Interview: “Thanks to digital technology, the boundaries between vocational education training schools, universities of applied sciences, and universities can blur”

Npuls invited student Saar Schnieders and rector Peter-Paul Verbeek from the University of Amsterdam to discuss the future of education, now that digital technology and, particularly, artificial intelligence are rapidly advancing in our society. A conversation about opportunities, threats, and breaking down barriers. 


01 July 2024 8 min

Saar Schnieders en Peter-Paul Verbeek zitten met elkaar aan tafel te praten. Saar heeft een rode trui aan en Peter-Paul een wit overhemd met een bruin jasje.

About Saar Schnieders (1999)
The driven Saar Schnieders studied Artificial Intelligence at the University of Amsterdam, where she is also pursuing her Bachelor’s in Philosophy. Saar, as an AI expert, serves on the Central Student Council of UvA. She envisions a career as a scientific researcher.

About Peter-Paul Verbeek (1970)
Technological philosopher Peter-Paul Verbeek has been the Rector Magnificus of the University of Amsterdam since 2022, where he also works as a Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Science and Technology in a Changing World. Previously, the University of Twente was his academic home; he studied Philosophy of Science, Technology, and Society there, earned his PhD, and held the position of Professor of Philosophy of Man and Technology. Additionally, he was the scientific co-director of the DesignLab at UT. Peter-Paul has also undertaken numerous scientific activities.


Peter-Paul: “In ten to fifteen years, education will look very different. Knowledge will be offered more digitally, and I think students and teachers will primarily meet in working groups. Digital learning systems will likely help provide students with feedback on their progress. I also think that the content of many disciplines will change under the influence of digital technology. What you need to know as a lawyer, what methodology you use as a physicist, or how you practice linguistics will change dramatically. In the future, you can’t train a doctor without some knowledge of artificial intelligence.”

Saar: “At the current pace of digital development, it indeed cannot be otherwise. I also think that certain academic skills will be viewed differently. For instance, you still need to learn to write texts, but it will be more about being able to judge what makes a good text and what doesn’t. To prepare students well for the job market, you must also teach them how to use tools like AI properly. That’s quite challenging because you don’t want to give them so much freedom that it leads to misuse. Nevertheless, you must integrate its application into education because it is simply the reality. In the AI working group of the Central Student Council, we explicitly consider such issues. How do you make the transition to digital education without dropping the ball? You don’t want people to become entirely incapable of doing things independently. I think it’s pretty challenging to determine what basics are needed. Maybe we need to experiment a bit with that. When writing my thesis, I noticed that using ChatGPT helped me improve my writing style.”

Saar Schnieders in een rode trui zit aan tafel en kijkt hard lachend rechts van de camera, met haar vuist voor haar kin.

Peter-Paul: “Then you see that the role of the teacher changes significantly because they must guide the interaction with AI. I already notice this with my son in high school. ChatGPT is really a sounding board for him, where he asks questions and gets answers. I find that quite scary because sometimes it spouts nonsense, and before you know it, he sees that as the truth. But at the same time, it helps him enormously. I wonder how his teachers are responding to this. And how will we handle this at UvA soon? We face a significant challenge.”

“Critical thinking must become a skill” – Saar Schnieders

Saar: “That requires critical thinking. In philosophy, this is now really central, and you learn a lot from it. But it should actually be an essential part of all programs. You always have to ask yourself: okay, what is being said here, what is meant, and how truthful is this? I find it important that people don’t blindly trust technology and that critical thinking becomes a skill that is much more central.”

“I worry about the public values of our education if we become dependent on large platforms.” – Peter-Paul Verbeek

Peter-Paul: “It’s remarkable that something as ‘soft’ as philosophy suddenly becomes crucial. There is another important point in the transition to digital education that we need to think about carefully. How do we ensure as a society that good education remains accessible to everyone? If you make education largely dependent on digital technology platforms over which you have no control, you end up with a ‘Googlification’ or ‘Microsoftification’ of education. We need to be able to regulate that. It’s so important that we can continue to discuss the content so that the curriculum remains dynamic and democratic. When large companies gain control over the content through the backdoor, we give up what we have so carefully tried to protect with the freedom of education in our constitution. This is why it is important that Npuls has made ‘open education’ a key focus, ensuring that all educational resources are safely accessible. It’s good that there is now attention for this.”

Saar: “Yes, I find it very scary that these companies are American; they are so lax with privacy. You really don’t want them to have control over our education systems.”

“I hope we can make education more personal” – Saar Schnieders

Saar: “I actually hope that with the advent of digitalization, we can make education more personal for students. By collecting data and analyzing it digitally, teachers can better understand what students need. Then it becomes more enjoyable for students to attend classes because more often, topics they find interesting are covered. I can really see that; I think it should be very possible to use technology in that way.”

Peter-Paul: “Cool, I think so too. Data-driven education certainly has a future. I also think that the choice you have in your education could be further expanded thanks to digital technology. Now you choose a minor or a few electives, but soon you might be able to create your own route. So you wouldn’t have had to choose between AI and philosophy. Npuls is working on an ‘EduWallet,’ a kind of digital patient dossier but for education. Then you could earn microcredentials by taking courses from different studies. Eventually, you would have enough credentials to meet the requirements for a bachelor’s degree. That’s quite extreme, and we need to think very carefully about it because the diplomas we have now are certainly very valuable. Still, it’s interesting to see if this can lead to a different approach to the curriculum.”

Saar: “That would appeal to me very much. This way, a student can follow what they find interesting, and the diploma becomes less central. Many fields overlap, so it would be good to prepare students for the future from a broader base by giving them more freedom of choice.”

“Imagine being able to create a study package that transcends the boundaries of the system.” – Peter-Paul Verbeek

Peter-Paul: “And you could take it even further. Imagine creating a study package that transcends the boundaries of the system? I would really love that because those boundaries are currently far too high. I was recently at CERN in Geneva, and the symbiosis between scientists and technicians was impressive. I can imagine that it would be interesting for scientists to know more about the technology, and vice versa. If you properly implement the system with microcredentials, the boundaries between vocational education training schools, universities of applied sciences, and research universities can blur.”

Peter-Paul Verbeek zit aan tafel en kijkt lachend links van de camera. Hij heeft zijn handen open voor zich; hij lijkt iets te vertellen. Zijn notitieboek ligt voor hem op tafel.

Saar: “I’ve thought about that too. The university is very much focused on academic research and obtaining a PhD. But not everyone wants a scientific career, so you could better combine the university with applied sciences. Or imagine taking a course on hardware at the university and finding it so interesting that you spend six months at a vocational education training school studying computer technology. That would be really cool.”

“We need a radical approach to keep up with the pace of technology” – Saar Schnieders

Saar: “That requires a radical approach. But to keep up with the pace of technology, we need to become more radical anyway. At some point, decisions must be made; okay, this is how we are going to do it.”

“We need to embrace technology” – Peter-Paul Verbeek

Peter-Paul: “I also hope that it will go this way. We need to embrace technology, but we need to do it right. After the wisdom of books and the importance of insight, digital technology now forms a new infrastructure for our thinking. This will undoubtedly result in a very different form of education. And it’s going so fast that you can’t calmly think about what it will look like concretely because, in the meantime, something else has already changed. We are now dealing with fundamental questions that we need to make decisions about quickly.”

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