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Today’s choices shape tomorrow’s learners

Thinking about people in one of the world’s biggest tech companies taught Distinguished Professor Genevieve Bell to ask “uncomfortable questions”.

Genevieve Bell

Future-thinking ANU Distinguished Professor Genevieve Bell joins the Every Student Podcast to talk about the overlap between Silicon Valley and school classrooms. Credit: Tegan Osborne.

Preparing students for a rapidly changing world means asking complex questions – ones that the Australian National University’s Distinguished Professor Genevieve Bell thinks about more than most.

A technologist, futurist and cultural anthropologist, Professor Bell’s work investigates emerging artificial intelligence and its impact on society.

“One of the challenges we have in thinking about the future is we often project now out to that – it’ll be like this, but more blinking lights,” she said.

Speaking with Department of Education Secretary Mark Scott as part of the Every Student Podcast, Professor Bell said our current choices impacted on the future of education.

“The way schools are physically built predetermines the way education can be delivered within them,” she said.

“We need to think about what has changed in the world that we might need to think differently about.”

A vice-president at Intel, a company known for its innovation in technology, Professor Bell’s work in the United States focused on the end user.

“My job was to haunt the company with people – the people that would ultimately use our technology,” she said.

“For me, that meant always asking the question about ‘where is this technology going and what is it doing?’ – not in a technical sense, but in a social, cultural, human sense.”

Having grown up in remote Aboriginal communities with her mother, an anthropologist, Professor Bell said she could never have visualised from there what her future would hold.

“Ending up at Intel was, to say the least, unexpected – I couldn’t imagine what I could do for a company like that,” she said.

“It’s a really long way from Ali Curung [in remote central Australia] to Silicon Valley, even via Stanford.”

The 20-year Intel veteran now heads the ANU’s 3A Institute, spending her days considering questions of Autonomy, Agency and Assurance.

“What I know how to do is ask hard questions, and open up conversations, and see the world differently,” Professor Bell said.

“We are sitting in a critical moment in the evolution of, and development of, technology.

“Artificial intelligence technologies are moving off computer platforms, and going into the built world; think smart cars, drones … and smart buildings.

“[This technology] will change the way the world works. I don’t think we yet have a toolkit to handle that.”

For Professor Bell, that shortfall in understanding, has sparked an important educational question: “How do you get teachers and parents, as well as kids, comfortable with the idea that what they’re learning now is just a piece of the puzzle, and not everything?”

Listen to the full podcast:

Read the transcript of Every Student Podcast: Genevieve Bell.

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