Just as the Internet replaced telephone operators and the nightly news anchor as the default source of information, teachers may be next on the chopping block. Automated learning is a cheap solution to recession-swelling class sizes and renewed calls to make technological innovation a centerpiece of education.
Districts all over are experimenting with teacher-less computer labs and green-lighting entire classrooms of adult-supervised children exploring the Internet—an Android powered tablet designed specifically for students. Teachers' unions' protests notwithstanding, the cybernetic takeover might mean a redefinition of "teacher" as a research assistant or intellectual coach, since subject-matter lecturers are no match for access to the entirety of human knowledge.
Whether this is a welcome innovation for cash-strapped areas or the first wave in an inevitable robot apocalypse seems to hinge on one's location on the planet. In India, virtual classrooms are hailed as an education revolution. Here, even in Wild West-like educational frontiers like Florida—where, on Tuesday, a new Android-powered tablet for students debuted at the Florida Educational Technology Conference—the idea of tech replacing teachers has been criticized as "criminal."
In the interest of exploring the difference, let's start with some of the most disruptive evidence on teacher-less education—from the slums of India, where handfuls of unsupervised children can now compete with their privately educated counterparts, thanks to standalone kiosks connected to the Internet. Newcastle University Professor Sugata Mitra discovered that groups of children spontaneously formed supportive learning communities when given access to Internet stations and challenged to answer scientific questions.
In his now famous TEDxGlobal talk, Mitra tells how a humble pre-teen girl led him to believe that he had underestimated his first experimental group of Tamil-speaking children. "So a 12-year-old girl raises her hand and says, literally, 'apart from the fact that improper replication of the DNA molecules causes genetic disease, we’ve understood nothing else.'" Emboldened by findings that one academic reviewer called "too good to be true," Mitra is seeking billions in funding and millions of voluntary man-hours to launch his educational vision into a global movement.
However unique and exciting Mitra’s findings are in the eastern half of the world, wealthy Western educators with broad access to computer resources have been experimenting on children since the 1990s. And, the results are positive. In a 2009 review of research, the U.S. Department of Education found that "Students who took all or part of their class online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction." Unlike one-size-fits-all lectures, the report finds that computers can custom tailor the pace of learning to each individual student.
In writing, for instance, sophisticated essay software automatically maps paragraphs and suggests improvements. In Biology, the Federation of American Scientists developed a first-person shooting game where children explore the anatomical mechanisms of the human body as a nanobot warding off evil disease. Melanie Stegman, program manager for "Immune Attack," told Science Daily "The amount of detail about proteins, chemical signals and gene regulation that these 15-year-olds were devouring was amazing. Their questions were insightful. I felt like I was having a discussion with scientist colleagues."
Even more intriguing, the Department of Education found that online learners spend more time learning and on task. Unlike their brick-and-mortar counterparts who are habitually trained to stop learning at the sound of a bell, computers permit limitless curiosity to flourish. Indeed, Mitra found something almost unheard of in education research: students’ scores increased after instruction had ended because "the children continue to google further" on their own.
Yet, student-driven classrooms do have serious flaws. In the condition without any adult supervision, Mitra found that children achieve only half of what their peers in face-to-face instruction can. The lure of video games and other mindless online activity quickly eclipse the fleeting intrigue of scientific exploration. Children, it seems, still need the encouragement (or coercion) of an adult to keep them from drifting off.
This shortcoming led The New York Times to give furious students, teachers, and parents a sounding board to vent their anger at a virtual classroom project in Miami, Florida. "None of them want to be there," Sophomore Alix Braun told the Times, "and for virtual education you have to be really self-motivated. This was not something they chose to do, and it’s a really bad situation to be put in because it is not your choice." English teacher Chris Kirchner showed less restraint in airing his frustration, "The way our state is dealing with class size is nearly criminal."
Despite the promise that adult supervision can alleviate the motivation problem endemic to virtual classrooms, Professors Barbour and Reeves find that they still favor students with "independent orientations towards learning, [who are] highly motivated by intrinsic sources, and [who] have strong time management, literacy, and technology skills." Even worse, virtual classrooms may exacerbate gender discrepancies in science learning, as Mitra’s own findings reveal that the alpha-male tendency of boys often crowds out female involvement. Thus, even in the wildest fantasies of proponents of child-driven virtual classrooms, adults still have a vital role to play as tutors, mentors, and coaches.
As for the concept of a "teacher" as an expert consultant who acts as a glorified megaphone of facts at the head of a classroom, there's a Google search for that.