Thursday, August 31, 2017

Building a Better (Robot) Teacher

An article in the Sunday Review section of the New York Times this week caught my eye. It was entitled, The Secret of a Good Robot Teacher. The article begins with the question, Why is educational technology such a disappointment? You can read the article if you like, but, spoiler alert, I can tell you the answer the authors provide in one sentence: technology has failed because it cannot replicate what a teacher does.

Now I am the last person on earth to pooh pooh good research and the authors of this article have apparently done some solid research on the topic of educational technology. But I believe that any thinking human being could have come to the same conclusion as these researchers at least 50 years ago. In fact, science fiction writer Isaac Asimov did come to that conclusion in a short story called, The Fun They Had, written in 1951. In the story, Asimov imagines a time in the future when children are taught at home via a computer screen "teacher" that is calibrated to provide lessons based on the individual child's aptitudes. The kids hate it and long for the time when kids went to school together, were instructed by a real human, and read something called "books."

In the times article the authors cite a six-year study that examined different cybertechnology programs across thousands of students in hundreds of schools and found little evidence that it improved academic performance. The authors believe that the problem is that we just have not built a good enough robot yet, one that is responsive to the social cues so necessary in learning, and that we need to spend our time (and presumably money) on building robots that are socially responsive. In fact, they built one. A "robot that looked like a cute plush creature" with an animated face that allowed for expressions and eye movements. The researchers found that kids learned better from the expressive robot than they did from a "flat" one.

I wish the world of cybertechnology good luck in building a robot that is more successful in helping children learn, but I would suggest that this is not the best way to use scarce resources. We already have technology in place to provide the needed social interaction, feedback and authority necessary for learning. We call it the classroom teacher. The really important use of this kind of research should be, I believe, to help us understand more about how children learn and help teachers learn to more effectively use technology as an aid in student learning.

Technology is a tool. Like paper and pencil, technology offers the teacher one more tool to enhance student learning - a learning that will never be unmoored from social interaction with adults and other children. We need to work to refine the tool, not to make it more like a human being, but to make it more useful to actual human beings.