Is That “Teaching”?

A writer for The Guardian warns that artificial intelligence will be taking over many jobs that we previously assumed were safe from automation. Like teaching. 

Teachers: software such as McGraw-Hill Connect and Aplia allow college professors to manage the coursework for hundreds of students at a time. Massive open online courses (Moocs) extend their reach to thousands more. And actual physical robots are being used to teach English to students in Japan and Korea.

Which is all very nice if you start, as does this writer and many others, with the assumption that teaching is nothing more than the transmission of information. His sole example of MOOCs, in which college professors (more likely adjunct staff are doing the actual work) assemble a collection of readings and videos for students to consume in a specific order, is certainly all about presenting data for the invisible student on the other side to absorb.

But is that “teaching”?

Robot Driver1

Look through the listings at EdSurge and other sites documenting edtech and you find many startups working hard to incorporate artificial intelligence into their “personalized learning” software. Their systems, they say, will adapt to the student and allow them to “work at their own pace” on the computer, independent of a human instructor.

But is that “teaching”?

I suppose one response could be, does it matter, as long as the kids are learning? Maybe then we need to decide what we mean by “learning”.

Anyway, the writer also provides examples from other fields that, in the past, we’ve assumed required human interaction.

Journalists: AI bots created by companies such as Narrative Science and Automated Insights are already cranking out business and sports stories for clients like Forbes and the Associated Press. In a June 2015 interview with the Guardian, Narrative Science co-founder Kris Hammond predicted 90% of journalism will be computerized by 2030, and that some hardworking j-bot will nab a Pulitzer sooner than that.

Therapists: human-like “social robots” are already being used to help teach children on the autism spectrum appropriate social behavior. Therapeutic robot pets provide companionship for seniors with dementia. The US military is using a computer-generated virtual therapist to screen soldiers in Afghanistan for PTSD.

Actors: Peter Cushing, who died in 1994, reprised his role as Grand Moff Tarkin in 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, thanks to some digital wizardry by Industrial Light & Magic. But he’s hardly the first human actor to have returned from the grave. Paul Walker, Audrey Hepburn, Sir Laurence Olivier, Bruce Lee and Marlon Brando have all been digitally resurrected for use in films and commercials.

Are his anecdotes examples of journalism, therapy, and acting? Or, like teaching, is this how many people view those professions? As a mechanical process that can be replaced with a sufficiently clever algorithm?

Maybe I’m just a traditionalist,2 but I’d like to think that all of those professions, especially the art of teaching, will always require a human touch to do well. But if that aspect can be programmed into a robot or an AI system, it’s likely something that will come far in the future. Or a good science fiction story.

A Very Bad Definition

It’s the start of a new year and that means thousands of articles, posts, and essays forecasting the future. Some are thoughtful and intelligent. Many are trivial. The vast majority will be flat out wrong.

One titled Technologies That Will Define the Classroom of the Future certainly falls into that last group.

First of all, technology will never “define” a classroom, at least not a good one. Students and teachers, supported by parents, librarians, administrators, and others define a class community. Technology should only be there to assist the learning.

Anyway, so what are these innovative technologies that will “soon reside in the future classrooms”?

Augmented Reality – Certainly we want students to interact with the world. But this, and it’s cousin virtual reality, are just tools to help them do that. Unless you’re planning to recreate the classroom inside a virtual world, this concept should not “define” learning.

3D Printer – No. Just no. All of the creative work required to have the machine render the object has been done prior to starting the job. A 3D printer is no more defining of learning than was a 2D printer.

Cloud Computing, New interactive and flexible displays, Multi-Touch LCD screen – Again, no. These are not learning tools. They are devices (and in the case of cloud computing, a concept) that can enhance the teaching and learning process. They will not “define” the classroom of the future.

Biometrics – Huh? I understand the security part but saying this technology leads to “adaptive learning systems” that will “transform the education process into a more individual and productive one” is just silly. This is about management and control, not learning.

Learning based on games – If you expand this into the general idea of “learning based on play”, then I’m with you. But learning from play (aka experimentation) is how children gain understanding of their world from the beginning. Applying the concept of gaming to learning school-type subjects is fine as long as “games” are not just one more way to spoon-feed the same old curriculum.

And finally… MOOCs and other online learning options – Kids are certainly learning online, just not in the highly structured format of MOOCs (which haven’t been a roaring success despite the hype). I certainly hope the version of online learning envisioned by adults, which is largely a digital translation of the traditional teacher-directed instruction, doesn’t define the classroom of the future.

I have no doubt many, if not most, of these technologies will make their way into devices used by students and teachers. None of them, however, will define the learning process. And, if properly implemented, no one will even notice (or care) the technology is in the classroom.

The Not-So-Exciting Future of College

A prominent Silicon Valley investor offers Eleven Reasons To Be Excited About The Future of Technology, ones that “will continue to transform the world and improve human welfare”.

Some of his choices, like self-driving cars and virtual reality are pretty obvious. Others like artificial intelligence and computerized medicine are slow progressions that have potential to go on the very bad side of exciting. Clean energy is pretty much essential to the continuation of life on this planet.crystal ball future

Then we arrive at his number 8, High-Quality Online Education, and his crystal ball clouds over.

While college tuition skyrockets, anyone with a smartphone can study almost any topic online, accessing educational content that is mostly free and increasingly high-quality.

Encyclopedia Britannica used to cost $1,400. Now anyone with a smartphone can instantly access Wikipedia. You used to have to go to school or buy programming books to learn computer programming. Now you can learn from a community of over 40 million programmers at Stack Overflow. YouTube has millions of hours of free tutorials and lectures, many of which are produced by top professors and universities.

The quality of online education is getting better all the time. For the last 15 years, MIT has been recording lectures and compiling materials that cover over 2000 courses.

This writer3 is working from a warped, very traditional vision of school and teaching that is firmly rooted of the past and not at all something to be excited about for the future.

A view that the process of learning is simply the transmission of information from one source to another. That teaching at the college level should be nothing more than lectures and assigning chapters from expensive textbooks. That human teachers make no difference in the process of learning and can easily be replaced with smartphones, Wikipedia, and YouTube. Making college cheaper with, he assumes, at least, similar results.

This not at all exciting and should not be part of anyone’s future.

Now about those flying cars I’ve been promised since childhood…

And, despite help from Audrey Watters, I wonder, is blockchain really something to be excited about?

Working For The Future

An article in Fast Company, a business magazine, offers the “hottest job sectors” for the year 2025 2 and the skills our current high school students will need to work in them.

With the healthy measure of skepticism required when reading any forecast based on humans and society, here are “six skill areas that the experts recommend”, as narrowed down by the editors.

Technology and computational thinking, the later of which they define as “the ability to manage the massive amounts of data we process individually each day, spot patterns, and make sense out of all of it”.

Caregiving, directly related to the fact that millions of us baby boomers are going to need a lot of help in our old age. Also, veterinarians will also be high demand.

Social Intelligence and new media literacy, to prepare people for the many sales, marketing, and customer service jobs.

Lifelong learning. Evidentally, the world will need a lot of teachers and trainers by the year 2025.

Adaptability and business acumen. Adaptability has always been a required skill for successful adults. Not so sure about business acumen.

So, how many of these skill sets are at the core of the curriculum in most American high schools?