Ed Tech’s Scary Side: An Automated Education?

Visions of robot teachers – Dalek-voiced automatons commanding our classrooms with monotone lectures, accepting Scantrons into neat slots in their bellies, and spewing out the next installment of approved knowledge to rows of dutiful, dazed, students – seem better placed in the science fiction comics of the 1950s than in the 21st Century Classroom. Fortunately, the 21st Century’s Common Core State Standards, at least when taken holistically as intended, shatter the concept of a standardized, delivered education. But in my wanderings in schools, I do hear a lot about the potential for mobile computers to subvert – even take over - the teaching and learning process. It’s an important conversation to have, given the near-ubiquity of personal devices among our kids.

Teachers I’ve spoken with sometimes express their concerns about the automation of education as a fear that they will shortly be replaced with a neat hardware/software bundle of curriculum-pedagogy-assessment-remediation delivered through a class set of tablet devices and requiring little, if any, classroom interaction among teachers and students. It is true that many all-in-one curriculum products of this type are presently in development. The fear lies partly in the logic that the point of intersection between x) our increased use of student data, and y) the deployment of more and more classroom technology, will essentially transform the classroom experience into a twelve-year-long computer-adaptive test. A gamefied test perhaps, but a test nonetheless, with kids serving as glazed-eyed sponges. In this system, teachers would serve more as proctors and tech-support more than educators.

But, while the fear of automated teaching certainly is legitimate when the concept goes too far, I think there is a place for it in the personalized classroom. “All things in moderation,” right? The trick will be finding the right place for it. After all, the idea isn’t so different from the flipped classroom, where students absorb content on their own, later putting it into practice (ideally in collaborative settings in the presence of an expert mentor). And it really isn’t in conflict with how kids today learn skills they value for many of their own activities. Take Minecraft, where kids learn the game’s ins and outs not by reading a manual, or through the classroom-like gradual release of responsibility, but by rapidly cycling between playing the game and watching any of a selection of 73.2 million tutorials on YouTube. These screencasted tutorials are crafted – while playing the game itself - by Minecraft’s community of users, and are available to the Minecraft learner at the exact time the learning is needed. Kids apply the new skill in their own worlds, and come back for more from the experts when the need presents itself – surely a 21st Century competency. (By the way, I dare you to try interacting with a Minecrafter’s learning process by pulling them into an offline conversation!)

The reality is that the kind of personalized learning that will help kids thrive in the learning economy of the future requires many new things of teachers. Because the teacher’s highest function in a learning economy is to create learn-ers, not the learn-ed, a respect for the user-centered nature of learning should be considered a key teaching competency. And because we know that every human brain, although capable of much knowledge, is optimized for learning (we didn’t compete against the saber-toothed tiger with our brawn, but by devising tools for the purpose) we should recognize the value of new tools for learning, and enable their place in our classrooms. Automation, in the context of personalizing the learning experience and connecting our classrooms, and in consideration of the appropriate scale, should not be so much of a threat to teachers after all.

cross-posted at The 21st Century School

Robert C. Sidford is the Coordinator of the 21st Century Learning Division in Washoe County School District. Read more at http://robertsidford.com.