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Teacher-Replacing Tech: Friend or Foe?

Hole in the Wall

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.


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  • Sumbul Qureshi

     I don't think technology could ever reach that
    stage. That may be able to provide lots of info, but cannot discern,
    care, 'say just the right things', smile, affection, etc.

  • Scott Kaple

    The phrase that matters most: “independent orientations towards learning, [who are] highly motivated by intrinsic sources, and [who] have strong time management, literacy, and technology skills.”Without motivation and direction, success will be slower to come by. I teach currently in what would be described as a pretty good high school (and this is my 28th year in the classroom), and since I am a self-styled lit. guy and language guy, I would hope that my passion for ideas and language sets me apart from merely addressing technical and structural issues. Part of the experience in the classroom allows students to listen to and see enthusiasm for ways to respond to the world a la historical, scientific, artistic, and mathematical perspectives as well. Not sure the machines provide that significant element. Yet.

  • Charlie Weiss

    I passed this article to my 8th-grade daughter, asking for her thoughts. They were: "yuck, no WAY! i love teachers, no matter how mean they are, because they always have different personalities. computers, however, do not. i mean, it would be fine if, for example, the kids in my class used ipads instead of lectures, but still. i don't like the world getting all techy. :(

    Seems it's not either-or, but there's probably a larger role for the Internet in the learning process. Does that mean a smaller or different role for teachers? Our district would hope so, as today's budget-cut news translates to 450 fewer teachers in the district. An earlier post suggests it's "better than nothing". Would 450 fewer teachers leave us with that choice? Ouch.

  • mcrumph

    I think that notions like this further the idea of teachers as the problem of why students aren't learning. Just think how much school systems would save if this idea were put into practice! Instead of teachers, they could simply hire people that work at day-cares. Of course, all those who could afford it would be sending their children to private schools with well trained educators, and small class sizes. If you look at the students who performed better with virtual interfaces, I imagine you would find their parents are more involved in their education; similarly, those students who do better in traditional classrooms attain higher levels because their parents are actually interested in their child's education.

    As far as finding students with “independent orientations towards learning, [who are] highly motivated by intrinsic sources, and [who] have strong time management, literacy, and technology skills” is concerned, I doubt if this would even reach the five percent rule. It would be hard to locate students such as this at the university level where, presumably, everyone wants to learn. Yes, this type of instruction can help in areas where there has been absolutely no educational system, simply because anything is better than nothing. Considering how much drek is on the internet, will the school have to practice scholarly censorship to ensure students only end up at sites with valid information?

    Mention is made that students have to stop learning when the bell rings in the usual classroom. Does that mean that in the virtual classroom they wouldn't have to move from one subject, or knowledge base, to another? Simply remove the bell from classrooms, have longer, more involved classes, fewer subjects that cover broad areas (do kids really need a class on power point presentations?). Everyone has gotten so hung up with tests nowadays, that I think they have forgotten that the notion of education is to teach a student how to learn.

    Technology is all well and good, but just because something is new, fast and shiny does not mean it is better. I am no Luddite, but I do wait to see what benefits something has before adopting it.

  • David Deubelbeiss

    Thanks for the concise summary of a lot of the issues swirling around the idea of "child driven learning".

    I think a lot of people, the NY Times included, really haven't followed Sugata Mitra's work close enough to understand that he doesn't call for the exclusion of teachers - only that there be more "discovery" in education. For the sake of better learning and more motivation.

    Our schools are in dire straights because students don't want to be there. That's the plain truth staring us in front of us. All students are learning constantly - learning is self organizing and natural. We have to harness that which is built into us through evolution and lead it in the right direction. Sugata's "I'm going away" methodology and use of technology as an aid to acquire information is perfect. The teacher should let the students find the answer - never tell the answer.

    I think many would benefit from viewing his recent lecture in Holland. A full overview of all his research and ideas , along with his cute giggle.

    As a long time educator, technology doesn't replace teachers at all - it only replaces them as figures of absolute authority. Ecrasez l'infame - we are going through a new enlightenment.

  • Jessica Piper

    I use technology in my class everyday, and I know its limitations more than ever. There is NO writing program that can replace me or the nuances that come from a real writer speaking to another writer. Computer programs offer pitiful advice in most instances as I have tried it out on my most cases, if you add random vocabulary and more length, your score increases. All writing teachers know that that is AWFUL advice.

    I'll never be replaced as I already function as a coach on the worries=)


  • Shethra Jones-Hoopes

    I've seen what NO supervision, or inadequate supervision, amounts to when students are working on computers--without some overriding necessity, they play games and music. They do not do research. All that information can be a brilliant tool, and often is. If kids in India who are not able to attend school can learn through this method, they should have all the kiosks possible. But here, to do the same thing would be to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Of course we need to utilize that technology and information. But learning takes more than exposure and repetition--it requires discussion and critical thinking. It requires exposure to both sides of issues. It requires human interaction. The internet is not a replacement for that interaction and guidance, the very things teachers are taught to do as best practice. Gifted students are frequently motivated to do plenty of research on their own, and the more ways they are offered to do that research, the better. But students who need some direction in their learning will not be helped by removing all structure and their teachers, even with the wealth of human knowledge handed to them on a silver monitor.

  • Jym Allyn

    "supervisors panic at the loss of direct control" is one of the main reasons why students fail to learn.

    Even though they purportedly get graded on what students learn, most administrators are more concerned with their control of the schools rather than what students learn. They become administrators more for their love of power than their love of learning.

    What this technology may do is allow gifted students to push themselves to new levels of discovery despite the teachers around them. Or it may allow some students to get themselves locked in cultural a web of lies and mis-truths or obsession with perversion. Adult supervision is still required in the 21st Century.

  • Michael Davis

    While I agree with some of your points and believe change is sometimes good, we have to always be conscience of the fact that change doesn't always equal something good or better. When I was young we looked up information in books, now it's the internet. The library didn't replace the need for teachers so I don't really see how the internet will. It actual states in the article how students without "teachers" in the room only learn half as much. I think we should integrate technology into the classroom but let's be smart about it and not over react like we normally do.

  • Deena McClusky

    People simply do not like change, and do not like surrendering control. Logically many American workers would also be telecommuting by now. They would perform tasks from home rather than mindlessly wasting time in an office. The reason they don't? It is a dramatic change, and supervisors panic at the loss of direct control. The same is true of distance learning. Anyone who has seen it in action, or participated in such a program, knows how much better and more efficient it can be. Our world is changing rapidly....just give it a chance.