Friday, April 26, 2013

When Will Teachers be Replaced by Machines?

Before reading this post, check out this Ted talk by Ken Jennings, the one-time undisputed king of Jeopardy, as he discusses how it felt to be surpassed by a computer:

Technology. It's a blessing and a curse. It makes our lives easier, mostly by automating routine tasks. It also has the potential to kill our jobs. 

The Ken Jennings talk was fascinating. Ken is a master at Jeopardy, a game that requires not only a huge repository of factual knowledge, but also subtle interpretation skills to understand the nuanced word play of Jeopardy questions. He assumed the technology couldn't be developed to beat him at the game.

Then it was. 

In the talk, he mentioned a graph representing his Jeopardy prowess in relation to the increasingly complex Watson computer that would eventually beat him. The graph really could represent any human task in relation to any sort of developing technology... including teaching. Here's my version:

The downward-sloping blue line represents the measurable output from a human teacher. Why a downward slope? 

No Child Left Behind.

The move toward standardized curriculum and testing has created an easily-measurable output. Disregard the validity of this output... just focus on the fact that teaching outcomes can be easily measured. Teachers aren't getting worse; their output as measured by the tests isn't as robust as it once was. due to the crippling of their autonomy.

Note the red line. This represents a combination of outsourcing and computerization. Think automated online learning. The technology is rapidly developing. At some point (if we're not already there), the red line will surpass the blue line. Just like Ken learned, the machines will be able to do a better job than humans.

It's just a matter of time.

Schools are incredibly expensive. Teachers are incredibly expensive. Computers... not so much. The potential for cost-savings is huge. The move toward standardization is removing the "human" element from teaching. The improving technology is making the computers more "human." School budgets are being squeezed. These trends are speeding the inevitable.

Back when I was teaching high school, a colleague and I would sometimes discuss the future of the profession. This person was very technology-literate and understood what computers were capable of doing. This colleague was also aware of the current state of the school system in the US. We were privy to some of the strategy sessions of our state teacher's union, and their state of denial was staggering. They were working under the assumption that the current erosion of teacher pay, benefits, tenure, and retirement was a temporary trend and would soon reverse if only they could find the right combination of motivating the rank and file or rolling out the right publicity campaign. This colleague saw the impending intersection of the two lines from the graph above... and was preparing for that day.

When we were traveling around the country, I met two programmers at an event. Somehow we got on the topic of teaching and computers. They explained how easy it was to write adaptive programs- a kid would do a task, the program would assess the response the adjust the material. In essence, the program could always maintain a perfect level of difficulty. It would always stay within Vgotsky's "zone of proximal development."

Of course humans can do this, too... if we're paired up individually. The problem is scaling. One teacher can easily teach one kid. Two or three? We can still probably out-perform the computers. Things start to fall apart when we reach about five kids. We're no longer able to accurately assess each and every kid and adjust accordingly. A class of twenty? Or thirty? It's a no-brainer. The computer will always win. 

Is there a solution for current teachers?

Honestly, I don't know. The current system is sinking fast, but most teachers are frantically clinging to the Faustian bargain of the teaching "career." I'm not really the kind of person that likes to drown, which is the reason I bailed a few years ago. If I go back into teaching, I'm doing it with the understanding that it's going to be a decidedly temporary position with no promises of long-term security.

In the interim, I'm doing to do my best to plot my own course. I have an idea of where education is going. I know that intersection of the two lines is a lot closer than most teachers would like to believe. I know which direction I'd like to see the profession take. I'm not going to wait around by following an obsolete map. I'm going to make my own map.



  1. I mentioned you in a recent entry on this topic:

    I wish we had a crystal ball to see the future of technology in education. Are there any of those types of programs, that you mentioned, available?

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