The Automated Teacher and Other Myths

Below is the text of an interview I carried out for the European Commission’s Open Education Challenge site. You can see that post at this link.

Do you believe in the idea of an automatic teacher?

The idea of an automatic teacher is the stuff of science fiction. If you look at the types of jobs that machines are taking over, they tend to include ‘routine manual’, ‘routine cognitive’ and ‘non-routine manual’. The kinds of jobs that humans are still needed to do are the ‘non-routine cognitive’ and ‘non-routine interpersonal’. For me, you could define teaching as being all about non-routine cognitive and non-routine interpersonal skills. That is what it is. Happily, in a famous recent academic paper about which jobs computers are going to take over in the next 20 years, it was predicted that teaching and its related activities are in the top 10% of jobs least likely to be automated.

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However, I will make two concessions. First, I think that we can automate a number of things that take place in schools – the routine manual and cognitive tasks. This include things like sending a text to a parent if their child has a detention, carrying out an analysis of data at the school or local system level, or doing a quick group test and analyzing the results at the end of the lesson. These things are happening already. Second, I know that advocates of Artificial Intelligence will say that soon we’ll have machines capable of non-routine analytic and interpersonal skills. If that is so, perhaps they’ll make great teachers.

Can education technology solve the problems of inequality of access or is it a raise in this elitism of resources?

Hamlet says, ‘there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so’. I would say, that technology is neither equal nor unequal, what matters is how we use it and make it available.

Technology has the potential to solve the problems of inequality. For the first time any person on the planet can access higher education courses at Stanford or Harvard. In developing countries, distance learning techniques are bringing the best teachers to the hardest to reach kids. The work of Mandla Makhanya at the University of South Africa Online is a case in point, as is Urvashi Sahni’s work at Digital Study Hall, which builds on the Khan Academy model to provide in-class video support to struggling teachers in rural communities.

This possibility though depends on 5 key tests for equality:

  • Connection – is there universal connectivity?
  • Platform – does every person have access to a platform to get online?
  • Content – is the best and most effective content is available free or at low cost?
  • Teacher – is there a skilled teacher mediating the experience for the learners?
  • Learner – does the learner having sufficient competence and motivation to log on and do the learning?

If you use these five tests, you would say that technology is currently increasing equality in some ways, whilst raising new kinds of elitism. On the question of connectivity, it is not the case that all kids in Europe are online. Sure, most are. But if most are, that means a few aren’t. And the ones that aren’t will be the ones already experiencing inequality. The same applies for the other tests. However, I have a great faith that because technology is quite cheap to scale, we’ll be able to achieve almost universal coverage quite soon. And then perhaps we’ll see a huge increase in equality of access.

Finally, we should remember that the advantages of an education don’t come simply from learning, but instead from the connections, from the badges that you are awarded by institutions. An online qualification from Stanford is not equal to three years there in person, for many reasons. Can digital solutions ever match those advantages? I am not so sure.

Is the process of learning that much important, or is learning the only outcome that matters?

Pierre Bourdieu says that the point of school is not that you learn how to do an operation in mathematics, for example that the square root of 9 is 3. Instead, what is much more important is that through the process of learning you are understanding how to interact with others in society, you are experiencing the power structures of the state, you are learning what it means to live as a group rather than as an individual. So the process is vital.

This brings us to technology. We should not only ask ourselves if technology can help us get to the learning outcomes more efficiently. We must also ask: are the processes that we are using creating the kind of societal outcomes we want to see? If we think that the best way for kids to learn is to have them in front of screens, do we realise that we’re suggesting that this is how our society works? Are we ok to be educating a generation of screen-gazers? Perhaps yes, but let’s make a conscious decision about it.

Can we evaluate the real effect, “on the ground”, of the educative innovations developed across the world?

Yes, and we must do so. Too frequently there is a divide between the creators of technology and the end users, or the key users. This means that in education you get a lot of inventions that make a lot of money for companies, and that administrators really like, but they end up adding no value on the ground for kids. One great example of this is the Interactive Whiteboard. In the UK there is one in every classroom, but there’s no evidence that it is more effective than the blackboard. It would be quite easy to run a control trial of this, and I’m surprised someone hasn’t.

One interesting place to look right now is at Pearson. They now have they’re Efficacy unit and the Pearson Affordable Learning Fund (PALF). Both of these internal operations are aiming to put evaluation and outcomes at the front of the business. They are going through the process of evaluating every product that the company uses: does it actually have an effect for kids? Likewise with PALF, they’ll only invest in companies that can prove they’re having a big impact for kids. If they can do it, it’s possible for a whole system. I think PISA is showing the way.

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