I imagine this will be a fairly provocative article.
I have written many times in the past about how computers might replace teachers in the classroom. I got some very interesting responses so I spent more time thinking about it. This week two articles I found online made the pieces fit. Let me see if I can lay out my thinking and then you all can tell me if I’m crazy.
It’s bit of a ride so I’ll provide you with off ramps as we go…
Computers are getting faster every year based on something called Moore’s Law. This is an observation that for the same money, you can buy a computer with about twice the computing power every 12-18 months (it used to be 24 months). The side effect of this is that a given level of performance gets cheaper each year. If you think this is about to end then stop reading this post.
Still there? Good. As computers get faster, they can take on more challenging tasks, such as interpreting camera footage. We now have technology that can watch video and begin to understand it. Voice processing is getting much better as Siri on the iPhone shows. It’s not 100% accurate yet of course, but even humans sometimes have trouble understanding each other. It makes sense to me that as computers continue to get faster it will enable new applications we can’t do right now such as Artificial Intelligence. Even if we can’t do true machine based human level intelligence, the computers will be able to make decisions based on their inputs. If you don’t agree then this is where you get off the ride.
My final assertion is this: most things I have read about it says that rote memorization is a poor way to achieve mastery of a body of knowledge. The true goal of learning I think is to be able to take existing information and draw new conclusions from it. People talk about 21st century skills, but really this very old skill is all you need to succeed in our new knowledge based economy. Agreed? Then continue. (this is actually like a choose your own adventure book!)
I think that when I say computers replacing teachers we think of a robot standing in front of a group of kids in a classroom. I agree this won’t happen. However, I think we are going to rethink how and where learning takes place. In addition we are going to rethink what a teacher does.
If a teacher is just for broadcast of information then they deserve to be replaced by a computer. Computers can present information in a custom form and pace for each student. A teacher cannot do that unless you have a 1:1 student-teacher ratio. Even so, I don’t see the classroom as being the place for this learning. Here’s why.
I think in a very short period of time every student will have a powerful computing device in their pocket. They will be so cheap, everyone will have them. You will be able to talk to them and they will talk back. When children ask that famous child question “why?” the computer will be able to tell them. It will know how to access pre-built lessons in a vast online repository. It will be able to collect analytics about how the child responds and adjust future lesson choices accordingly. The key here is the learning will be 24/7 and can happen anywhere in the world.
Just by itself this will be massively disruptive to the existing school system. Lessons are predicated today by what kids need to know at what age. Once each students has vastly different knowledge sets it will be impossible to give every student the same lesson. In fact, the idea of a standardized curriculum goes right out the window.
Ok so let’s step back for a second a take stock. It’s important to understand that the scenario I have described above will happen if things keep going the way they are. The most critical thing to understand is it is most likely to happen if schools do nothing. We don’t need a bunch of funding, massive amounts of new teachers, new taxes, new buildings, etc… The irony here is the school system itself is setup to resist change but this will be it’s undoing. This is a classic disruptive innovation scenario.
If you have made it this far let me give you the grand finale. The classic argument people make against this vision of learning is it is impersonal. They say you can never replace the human contact of the teacher, therefore teachers will always be in control of learning. This is the final piece of the puzzle I figured out this week by reading two articles.
1. The first article was a posted a few days ago. It talked about how video game designers are starting to use AI to get games to write themselves. Typically in a game, it is all scripted out ahead of time. If you can get an AI to direct it though, you will have a game that is unique for every player and ever changing. This is what you need to make a learning system. Essentially a child begins a story with their learning AI at a very young age, and the game never ends. There is a lot of research now about games being effective learning tools. Imagine if some the time our kids spend playing World of Warcraft was spent learning! In fact, if you do it right, educational games can be fun.
2. The second article is something that I suspected would happen but didn’t have proof until now. Researchers have created a “Virtual Nurse” for use in hospitals. Here’s the money quote.
In fact, patients who interacted with a virtual nurse named Elizabeth said they preferred the computer simulation to an actual doctor or nurse because they didn’t feel rushed or talked down to.
This is personalization. In our mass produced society, we crave feeling special and unique. I don’t care how good a teacher is, they can’t be with every student, every minute in a class of 30. An AI can. Just because our generation doesn’t personify our cell phones doesn’t mean the next generation won’t.
You won’t see a robot in front of a classroom. Disruptive innovation doesn’t work that way. It comes from a direction you don’t see. All the time a student is not in school is an opportunity for learning and somebody is going to fill that space. Parents will rapidly understand that their kids will learn more if they can do it outside of school too. The kids will like it because children love to learn until they get to school.
So what happens to teachers in this future world? Well, two things. First, most teachers will work online developing creative lessons. Many teachers will only do it part time in addition to their regular (non teaching) job. For example, a scientist who invents a new device would then create some lessons on how to use it. She’s not a teacher, but her AI can guide her in developing a lesson. The second effect on teachers is, because you can reach many more students online, you need a lot fewer teachers. The actual idea of having a career as a teacher in a classroom will be much less common. Everyone will be a teacher. Just think of the diversity!! It will finally be possible to match the exact right lesson with the exact right student.
If you define a classroom as a room with a teacher where learning happens, don’t look for a 21st century equivalent. It won’t exist. So when I say that computers will replace teachers, what I mean is they will obsolete the whole school system where learning is confined to the classroom. The way this is most likely to happen is for schools to do nothing. Technology will take care of the rest.