The Future of Teaching and the Machine

tmbookIn my review for the current issue of Academe of Bill Ferster’s new book , Teaching Machines: Learning from the Intersection of Technology and Education, I write, “Ferster presents three great but distinct advantages to technology in education: increased accessibility (starting with the use of the mail for correspondence courses), potentially lowered costs, and improved classroom efficiency. He also illustrates its greatest danger: belief that the teacher and the education expert can be replaced with the machine and the technologist.” Last weekend, I reached out to Ferster with a few questions relating to his book and the future of education:

You spend most of the book, of course, looking at the history of teaching machines. Though you do write a little about the future, that really isn’t your main purpose. However, teaching is always about the future even though its subject matter, paradoxically, is necessarily past. Given your knowledge of the development of teaching machines in the past, how do you seem them–and education–in the future?

I purposely avoided writing even about the recent past in the book because there hasn’t been enough time to see what impact, if any, they might have. For example, the MOOCs could go a number of different ways that have more to do with politics, business, and economics rather than conscious choices by any given player, such as pedagogy or technology used. As for the future, all I can predict is that people will continue to try to use technology to make education scale beyond one teacher/one classroom scenarios. Some of those efforts will work, and others will be left behind. Hopefully these innovators can learn some lessons from those who tried before and adopt the good ideas, while refining the ones that didn’t work for one reason or another.

K-12 will be slower than higher ed, whatever happens, and I’m not sure teaching machines have as much potential, particularly in elementary and middle school. Not that there aren’t issues that might be addressed using technology, but the impact will probably be less.That said, some of those barriers to adoption in K-12 are being removed. Using computer technology in the classroom 20 years ago meant classes traveling to an expensive dedicated “computer room” filled with expensive, fragile, and difficult to maintain desktop computers loaded with largely ineffective software. Laptops and Internet access made the process somewhat better as they emerged, but the newest computer tablets fit in the classroom is more comfortable and has lots of potential–if teachers see the value in using them. This will require compelling web-applications and sufficient training on how to best use technology in the classroom.

The rural sociologist Everett Rogers founded a systematic study of ways innovations are introduced to and adopted by potential users, known as the ‘diffusion of innovations.’ Many of the terms and concepts he identified, such as laggards, and early adopters have made their way into the language of business and the popular culture. The diffusion of innovations provides a practical framework on which to study the common elements in such disparate areas as MTV marketing and animal husbandry. In a series of diffusion studies across multiple areas, Rogers found that innovations which have the following characteristics, high relative advantage (a better mousetrap), compatibility (works well with what’s available now), trialability, observability, and low complexity. are likely to succeed over innovations that possess lower levels of those attributes. I think tablets have many of the characteristics that Rogers identified, but time will tell if they “live up to their potential.”

Kevin Carey paints a plausible picture in The End of College of Silicon Valley venture capital based companies slowly, but steadily targeting sections of the higher-ed market, until an alternative, technology-enabled path parallel  to “analog” college is forged. It’s hard to argue that sitting in a 400 person lecture hall is significantly better than a well-produced MOOC. Carey was too much “Chicken Little” in my opinion, at least in terms of the timing, but if the technology purveyors continue to innovate so online experience keeps improving but the classroom lecture continues to follow its current trajectory, students will vote with their feet, especially if issues of course credit become worked out.

Martin Ford’s new book Rise of the Robots seems to imply that human teachers will eventually disappear, machines taking over. Do you see this as a possibility?

The attack of the robot teachers is more likely in higher education than in K-12, but even then, computers just aren’t as smart as people think they are. Even HAL from 2001 is nowhere in sight.

The technologists have taken over teaching machines, replacing the psychologists who were once central to their development. Can teaching of humans be designed on purely technological lines? Is there are role for psychologists in the future of educational development?

You point out the key issue in most of the venture capital based efforts, which are primarily technology driven. Then again, the psychologists really didn’t do such a great job either. Thankfully, the collective wisdom of how people learn is pretty well documented if they technology-driven machine makers take the time to read it. Ultimately it is not just superior technology, or insightful theories that will save the day. A successful teaching machine needs both, as well as being well executed, learner tested, human centered and enjoyable to use. The devil is in the details; difficult, expensive and time-consuming.

In The New York Times for May 16 is an op-ed by David Korn, “Let the Kids Learn Through Play.” His argument is twofold, that play teaches and that regimented learning needn’t start early to be effective. Do you see any way that teaching machines, perhaps through video-game technologies, can meld learning-through-play and the learning/assessment model that much of today’s teaching machines assist?

There is certainly a large contingent of developers who see gaming as the way to get kids’ engagement, but I’m not one of them.  There have been some  successful educational games (Oregon Trail, Civilization, the SIMS), but for the most part, good games have been elusive. The main reason is probably cost of producing a game. and the expectations are set high by the entertainment segment of the gaming industry. The cost to produce a successful video game can rival a feature film budget, costing many millions of dollars. Educational game developers budgets are typically several orders of magnitude less and have not been able to create wildly successful instructional games.

Of course, there has been much theorizing about the potential value of games in education. On the academic side, the psycholinguist James Paul Gee made a thoughtful exploration of video games to understand how they might provide some insight into the educational process. He spent a year actively playing a number of educational and non-educational video games and he was able to extract a number of important learning principles he found in the games that made them both appealing and instructive. The thirty-six principles Gee identified are clustered around three groupings; situated cognition where thinking happens in the head and in the environment; New Literacy Studies, where learning has political, historic and economic implications; and connectivism, which recognizes our brains for their powerful pattern matching capabilities.

On the training side, writer and corporate game developer Marc Prensky has been a vocal advocate for using games in learning. A man known for his provocative statements, Prensky claims that today’s children are fundamentally different from children of previous generations because they have grown up immersed in the digital technologies of computers, video games and the Internet. He believes that these digital natives are having their brains wired differently from the digital immigrants, such as their teachers, and they need to be taught differently. Whether that is indeed true is the subject of much debate (I am personally skeptical), but it has brought considerable interest from educators into using game dynamics to support learning

The mixture of education and entertainment may not have always worked in practice. Eric Klopfer likened creating an educational game to the challenge of baking a healthy, but tasty cake. It’s easy to make a delicious sugar and butter laden cake (a fun game) or a heart-healthy, but bland cake made from oat-germ and sawdust (educational content), but it’s tough to make one that’s both. One approach is to take the cake (pure entertainment) and inject some vitamins into it (educational content), the tack taken by most edutainment games. Alternatively, one can take the bland cake (educational content) and add food coloring (gamification features) to make it look like a tasty cake. It’s healthy, but still tastes awful (educational, but not fun to play).

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