Will androids replace teachers? Maybe, if the system keeps valuing what it values

This is a satire and a warning. I do not advocate replacing humans with androids… though maybe in some classrooms it would be a good idea.

A few months ago I wrote a piece on how a teacher’s job is to teach themselves out of a job. The concept is pretty simple: a teacher should create the conditions that allow their students to thrive on their own, learn to learn, and understand what they need to be successful, professionally and personally. In this sense, teaching is much like parenting; when graduation day comes, we see former students off with a mixture of joy, trepidation, and that bit of anxiety about whether we did right by them. To face the ups and downs of the years ahead, young adults will have to own a portfolio of skills, most of which, I would contend, are affective rather than academic: resilience, problem-solving, creativity, innovation, relationship-building, and (especially) kindness will see them through the unexpected. This is my partial list of competencies, you will have your own.

This is not another piece on why we need to prepare students with 21st century, core, transversal, soft, essential, or [insert your favorite word here] skills. This is not about how we need to make sure students are ready for the world of tomorrow or how we have to teach them to be flexible enough to be relevant in 10 years. This is not a piece about how we need to be more student-centered (I think we need to move beyond that anyway).

This is a piece on the future of those systems and administrators who push pure academics—loosely defined as products and exams as the driving pedagogical force to assess the mastery of content. This is about how they will be replaced in just a few short years as they become irrelevant. Gone. This is a warning: systems that favor pure academics (deliver content, test, rinse, repeat) are seriously threatened unless they re-purpose the experiences they provide in school.

I’m not even going to open the door on the debate about which is more important for student success, academic- or competency-based frameworks. I prefer the latter, but that’s neither here nor there. If you believe we should keep going with traditional models, fine, own it. We don’t need to work in the same place. We can still respect each other and trade ideas about lots of things over a meal or a cup of coffee. I wish you the best and vaya con dios, amigo. But I still think your days are numbered.

Let’s take an admittedly over-simplified model of a content and exam-based (purely academic) school experience. This is not a slate on teachers, but rather on the mechanization of teaching that many systems promote.

Teacher takes from curriculum what topic the class should learn [sic] about and prepares materials to impart knowledge on said topic: textbook, handouts, worksheets, slides, etc. Teacher goes over the material, has the students research an aspect of the topic, goes over a skill or two that will be assessed formatively, gives a quiz, provides questions for discussion, then creates a summative assessment to grade based on the content objectives. Ok, that’s for a unit, but really, we can stretch this over a whole year: content, exams along the way, high stakes tests or products at the end. You get it the picture. You might thinks this makes sense and proves that students have the rigor, discipline and cognitive capacity to excel at university and in the workplace, and you might have a point.

But if we are looking for this model to document student achievement and uncover potential, why are we relying on teachers? In a few years, artificial Intelligence (AI) will do the job much better, ensure the highest quality content, pedagogical approaches, reliability and validity of assessment, and standardization of marking. All those things that those who hold pure academics near and dear can be delivered better by an android.

In the very near future, AI will not only hold student data, but be equipped with the algorithms to provide material and content that are personalized to each student’s individual level of challenge, language proficiency, and pace of learning. AI will be able to collect data in real time and make adjustments based on what piques each student’s curiosity: by tracking (eye) pupil dilation, heart rate, and levels of oxytocin, AI will know how to capture students’ attention. Let’s provide Johnny with a math problem based on gaming and Sally the same math problem anchored around a story about volleyball. With access to millions of terabytes of curated videos, articles, and holographic images, AI will be able to deliver instant anything that meets each young person’s needs in that moment. No more planning. No more needing to collect resources for differentiated learning. AI will make decisions in millionths of a second that will have a greater impact on content acquisition and academic skills mastery than any teacher.  The assessments will be customized for each students’ needs and marking will be standardized across the country, finally allowing us to compare students reliably. AI will look for key words, transition phrases and have scan for dates, numbers, names or examples. Computers have been writing articles in media for years, why couldn’t they scan a test paper for content?

Note that I am not referring to what some edutech companies are peddling as personalization through AI. These are often nothing more than automated worksheets based on basic “if, then” algorithms that are nothing more than time-savers for teachers. When a student gets all the multiple choice questions correct on a computerized unit test, they can move on to the next unit. When they don’t, the computer sends them back to a content video and then dishes them up more of the same questions they got wrong. That’s not personalization, that’s efficiency. 

I am talking about AI in the form of androids, androids that will replace human teachers, androids who are connected to networks of countless nodes that perpetually and instantaneously process and adjust information to deliver the highest quality, personalized content by comparing one student’s data (action, reaction, performance in the moment) with all the other students in the global, networked database. Based on probabilities for success derived from these comparisons, these androids dish up customized experiences for each student that are richer, more exciting, and more impactful than what teachers could ever come up with*. Students would always get the most precise, up-to-date answers to their questions that the androids’ voice recognition software processes instantaneously. No more divergent or erroneous facts. No more misinformation from teachers  faulty memory. Students from around the country (world?) will no longer be at the mercy of their teachers’ subject knowledge or their pedagogical approaches: while the experiences would be personalized to meet learners’ needs, they would also be paradoxically standardized. The outcome is the same, but the path to get there differs. It still places high stakes exam at the center, not the student. On high stakes testing day, while socio-economic disparities would still have a significant influence on achievement levels, at least the quality of content would be the same. 

Isn’t that the dream of those who promote the frameworks that value meritocratic exams [sic again]? Reliable, valid assessment based on content standardization while ensuring that each student encounters challenge at just the right level and in ways that pique interest (again, this remains exam-centered, not student-centered)? 

This is not my thing but it may be yours, and, again, that’s ok. We can both own how we see the world differently. Just know the risks. This isn’t a sci-fi adventure. It’s gonna happen. Androids (AI) will replace you. They can do a more efficient job of delivering content. Just like a robot arm can do a more efficient job to make an automobile.

Artificial Intelligence can deliver content and maybe it can even think, but the likelihood that androids develop a consciousness is close to zero. Philosophers and scientists have never been able to agree on what consciousness is, much less where it comes from, but if we simplify the concept of consciousness as having awareness and feelings, then consciousness allows for being-to-being (in all its forms) relationships that simply can’t exist between being and computer. Consciousness, this awareness, these feelings are what enrich the learning experience and make it not only social, but organic (literally and figuratively).

I define learning as the process of change that occurs when one experience affects behavior in another experience. What follows is the question “how can this experience have the most impact on learning?” which is another way of making sure that behaviors in another, subsequent experience have value and greater impact on this second experience. If it’s mastery of content you’re after then there is no need for a human teacher**. 

If you believe learning is about cultivating resilience, problem-solving, creativity, innovation relationship-building, and (especially) kindness, then your consciousness is the irreplaceable asset you bring that may save your job.  Maybe this tells us about about how we should approach not only the teaching and learning but each other, taking learning experiences beyond the classroom and into the great space that is our daily like. If consciousness is what will keep us relevant, no matter our profession, then we should perhaps cultivate awareness and feeling toward making a positive impact, toward life in all its forms.

* When you think about it though, all these androids would have to do, all other things equal, is have 1% more impact on results than humans. It could never be a case of ceteris paribus, of course, but that’s not the point.

** Even if you have another definition of learning, ask yourself what is the best way to get your objectives. 

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