In Class of 1999, a sci-fi thriller from 1990, robot teachers are sent to high school campuses to control troublesome teenagers. The cyborgs’ job is to crack down on gang violence and misbehavior—but they ultimately become violent against the students themselves.
Although not on the level of a ‘90s B movie, there is concern that teaching will be usurped by technology. Nearly half of all U.S. jobs are at risk of computerization, according to a 2013 Oxford University study—and some think educators are among the vulnerable, though not everyone.
That idea is purely “hype and fear,” writes Thomas Arnett of the think tank the Christensen Institute in a recent white paper, “Teaching in the Machine Age.” The paper makes the case that “as innovations simplify and automate distinct aspects of teaching, both effective and less effective teachers will see their capabilities enhanced by computers.”
Education software programs can, for example, provide differentiated instruction to students with different learning styles or needs in a way one teacher standing in front of a classroom may have more difficulty doing. Some programs include real-time assessment features or provide feedback to teachers who can then tailor their lessons to individual student needs. Others offer instructional planning platforms, complete with resources and lesson planning tools.
Arnett turns a spotlight on Teach to One, a program used in some New York classrooms (and previously covered on this blog). The online system assesses students’ work, creating daily lesson plans for each. Based on the results, some students continue working alone on computers and others are sent to small group stations. Teachers—the real live sort—are on hand, some checking in occasionally with students and others engaged in more involved guidance.
Some schools go further, however. Education Week reports that some schools and districts have indeed filled vacant teaching positions with software. A Georgia district experiencing a teacher shortage participated in a pilot test of an accredited online education program offering “virtual teachers.” They livestream to laptops, and students can interact with the teachers using a chat box or by clicking a “raised hand” icon. In Maine, another school with a shortage uses Rosetta Stone as a foreign language teacher. Despite the cost savings, administrators in each case said they would prefer conventional teachers.
In other parts of the globe, technology has provided a temporary solution when teachers or education infrastructure is in short supply. When schools were closed in Liberia during the Ebola crisis, an ed-tech start-up sent more than 500 tablets loaded with educational materials.
Arnett tells Education Week that he supports such efforts in times of need, but not as permanent replacements. And no matter how “smart” technology gets, he argues, teaching is immune to full automation.
“As artificial intelligence increasingly takes on human work, the most valued and secure human jobs will be those that require complex social skills—such as teaching,” he writes.
A growing awareness of the importance of cultivating social-emotional and other noncognitive skills has added to teachers’ already long list of responsibilities, Arnett writes. Tech that takes care of the tasks that can be automated can free up time for the uniquely human.
Already many educators and learning scientists have reconsidered the role of teachers in the 21st century as more like mentors. Teachers can provide critical support to empower students to do their own digging into topics and complete hands-on projects—aided, yes, by digital tools. Under this theory, technology allows kids to have more self-direction, but teachers remain as important as ever.
“That’s the one thing that will never change—to have a caring adult who has a sense of who the kid is, what they’re capable of from a learning perspective, and can guide a kid into learning opportunity,” cultural anthropologist Mimi Ito has said.
Arnett notes that teaching enhancement tools are hardly new. Textbooks came before ed tech. But digital tools undeniably have unique functions and power—power that, if complemented with good teaching, can amplify the critical work that educators do.