The Inevitability of Robot Teachers

I really want to engage when writers talk about computers in education. I really want to believe that their opinions regarding computers in the classroom, and the use of computers in education are relevant and matter. However, I just can’t get past my predeliction to view it through the lens of Marxist critique. Every time I read someone talk about education and computers, especially MOOCs, I know the only reason this subject is being explored is because we don’t like paying teachers.

I’m reminded of a quote from Schumacher from Buddhist economics:
“From the point of view of the employer, [Labour] is in any case simply an item of cost, to be reduced to a minimum if it cannot be eliminated altogether, say, by automation.”

There are amazing possibilities available if we could discover the perfect mixture of computers and education. But as a society we never will. The motivation behind deploying computers in education is always about money, not quality. As long as that motivation pervades, the best intentions of all are pointless.

The ‘why’ of deploying computers in education outranks the ‘how’ in matters of public policy. It doesn’t matter how we go about deploying technology in classrooms, we’re going to deploy technology in classrooms because teachers/professors cost too much. We require the ‘how’ to only placate our misgivings of the ‘why’.

If the MIDS program at the I School is unprofitable it will be cancelled in a year. If it turns out to produce incompetent graduates, not that we’ll ever really know this, it will not be cancelled. This is what we need to understand the underlying motivations of programs like MIDS, and this motivation underlies most attempts at justifying the deployment of computing technology in classrooms. It’s the motivation that matters. Once we accept the ‘why’ as inevitable, we just start inventing and concocting narratives and plans to address the ‘how’ until something sticks and we’re placated.

So when I read Ted Nelson’s critique of CAI it seems pointless. Arguing about ‘how’ we deploy technology in classrooms is just splitting hairs. The real question we should have as a society is; if we consider education so important, why are we constantly trying to do it on the cheap? Or to again go back the Schumacher; if we value our education so much, why are we constantly trying to rid ourselves of educators?

3 thoughts on “The Inevitability of Robot Teachers

  1. I totally agree — our government should spend more money on education.

    But can’t schools both be motivated to save money and increase quality? Or increase quality with an eye towards cost? I think Nelson might argue that some of his approaches both increase quality and decrease cost.

  2. I also agree. This reminds me of the three-part diagram on Dream Machines.
    1) Computers are a barrier to student learning.
    2) Teachers are a barrier to student learning.
    3) HYPER-MEDIA is the solution to student learning.

    Nelson seems to oppose human teachers, and would most likely regard the Buddhist economic approach as irrelevant. But what if teaching was in itself an act of developing character for teachers, a valuable process of growth? I wonder what Nelson would say.

  3. I guess my reply would be that the raison d’être of deploying technology in education is money and reduced labor costs. If we could somehow redo the discussion, such that the underlying motivations of technology in education did not center around reduced labor costs, I would reevaluate my disdain for it. Until that happens the rhetoric of those pushing for more tech in education is tainted and untrustworthy.

    The problem with the quality argument is we’re never actually interested in measuring quality, only quantities. What is educational quality after all? Is it improved test scores? Better grades?

    ” Once we accept the ‘why’ as inevitable, we just start inventing and concocting narratives and plans to address the ‘how’ until something sticks and we’re placated.”

    I’m sure we can find something that supports an argument of improved quality everywhere.

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