Andy: Can Computers Replace Teachers?

Andy wrote an interesting Time Mag column. His short answer: no.

As a field, education is easily seduced by technological promises. Textbooks? Thomas Edison saw movies as way to replace them. In a prelude to today’s debates, the phonograph and film strip were lauded as technologies that could replace live teaching. These days, conservatives are in love with the idea that technology will not only shrink the number of in-classroom teachers but render the teachers’ unions obsolete.

The experience to date is less grandiose and more worrisome considering the billions that have been spent on technology in schools in the past few decades.

So where does that leave Andy?

There is, of course, still promise in education technology. When Dreambox Learning, an online math program for elementary-aged students, offered me a free trial to check it out, I did what I usually do with new educational tools — I put it to the ultimate panel of critics: my kids. Dreambox, which just this week announced a new series of lessons aligned to the nascent Common Core standards and free licenses for every school in the country, combines real content with an interactive format so kids are learning even when they think they’re just playing games. I’ve looked at a variety of products, and it’s one of the best in terms of powerful instruction. In a short time, it substantially boosted my kids’ math achievement. (They have a great teacher, too.) As for engagement? Maybe too much. One of my daughters woke me up at 5 am the other day because she wanted to do math.

Yet even a top-shelf product can only augment live teaching. Despite Dreambox’s overall good functionality, there are places where students can become frustrated — not because they don’t know how to do the underlying math, but because the directions for the online activity are confusing. Likewise, technology is bringing back in vogue the idea of the “flipped classroom” with the teacher acting as a “guide on the side” rather than the primary source of instruction. I say back in vogue because, ironically, talk of devaluing the teacher as content provider has been a fixture of progressive education thought for a century. Another variation of the flipped-classroom idea is to use technology to explain concepts at home and use classroom time differently. Again, a lot of potential, but only with keen attention to instructional quality. Much of the online content available today merely replicates the lame instruction already available in too many of our nation’s schools.

Hmm. I'm just thinking aloud here. I'm not sure this is what I believe.

First, I start with: what do teachers do?

1. Explain stuff to kids eager to learn

2. Explain stuff to kids reluctant to learn

Those kids can absolutely be engaged -- but it takes a skilled teacher.

3. Identify where kids are stuck, then get them un-stuck

4. Try to get kids to do things while in school. To work hard. Read, write, discuss, do problem sets - whatever.

Again, assume many reluctant-to-learn kids. Those kids can absolutely be engaged -- but it takes a skilled teacher.

5. Try to block kids from doing bad things...things that limit other kids' learning.

6. Motivate, advise, mentor individual kids.

Teachers do a whole bunch of other stuff. But generally it's in service of these 6. Examples - grade, prep lessons, cheer on their fellow teachers, read research, call parents, review data, etc.

Second, now I consider: what are computers (when armed with really good software) good at?

A. Computers sometimes good at #1.

That will increasing be true, I believe. As I've written before, it is easy to imagine how technology will increase the Achievement Gap.

B. Computers rarely good at #2.

A critical issue. Occasionally the software is so appealing/so on target that the kid who hates math class will like math software. But I believe that is not the norm.

C. Computers not good at #3, not #4, not #5, not #6.

Long term, I'm very bullish on role of technology to help kids learn.

Short term, I'm skeptical. Also note: lots of math teaching software. Much less English teaching software. Yet where is bigger need?

That doesn't mean we don't want to roll up our sleeves and do the work -- find the best technologies, find teacher-friendly ways to deploy them within our schools. We do. It'll be a tough road, but worth it.

What do you think?