On Replacing Teachers With Machines…

If I’m being completely honest I was quite surprised by the way my EDCMOOC peers responded to the Arthur C. Clarke quote about replacing teachers with machines. Things like:

The artefact touches on the topic of digital education and the value (or not) of humans as educators in a high tech world where robots and machines are fast replacing humans due to their superior ability to minimize or even eliminate error.

Woah, steady guys!

People think this is a particularly dystopian idea but I want to suggest it is really a utopian one that will empower learners and teachers alike to be more efficient.

This is my radical proposal: computers do some things really well, and human beings do other things really well.

Simple enough, right? But let’s unpack this a bit more.

Putting aside all the future projections of sentient robots for the time being, as it stands computers can only really do what we tell them to do. When your spell check software for example takes what you typed and suggests something else it isn’t because it has had some epiphany about what you meant. It is because someone (that is, a human being) created a database of words and set of instructions about how the program should use them.

Similarly when you take a photograph with automatic settings, the camera isn’t making any creative decisions. It is receiving data from its sensor and following the instructions it was given when it was created (again, by a human being).

Computation, mathematics, following sets of instructions — even with elaborate if/then conditions — are things computers can do really well. (Have you figured out where I am going with this yet?) Things that can be automated probably should be.

There is an old programming adage, “Don’t reinvent the wheel.” The idea is that you don’t pour your time and energy into creating things that already exist. Instead you strive to build upon them, or you create exciting new things. Programmers create their own libraries of code or use those created by other people so they can be more efficient and more creative in other areas.

There is a lot of hype surrounding the idea of the ‘flipped classroom’ where the instruction takes place generally at home (generally online) and the homework takes place in the classroom. Where this works it is because the repetitive part of this task — how you, as the teacher, explain the material — has been automated (often as a recorded video) and the random part — how well the learner receives and understands this material and can use it — is still manual.

[It is probably worth pausing for a moment to really take that in. Your learner is the random part of this equation. Though you may prefer to use the word ‘unique.’ They have their own talents, skills, life experiences and learning preferences.]

The homework part of this flipped classroom experience could be known as other things. It could be known as ‘face-to-face’ time. It could be known as learner feedback. It is about establishing what the learner received and what they missed from the subject content. It is about employing strategies to bridge gaps in the learner’s understanding and skills, strategies that are specific to individual learners. This could be relating new concepts to prior learning and experiences. This could involve building conceptual models and metaphors on the fly. This could be getting back to fundamentals. Perhaps with an advanced enough algorithm this is something a computer could do in the future but for the time being these skills (observing, communicating, relating, etc.) seem incredibly human.

I want to go further though. Automating { mundane / repetitive / administrative } tasks frees you up to be more human. If a computer is marking a student’s response to what two plus two might equal it frees you up as the teacher to consider more nuanced, more human, things — such as the themes in a novel or the real world applications for a technology. Technology can support us to be more inventive, more creative and more exploratory.

This shouldn’t be as shocking as it might seem to some. We have already seen it take place during the Industrial Revolution as assembly line workers were replaced by machines. It was certainly disruptive but it wasn’t the end of the world. Indeed it was the beginning of a whole new set of possibilities.

1 comment… add one
  • Loved this post! There’s a website where students go to post comments about their teachers. It is hilarious. One of my former students said “She talked a lot about how her husband didn’t support her writing.” That’s Chapter Two in my textbook. I was talking themes in story, my student heard personal anecdote. Their entire take-away from the class was one chapter we spent a few days on & even then they didn’t get it. Yes, learners are random.

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