Will technology get rid of teachers?


Will technology get rid of teachers?

A few months ago, a group of graduate students at the Georgia Institute of Technology designed a “virtual TA” (teaching assistant), an “intelligent” computer program that could help students by telling them where to find specific information about a given course, or even re-explain a concept to them. This was seen as a precursor to artificial intelligence (AI) robots gradually replacing teachers.
More perplexing is the university that opened in California one year ago with no professors at all. The college was named 42, after the famously strange reply by the Deep Thought computer in the sci-fi classic “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” to “the great question of life, the universe, and everything”: “The answer… is… 42!” In this “college,” students come to class but find no professor; they are given projects to work on freely and collaboratively, and they are graded by fellow students, picked randomly.
What crazy kind of college is this, you ask? It is the American version of a 42 college that was created in France three years before by a technology billionaire who donated the money, making enrolment there totally free. Most importantly, the college specializes in computer programming only, and delivers “certificates” instead of diplomas, which would not have been recognized. 
The creators of this new style of learning insist that it produces graduates who are not only technically first-rate, but also possess excellent collaborative and management skills, being highly independent and creative.

If 70 percent of people believe that in the future books and teachers will not exist, it means a large majority of people do not perceive the importance of teachers.

Nidhal Guessoum 

In parallel to all this, in a recent survey Debate.org asked people: “Do you believe that in the future, schools will have no books and no teachers?” Seventy percent answered yes. Many people do not seem to realize that replacing print books with e-books is not the same as getting rid of books. 
Some people believe that in the future we will not be using books at all, only watching videos or 3-D virtual-reality programs, or learning by just playing electronic games. It is said that Thomas Edison predicted a century ago that “motion pictures” would end up replacing books.
Clearly, the idea of computers and robots replacing teachers and books is part of today’s anxiety regarding “intelligent” machines taking away our jobs and replacing us in many areas of life and work. People see online courses as not just additions to normal schools, training modules that we can take from far away or to update our knowledge after we have graduated, but rather as a full substitute to the school system itself.
But educators insist that the role of all institutions of learning, from primary school to university, is much more than just imparting knowledge; it is to guide students’ cognitive, psychological and social development, to show them how to learn and how to check one’s ideas, and most importantly to develop a joy of learning that they will carry like a burning desire for the rest of their lives. “Intelligent” machines or robots have not come even close to this capability, and they are not expected to, at least for the foreseeable future. 
Computers and the Internet have undoubtedly had a profound impact on education. We educators (and society as a whole) must imperatively take note and react positively to the place that electronic devices play in kids’ lives today, including in their learning tendencies. 
To begin with, the amount of information that is available online (sometimes illegally, such as textbooks) is staggering. Students know that if the test or assignment that you give amounts to just reciting or reproducing information, they will easily find it. Hence, we must never ask them information-type questions, but rather understanding and skill-type questions. 
Most importantly, students need to see us teachers as indispensable guides, mentors and motivators, not as conveyors of information. We must make students active and excited learners, not passive and bored recipients. 
And we must always remember that they will need to adapt to new conditions of life and work in the future. We thus must not insist on what one should know today, but rather how one should think (today and tomorrow) to ensure one is always capable of adapting to new environments.
My imagination may be limited, but I cannot foresee any technology being able to get rid of teachers altogether. Teachers have too great a role to play in the educational and even social development of youngsters to be easily removed from the system. 
But if 70 percent of people believe that in the future books and teachers will not exist, it means a large majority of people do not perceive the importance of teachers as I do. This implies that the educational process is flawed and needs reform and updating, starting with what teachers do with students.
To paraphrase Mark Twain, rumors of the impending demise of teachers and books are greatly exaggerated. But they point to a double malaise: About the learning/teaching process, and about technology pervading our lives. We need to take full notice of this malaise, and act to ensure that our children’s future is not endangered.

• Nidhal Guessoum is a professor at the American University of Sharjah, UAE. 
Twitter: @NidhalGuessoum
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