Relationships vs. Robots


"Technology will not replace great teachers, but technology in the hands of great teachers can be transformational" - George Couros

 

In the Inspiration section of this book, I shared a powerful story regarding the importance of relationships when it comes to learning.  In my experience, I have found that one has to feel a sense of psychological, emotional, and physical safety before any significant learning can occur.  While I have had countless positive relationships in school—both as a teacher and a student—I would like to share one that had the most profound impact on me, as well as one of my students. 

During my second year as a sixth-grade math and science teacher, I decided that I wanted to check off a bucket list item of running a marathon.  I had been a runner my entire life and I wanted to challenge myself to see if I could actually run a full 26.2 mile race.  Not surprisingly, I couldn't find any family or friends that were willing to join me.  So, I decided I would research some local training groups that I might be able to join so that I didn't have to train by myself.

In my research, I stumbled across the organization, Team in Training and discovered that they provide professional coaching and training for endurance challenges in order to raise money for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS).  After doing a little more digging I found out that LLS conducts scientific research in order to cure blood cancers and improve the lives of patients and their families.  I was so inspired by this organization that I decided to sign up with Team in Training and began training for the Walt Disney World Marathon in Orlando, Florida.  

Only after a few weeks of training, I began telling close family and friends about the marathon and asked for their support with fundraising.  I needed to hit a goal of roughly $3,200 in order to qualify to run the marathon with TNT.  I was shocked by how generous everyone was by donating their money and spreading the word to others in order to support me and this inspiring cause.  The donations continued to pour in and after about two months I had almost reached my goal.  

I was so excited about the progress I had made—both in training for the marathon and in fundraising—I just had to share this news with my students.  The first class I told was one of my sixth-grade science sections that I had at the end of the day.  Everyone was so happy and excited for me when I told them about my journey, except for one student.  As the bell rang, my students eagerly got out of their seats to leave for the day, except for that one student, Francesca, who stayed behind.  After everyone else had left the room, she slowly walked up to my desk, and with every bit of courage she had in her, she muttered, "My little brother, Carson, just recently got diagnosed with Leukemia ... thank you for all that you are doing." Then, she started to cry and walked out of my classroom. 

I stood there for a moment to fully comprehend what I had just learned.  As excited as I was to share my news, it didn't even occur to me how this news might land on my students.  It was my second year of teaching and I was so naive to not even consider that some of my students might know someone, or even have a family member who has cancer.  I felt like someone had knocked the wind out of me. I felt sick to my stomach. 

That afternoon, I decided to write her parents an email to share what had happened in class.  I struggled to find the words to write, as I had no idea what I should say.  I finally got to a point where I felt comfortable enough to hit send, and then anxiously waited for a response.  Later that evening, I got an email back from her parents expressing their deepest gratitude for not only raising money for LLS, but for deciding to tell my students.  They graciously thanked me for my support and even decided to make a donation on my fundraising website. 

As time passed, I noticed that my connection to Francesca and her family grew stronger.  One day I decided to take a risk and ask her family if I could run the marathon in Carson's honor.  Their response was priceless, and they happily granted my request.  I met Carson for the first time when Francesca's parents picked her up after school one day.  It was such a special moment that I will never forget.  They even invited me to his fourth birthday party that year where I got to meet some of Carson's friends.  Before I ran the race, I painted, "4 Carson" on my Team in Training jersey since he had just turned four years old.  

I ended up finishing the marathon, and raising over $5,000 for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society that year.  It was such an amazing accomplishment, but it wasn't nearly as fulfilling as the relationship that I developed with Francesca and her family.  In that one year, I saw Francesca go from a student who was apathetic and unmotivated, to a student who was thriving in the classroom.  I am also happy to share that Carson was able to beat cancer, and he is living his best life today. 

This story serves as an example of how meaningful relationships between a teacher and student can transform learning in the classroom.  As an educator, I have seen the power of positive relationships and how they can inspire and motivate students to succeed. On the other hand, as an instructional technology specialist, I also love computers.  I love how they can be used as learning tools to help students consume and process information, share content, and produce artifacts that showcase their creativity and personality.  However, with the rise of artificial intelligence, robotics, and adaptive learning, some people believe that teaching could become automated.  And some even believe that it is not a matter of if, but when.  So, with these two ideas in mind it naturally begs the question: Are students able to learn better from teachers, or computers? In order to answer this question, we need to take a closer look at each side of the argument with regard to student learning.  

Robots

It can be frightening to think about the possibility that computers—or even robots—might be able to replace teachers someday.  Although we have to admit, we have been using computers in the classroom for decades, and we have seen the positive impact they continue to make on teaching and learning.  What's more, we have witnessed the rapid growth in computer processing that has helped to amplify and accelerate teaching and learning.  We have also seen how quickly computers have ended up in the hands of students, allowing them to learn more effectively and efficiently.  As computers continue to get more artificially intelligent, this idea—that robots might replace teachers—is moving farther away from science fiction, and getting closer to reality. 

In his book, Computers in the School, Robert Taylor writes about the potential for three distinct uses for computers in the classroom: 


A tutor.  The computer displays instruction and conducts assessment.
A tool.  The computer allows the student to perform academic tasks easier and more efficiently.
A tutee. The student learns by programming (tutoring) the computer.


Even though Taylor published this concept back in 1980, much of what he wrote still holds true today.  Students are currently using online programs (particularly in math and language arts) that tutor them by presenting instruction, conducting assessments, and even adapting its instruction based on their responses.  They also use lots of different technology tools that allow them to quickly research and find information, easily access and share work with teachers, and create digital artifacts that demonstrate their learning and understanding.  Most recently, students are even learning from computers as a tutee by writing code such as HTML & CSS, Javascript, and Python, in addition to programming robots that have their own computer programming language.  In each of these learning experiences, students receive feedback from the computer that helps them to learn and adapt so that they can make informed decisions and solve problems.

However, with the rapid increase in technology in the last 40 years, we have to wonder if computers will ever be used as a teacher.  And if they can be used as a teacher, will the learning that students gain from the computer be more effective than learning from a teacher?  Adding to Taylor's idea, here is what I would contribute as the potential for another distinct use for computers in the classroom:

A teacher.  The student learns entirely from the computer which provides an efficient learning experience that is both personalized and adaptive.

In order to entertain this addendum to Taylor's original concept, I would like to share a unique perspective that attempts to make the case for students learning from robots rather than teachers.  Alex Beard, a journalist for The Guardian, published an article back in 2020 in an attempt to answer the question, "Can computers ever replace the classroom?"  In his research, Beard interviewed, Derek Haoyang Li who is a successful entrepreneur and is the founder of Squirrel AI, an education company that offers tutoring delivered in part by humans, but mostly by smart machines, which he says will completely transform education.

In the article, Li is convinced that robots will eventually replace teachers due to the increased efficiency that computers can provide.  Not only does Li think this will happen, he wants it to happen. In fact, Beard writes, "Li’s dream, which is the dream of adaptive education in general, is that AI will one day provide the perfect learning experience by ensuring that each of us get just the right chunk of content, delivered in the right way, at the right moment for our individual needs" (Beard, 2020).  In other words, Li believes that computers will eventually help students maximize their learning by providing the conditions that are most conducive to learning.

Not only does Li envision a future where students learn from computers, he also believes that he has the solution in order to turn his dream into reality.  In his interview with Beard, Li claimed that the solution to creating these conditions is adaptive learning, where an intelligent computer-based system adjusts itself automatically to the best method for an individual learner (Beard, 2020).  To back his claim, Li provides examples of success that AI has had in other fields such as medicine and law when he revealed that AI doctors are now equal to or better than humans at analyzing X-rays for certain pathologies, while AI lawyers are carrying out legal research that would once have been done by clerks (Beard, 2020).  And based on the success of AI in these fields, Li doesn't believe that education is far behind.

What's even more compelling is new research in neuroscience regarding how the brain actually learns, which supports the use of AI technology in education.  Li discloses the science behind the learning process when he explains that repetitive practice grows expertise, and interleaving (leaving gaps between learning different bits of material) can help us achieve mastery.  As a result, we will be able to design adaptive algorithms to optimize the learning process (Beard, 2020).  Based on this information, Li is confident that his AI software will eventually be able to both maximize and optimize learning for students, which will completely revolutionize the field of education and surpass the need for human teachers.

What we have learned from this article is that with the rise of adaptive learning in artificial intelligence, coupled with new discoveries in neuroscience, it is possible that robots could eventually become the dominant source of instruction in education.  The most convincing evidence that I have found is that smart machines can provide students with individualized learning that has the ability to tailor instruction to the unique learning needs of students, thus creating a perfectly personalized learning experience for each student.  However, this argument only focuses on the intellectual, academic skills of students and does not take into account for teaching the whole child as a learner.  This next segment will dive into the importance of relationships, as well as other aspects of a classroom environment, which even the smartest computers cannot compete with.


Relationships

Now that we have explored some research and testimony supporting robots over teachers, let's switch gears to examine the added value that students get by learning from professionally trained humans in a classroom setting with other students.  

It has been said that teaching is the most human of all professions. That's because learning is one of the most fundamental qualities that we possess as human beings.  And based on my own experience, I would argue that establishing healthy relationships is the greatest contributing factor to student learning.  The main reason for this argument is simply because learning requires more than just intellectual ability, it requires a social-emotional connection between the teacher and the student. 

Let's consider this line of thinking to serve as an example: 

  • Teachers who build trust and establish meaningful connections with students develop positive relationships.
  • Positive relationships promote a safe and shared learning environment that creates a deep sense of belonging in students.
  • Students who feel like they belong are more willing to take risks that are necessary for significant learning to occur. 

From these statements, we can deduce that developing positive relationships with students allows for more meaningful learning opportunities.  The reason for this is that students naturally become vulnerable during the learning process.  Learning requires us to accept the fact that we have gaps in our knowledge and skills, and that we will need to make mistakes in order to close these gaps.  However, by creating a trusting relationship with teachers, students are able to build up the confidence and courage that is needed in order to take the risks that will allow them to learn. 

Immersing students in a classroom environment also allows students to learn more than just the intended curriculum that is provided by computers.  There are other types of curriculum that students learn just from being in the classroom such as the social curriculum, unintended curriculum, and the hidden curriculum. The social curriculum allows students to learn from the perspectives, experiences, and cultures of their teachers, as well as their classmates. And the more diverse the classroom, the more students learn from each other.  The unintended curriculum allows students to learn from events that organically occur in a classroom, such as questions from students that might take the lesson on unanticipated tangents.  And the null curriculum allows for students to acquire morals and values that are deeply ingrained into the policies, programs, and pedagogies of a learning institution. 

I would also argue that in addition to teaching curriculum, teachers also help students to build their character.  Students learn valuable lessons everyday in the classroom from their social interaction with peers, as well as having meaningful conversations with their teachers.  Many schools even implement a character program that promotes service learning to help others in need both inside and outside of their community, as well creating a restorative justice plan to help students learn from their own mistakes.  These types of experiences with teachers help to educate the whole child, which supplements the limited capacity that computers could ever render. 

Extending this argument a step further, Dr. Hope Dugan explains why even the most sophisticated computer cannot effectively replace a good teacher. In an article that she wrote for The Learning Counsel, Dugan highlights the human elements of teaching that can't be replicated by computers when she states that teaching is relational, inspirational, transferrable, and is built on empathy and trust.

1. Teaching is relational; not transactional

Dugan's first point is that teaching is more than just the transaction of information passed from a computer to a student; it requires human connection which helps to create and sustain meaningful relationships throughout the learning process.  While robotics and other forms of information communication tools can be used to enhance or accelerate human correspondence; they cannot establish and maintain meaningful associations (Dugan, 2021).  In other words, computers might be effective for fostering human relationships, but they cannot create them.

2. Teaching is inspirational

Secondly, Dugan believes that teaching is about inspiration, not information. For example, effective teaching focuses on the why and how, not the what, with the goal to spark imagination and to find a bridge to learners’ hearts and minds. And while computers may be able to motivate students to learn, they cannot inspire them (Dugan, 2021).  Therefore, teachers will always have an edge on computers because they are able to inspire their students to achieve greatness.

3. Teaching uses transference

Dugan's third point is that teachers can apply their lessons to new situations and context, whereas computers cannot.  She tells us that machines do not perform well when confronted with new situations and that part of the reason is that computers cannot (yet) reliably transfer learning to a new situation as robots are designed to draw inferences based on pre-programmed possibilities.  As an example, Dugan writes, "When an AI is given a 'transfer test' where it is confronted with scenarios that differ from the examples used in training/coding, it cannot contextualize the situation and frequently cannot complete the task."  Put simply, Dugan says that personal experiences are unique to humans and cannot be transferred into machines. 

4. Teaching is built on empathy and trust

The fourth point that Dugan makes is that in order for students to thrive, they need to feel connected.  And there is a major difference between teachers showing empathy, and computers spitting out programmed responses.  For example, Dugan claims that if you were to share your sadness with a robot and it responded, "I am sorry for your loss, I can imagine you must be very upset" it would most likely not create a meaningful connection. Why? Because the robot does not have genuine emotions. There is no empathy, merely good programming (Dugan, 2021).  Therefore, since computers do not have the ability to empathize with students, they are not as effective as teachers are when it comes to learning.


Relationships with Robots

Let's go back to the original question that was asked in this section.  Rather than asking if students are able to learn better from teachers or computers, what if we were able to approach this idea differently by questioning how students can learn better from both teachers and computers?  In this way, we could shift our focus to understand and appreciate our relationships with robots?  What if we were able to reframe our original question to, "How might teachers leverage computers in order to enhance student learning?

By asking this new question, we can combine the best of both worlds to offer the most effective learning experience for our students. Dugan sums up this point perfectly when she writes, "Whereas machines can motivate a learner through badges and game-based design, teachers encourage students when they struggle, and inspire them to set and reach for their goals. A computer can provide information, but a teacher can lend a hand, or an ear, and discern what each student needs to succeed" (Dugan, 2021).  Thus, by highlighting the strengths from both teachers and robots, we can see how they can operate in harmony to help students learn.


Lessons from the Pandemic

Teaching and learning amidst a pandemic reminded us of two important lessons. One, that technology can be used in education to bring students and teachers together in order to create meaningful learning opportunities.  And two, students truly need guidance, support, and inspiration from their teachers—something that computers will never be able to do in the same way that teachers can.

During the pandemic, parents, students, and teachers all saw the detrimental impact that happened when students had to learn remotely.  For over a year, students missed out on critical classroom experiences such as collaborating with classmates, engaging in personalized conversations with teachers, and creating hands-on projects that only a school environment can provide.  

However, because of educational technology, students were at least able to attend class virtually. Even though their experience wasn't as effective as in-person learning in the classroom, students were still able to leverage technology devices and online applications that allowed them to connect with their teachers, complete learning tasks, and turn in assignments.  This just goes to show how students can benefit from both teachers and computers, and why learning needs a harmonious blend of both relationships and robots.


References

  1. Beard, Alex. “Can Computers Ever Replace the Classroom?” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 19 Mar. 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/mar/19/can-computers-ever-replace-the-classroom.
  2. Dugan, Hope. “5 Reasons Why Even the Most Sophisticated Computer Cannot Effectively Replace a Good Teacher.” The Learning Counsel, 2021. https://thelearningcounsel.com/article/5-reasons-why-even-most-sophisticated-computer-cannot-effectively-replace-good-teacher-0
  3. Martinez, S. L., & Stager, G. (2013). Invent to learn: Making, tinkering, and engineering in the classroom. Torrance, CA: Constructing Modern Knowledge Press.
  4. Taylor, Robert. The Computer in the School: Tutor, Tool, Tutee. Teachers College P., 1980. 

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