Preparing students for an AI future

The robots are coming. Dr Carina Paine Schofield asks how we can ready the workforce of tomorrow for cooperating with their tireless, loyal and consistent colleagues

There is no escaping the AI revolution – it is pandemic. Over the next few years technological advancement will affect all sectors of the workforce and humans will face a new kind of competitor when it comes to seeking employment. Robots do not need downtime or leadership: they are completely loyal to their employers, generating relentless and consistent output.

As educators, we face the steep challenge of preparing students for this rapidly evolving job market, by not only developing their technical abilities, but also those skills technology cannot replace.

At Hult International Business School, we studied the views of around 400 undergraduate students across the UK and US, to find out their visions of their futures; their hopes and fears and how they plan to prepare themselves for the coming changes.

These students are of particular interest to educators because of their unique place in history. They are about to enter a workplace that will be transformed by emerging technologies, yet have been educated in mostly traditional classrooms and followed largely conservative curriculums that have arguably not prepared them for this future. 


What quickly became clear is that students are overwhelmed by the prospect of an AI future. Less than a third (31%) of undergraduates were completely hopeful about the potential impact of AI on the workplace, while just under half expressed some form of anxiety about the impact of living and working with AI. Around one fifth mainly felt fear. 

A significant majority of students felt that their education had failed to prepare them for this future and that this contributed to a sense of insecurity and fearfulness. 

Robots do not need downtime or leadership: they are completely loyal to their employers

A lack of balanced information was also to blame. Inspired by popular culture stereotypes, media hype, academic texts and their own knowledge of what is coming, the students exhibited alternating emotions of confidence and anxiety when asked to visualise themselves negotiating emerging technologies in their own careers.

Students who expressed fear were more likely to focus on negatives like the “loss of jobs”, “increased competition for existing jobs” and “growing social inequality” – views accentuated by bleak predictions of the future made by public figures such as the author Martin Ford, or Elon Musk; who argues that the kinds of automation and the speed with which they are to be introduced should be heavily regulated.

Knowledge is power

Interestingly, we studied a portion of these students before and after they participated in an in-depth course on the role of robotics in society at Hult International Business School. After the course, which asked them to research and reflect upon academic and industry sources on the topic of AI in the workplace, a quarter felt students claimed to feel more empowered and less frightened of the future as a direct result of the knowledge they had gained.

The post-course findings showed that 28% of students felt “more enthusiastic” about the changes AI could bring to their working lives. Pre-course, they saw computing and tech (29%) and understanding AI
(16%) as the top skills needed for a career increasingly shared with AI, while post-course they placed human/soft skills as their number one strategy for survival (36%).

The students who became more positive spoke of a workplace that was more efficient, effective and interesting thanks to automation and AI. They felt that emerging technologies would “reduce costs”, “save time”, “eliminate the drudgery of repetitive tasks” and “free up time” that could go towards more meaningful work or personal hobbies.

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Learning more about emerging technologies and ways in which they were likely to impact the workplace gave students a sense that there were things they could do as graduates to navigate the coming changes, rather than simply being overwhelmed.

Lessons for educators

Educators face the steep challenge of preparing undergraduates for a rapidly evolving job market. So what should we be doing more to equip today’s students with the skills and mind-sets they need?

From these students the advice to educators is simple – embed courses on AI itself and on the impact it is likely to have on the workplace in all subjects across the curriculum. Only by providing the right balance of courses – both practical and theoretical – across the curriculum can students learn to balance bleak predications with the prospect of new jobs, better data and life-changing potential to improve society.

Students are hungry for all kinds of courses – theoretical ones, but also practical ones where they can experiment with coding, 3D printing, virtual reality and other tools in the classroom and beyond. 

The students we spoke to asked for ‘maker’s labs’ where they could build things using tools and applications with the support they needed at hand, face-to-face contact with companies that use AI and automation, trips to exhibitions and guest lecturers from academia and industry alike to talk to them about ongoing changes. They spoke of a desire to experiment with AI and automation in the classroom, blended learning and hybrid courses, delivery by hologram, personalised testing and automated grading.

Guard the human

On the other hand respondents showed an increased appreciation of human beings and their abilities after spending some time reflecting upon the nature of AI and automation. This mirrors some calls in academia and industry sources that similarly see a brighter future for soft skills and the humanities in a world where AI is more prevalent.

A significant number of students mentioned the importance of retaining the traditional classroom with its focus on human interaction between students and teachers, as well as the need to guard against skills erosion by keeping their brains sharp. Business schools in this sense should balance specific teaching around new technologies, with traditional classes that emphasise training the brain and learning directly from a teacher, without always relying on AI.

Certain perceived qualities and abilities such as complex decision-making, critical thinking, intuition, emotional intelligence, grit and entrepreneurship are exclusively human areas less likely to be replaced by AI, which is reflected by the demands of students for more humanities-type courses in subjects like ethics and psychology. 

In an age of AI, it is all-crucial for students to study humanity and AI simultaneously, in order to understand more firmly the strengths of both types of intelligence, and how the two together can improve the workplace, the classroom and human society for the better.  

Dr Carina Paine Schofield is senior research fellow at Hult International Business School. Her research focuses on intergenerational work attitudes and expectations.


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