There has been a great thought and threat in the minds of teachers with the growing news of the possibility of them being replaced by some technology that can be so intelligent that teachers one day will be obsolete. All the news about artificial intelligence and machine learning and the ability of machines to mimic teachers is engrossed both by the enthusiasm of some tech people who are developing these technologies, and the intimidated ignorance of some teachers. I will try to uncover some of the mystery behind this topic as a teacher who is very much into technology.
Technology has never been more empowering for teachers, yet the gap lies in the nature and purpose of development of these technologies by commercial companies that can sometimes be perfectly aligned with the educational goals every savvy teacher is well-aware of, or at some other times can fall way apart from anything that has to do with education itself. On the other hand, some teachers who are too intimidated by this fast-paced change contributed to this tug of war game between teachers and new technology makers.
Some companies have prided themselves with creating solutions that can kick the teacher out of the classroom, but the way attitude is right now, even with the top educational technology providers in the market, is so different from before. After the many failing adventures in the realm of the classroom, companies have realized that even with them creating a top-notch hi-tech vessel for education, they still need to ally with veteran captains to take the steering job. To name but a few of those failures, the introduction of tablets into schools, which came with a big fuss and great expectations for changing the very nature of education in schools, this great tide is receding now just like any other toy a child is given and is bored with after playing with it for a little while. Tablets were thrown at schools without planning on any educational value, or strategy to make the best use out of this great tool. That leads to its having almost only the benefits of saving trees that were used to make paper books, and relieving the heavy load on our children’s backs by helping them carry less to school.
Another example is the electronic whiteboard, which has always been one of the most beneficial tools to be used in a classroom, but most of the schools paid top dollar for it just to copy-paste the same content there was in textbooks and make it digital, which by itself incurred a lot of expenses. Educational so-called games were created for the classroom, but most of them were, more or less, graphical representations of multiple-choice questions in the form of a so-called game. Most of the technologies focused on the part that dealt with loading information in the minds of our students rather than making the best of both worlds and working on the skills our students need, which are practicable today more than ever thanks to the insanely high level of technology we enjoy today.
Teachers in most of these scenarios were like a ship drifted and carried upon the waves of commercial opportunities, so they rushed to learn how to use these new tools to be able to use them in their classes. And once they did, they would go on and use them all the time regardless of the appropriateness and relevance to the subject matter or the specific concepts being taught.
What we need to do today as teachers are to start with our needs and visions, and see which technology fit our vision. However, to be fair to new technologies, we also need to inspect every new breakthrough in technology and see the best way to harness that power, or in some cases, how we need to change our methods and way of thinking to adapt to a widespread phenomenon. For example, Google and other powerful search engines made the need for memorizing tons of information useless, for we all know that we as teachers nowadays do not bother to memorize a lot of stuff by heart like we had to do twenty years ago; we would simply Google it anytime we need. But when it comes to our students, we still expect to memorize a lot more than they need, as if we want them to suffer as we had suffered when we were at school.
About this search engine phenomenon that we have been living with for more than twenty years now, we need to find new skills to teach our students, or at least, change our priorities in which skills should surface now on top of the educational world. In this sense, which skill do you think is more valuable today? Is it the ability to stuff a lot of information in our minds, or the ability to critically select which sources to trust more on the net? Shouldn’t the ability to know how run an online research for some topic be more important? Shouldn’t the ability to present our findings in the most persuasive way possible be key in the 21st century? Shouldn’t all of that change the way we think about technology in the classroom? I think the real issue is to find the right terms to ally with technology rather than be on the other side of River Styx, each calling the other’s side, the side of the dead.
I am not trying to blame any of the commercial companies, which are simply doing their job, or teachers, who are doing their job; all I am trying to say here is that there is no way we can do without each other, teachers and technology. I also don’t want to hint that all of whom I mentioned in my previous example are as negative as I showed them; I know there are a lot of people who are trying to use the best of both worlds, and most of them are doing a fantastic job.
So will the teacher disappear from the classroom as some heads of educational companies dream about to cut expenses? The answer to that question is definitely no. But let us be honest with ourselves, can the teacher’s role stay the same as before? No. Is it going to be easier for teachers? Unfortunately, no. We need tomorrow’s teachers to have more skills than information. A teacher in the past, who had taught a class on a specific subject, was the one and only authoritative source of information for the students. Besides that, all of the discussions were run about topics that were already in the book he would have taught for years and years. So that would make him the undisputed expert in the subject matter. However, today, when we use the simplest forms of technology in a project research-based method of teaching, we are not the only source of information anymore, and the discussions that may arise in our classes are not usually originated in our textbooks, and guys, we cannot consider the ones who bring discussions from outside the firm borders of textbook as outlaws anymore. Students have all the tools now to access any information they please; we cannot be the knowledge police anymore, we need to be the all-around captains they can trust, and when they turn to us for our advice, they have to know that we will know what to do, but that we do not know everything all the time. One last thing they need to know is that we can learn from them. I would say that many teachers already hate me now.
If you just imagine that today, with technology, you have a chance to imagine anything, and have it in no time in the classroom. You only need to know what you want to achieve, learn how or partner with people who know how, and be willing to give up your throne and come down to your students to be as you have always been, one of them.
May 14, 2015