Computers Enable Good Teachers

By 07/17/2014

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In a recent blog post for the The New Yorker titled, “Will computers ever replace teachers?,” Justin Reich raises several interesting critiques on the value of educational technology. The bulk of his blog post is a synopsis of the history of technological innovations used to grade student work and provide feedback, including PLATO, DreamBox, Knewton, and essay grading software. He then delivers a provocative commentary on the ultimate value of these technologies:

In the forty years since PLATO, educational technologists have made progress in teaching parts of the curriculum that can be most easily reduced to routines, but we have made very little progress in expanding the range of what these programs can do. During those same forty years, in nearly every other sector of society, computers have reduced the necessity of performing tasks that can be reduced to a routine. Computers, therefore, are best at assessing human performance in the sorts of tasks in which humans have already been replaced by computers.

Perhaps the most concerning part of these developments is that our technology for high-stakes testing mirrors our technology for intelligent tutors. We use machine learning in a limited way for grading essays on tests, but for the most part those tests are dominated by assessment methods—multiple choice and quantitative input—in which computers can quickly compare student responses to an answer bank. We’re pretty good at testing the kinds of things that intelligent tutors can teach, but we’re not nearly as good at testing the kinds of things that the labor market increasingly rewards. In “Dancing with Robots,” an excellent paper on contemporary education, Frank Levy and Richard Murnane argue that the pressing challenge of the educational system is to “educate many more young people for the jobs computers cannot do.” Schooling that trains students to efficiently conduct routine tasks is training students for jobs that pay minimum wage—or jobs that simply no longer exist.

I think Reich makes a good point about the potential misalignment between the tests we use to measure education and the real learning needs of today’s students. Today, standardized tests define the primary job of our education system. But do these tests capture what we truly value in education, or do we focus so much on standardized tests merely because they are the cheapest and most commonly accepted measurement tools we have?

Setting aside the commentary on testing, I think Reich’s blog post overlooks some of the important benefits of educational technology.

First, learning basic facts and routine skills is still important. Computers may be faster and more accurate than humans at executing routine processes. Nonetheless, many of the best jobs in the economy of the future will involve creating models and programs for computers to analyze and evaluate, and an understanding of routine processes is foundational to understanding how to develop those models and programs. Similarly, computer-trained knowledge of basic facts may be useless as an ends unto itself, but students need to have knowledge of basic fact stored in their long-term memory so that they can draw on those facts when thinking critically and creatively. Second, the value of educational technology is much broader than merely providing instruction and feedback on basic facts and routine skills. Our traditional education system serves most students poorly because it does not address individual learning needs. Educational technology has the potential to transform that education system to make personalized learning available to students in ways that have never been possible in the past.

Some of this personalization comes from, as Reich points out, using computers as personal tutors for teaching basic knowledge and skills. But the more powerful personalization comes from using computers to enable teachers to provide more personalized learning.

Educational technology can free up teachers from routine aspects of teaching and classroom administration so that they can spend more of their time using their uniquely human skills to better support their students’ learning needs. For example, when we use computers to teach basic math facts and skills, teachers can focus more of their instruction on helping students use those facts and skills to represent the world with mathematical models and apply them to real-world problems. Similarly, when we use technology to teach students basic scientific or historical facts, teachers can focus more on coaching students and providing expert feedback as students think critically, write persuasively, design, create, and collaborate.

So, will computers ever replace teachers? The answer is definitely no. Reich’s arguments illustrate that teachers are critical for teaching students to do the kinds of valuable work that computers cannot replicate. The power of educational technology does not come from replacing teachers, but from empowering teachers to provide better instruction. In order for us to succeed at preparing students for jobs in the economy of the future, we are going to need technology to help us better utilize the critical resource of our teachers.

-Thomas Arnett

Thomas Arnett is a research fellow in education at the Clayton Christensen Institute. This article first appeared on the blog of the Christensen Institute.

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