director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, which he co-founded in 2007. Jeff Strohl, CEW’s co-founder and director of research, has been appointed the center’s new director.

Thanks for reading. Catch you next week. —PF