“Any teacher that can be replaced by a computer deserves to be.” 
David Thornburg

What's it about?

The steady rise in automation of tasks that are repetitive or routine has been occurring since the start of the industrial revolution. In past decades, we’ve seen robots replacing humans on assembly-line production of everything from cars to toasters.

In education, this includes a potential growth in human-machine interfaces that can provide much more personalised, accurate, and timely responses than a teacher with a class of 20 plus learners.

This thinking is not new. In 1954 B.F. Skinner embarked upon a series of studies designed to improve teaching methods for spelling, math, and other school subjects by using a mechanical device that could surpass the usual classroom experience for learners.

Only recently, as the level of technical sophistication combined with advances in artificial intelligence has grown exponentially, have we seen tasks previously considered unable to be automated now being taken over by robots with a wide range of ‘pseudo-human’ characteristics.

Building on the work of Skinner and others, researchers at the University of Arizona created what they call Knewton, a computerised-learning program that features immediate feedback and adaptation to students' learning curves. Soon, this may develop even further as we see developments in the direct connections being made between computers and the human brain.

What's driving this?

The belief that technology can automate education and replace teachers is pervasive — and certainly not new. The idea of introducing ‘teaching machines’ to eliminate the grossly inefficient and clumsy procedures of conventional education1 was written about as early as the 1930s, the intention being to free teachers from routine tasks and to be ‘real teachers’ instead of ‘clerical workers’.

This relentless pursuit of efficiency in our education system is frequently highlighted when arguing the case for introducing more educational technology products into schools and classrooms — just look at the advertising collateral from many of the hardware and software products being sold into schools.

This perspective is also reflected in discussions among teacher unions who argue for acknowledgement of time being taken for ‘administrative’ tasks when negotiating their terms and conditions for employment.

Then there are those who regard teaching as purely the transmission of knowledge who argue we’re at the point where the internet pretty much supplies everything we need — and that we don’t really need teachers in the same way anymore.

Key arguments for pursuing the use of robots and AI in education include:

  • the automation of basic activities in education, such as marking and assigning grades or standards
  • the adaptability of software to meet learner needs
  • providing the ability to point out places where courses need to improve based on learner feedback and performance
  • providing extra support for learners when and where needed, including affective responses
  • the provision of timely and targeted feedback
  • the ability to alter ways students find and interact with information based on their preferences and learning style
  • catering for (and even encouraging) learning from mistakes — through trial and error.

How might we respond?

While the talk of automating any human activity, including teaching, frequently causes concern about what will be lost, the more appropriate response is to consider what new opportunities for teaching and learning might be achieved if we had better “thinking machines” to assist us? Instead of seeing work as a zero-sum game with machines taking an ever-greater share, we might see growing possibilities for participation in this process. We could reframe the threat of automation as an opportunity for augmentation.

Some questions to act as a stimulus with your colleagues include:

  • What are the tasks we currently do in our jobs that we’d consider repetitive and routine? How might these be automated?
  • Are there examples of where this has already happened that we can think of? If so, what new opportunities have emerged in terms of how we use our time and talents?
  • What are we teaching in our curriculum that is preparing our learners to think about a world where many of the jobs their parents do currently may no longer exist due to automation?
  • What new skills are going to be required? And how are we intentionally developing these?
  1. Pressey, S (1933) Psychology and the new education, Harper & Brothers