Thursday, November 1, 2012

A teacher who can be replaced by a computer, should be.

I recently read a precis of a talk given by Sugata MitraProfessor of Educational Technology, School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences, at Newcastle University in the UK, and I wanted to share a few highlights here.

Mitra is perhaps most well known for his 'Hole in the Wall' programme in India, where he installed computers in 'holes in the wall' in local, mostly illiterate, communities.  The people were not given any training at all.  They would just walk up to the computer and 'play around' with it.  He went away and then returned nine months later and asked the children in the village to take a computer literacy test.  He was astonished to find that these children had taught themselves to use the computer to a similar ability as the average secretary: using email, word processing, spreadsheets, and communicating on social networks. Without any formal 'education', these children had managed to teach themselves how to use computers.  If you have time, here is Mitra talking about this project in a TED talk.

In a conversation with Arthur C. Clarke, the famous science fiction writer most well-known for the film 2001: A Space Oddysey, the two discussed the obsession people have with understanding objects, rather than using objects to understand meaning. Mitra came away with two tenets related to education:
  • A teacher that can be replaced by a machine should be.
  • When learners have interest, education happens.
Mitra now proposes a radically different mode of education, which he calls "Emergent Learning".  His model is simple...REDUCE the number of computers to force people to work together (in a class of twenty children, provide only four computers so children must work in groups of 4-5), have the class elect a 'police officer' to keep 'law and order', and encourage discussion, movement and play. The 'curriculum' then becomes a series of 'big questions', i..e., topics where adults may not know the answers, such as 'Can trees think?'  Groups are given a tight time limit of 45 minutes to try to find an answer.  In order to maintain momentum, Mitra advocates the availability of a 'Granny cloud' - a network of people who provide remote encouragement and support. If the children get stuck, a remote granny is projected onto the wall via a projector. However, the function of the 'cloud grannies' is not to teach, rather they just ask questions and admire the learners.  Note...there is no teacher in this scenario.
At the end of his presentation, Mitra shared a list of provocative ideas about the future of education...the 'big questions' we should think about:
  • How do we 'test' a connected student?
  • Is it necessary to learn new languages at all? Maybe machines will translate.
  • Is arithmetic obsolete? Very few store clerks need this anymore, and we now have computing devices. Indians used to consider astrology a life skill, but it's now obsolete. Self defense with a sword and horse riding used to be basic life skills, but they're now obsolete.
  • Is vocational training meaningless? Why go to culinary school when you can watch a cooking video on YouTube?
  • Is the absence of a teacher a pedagogic tool?
  • Can cheating improve learning? If you allow some people to use the Internet in exams, might the cheaters learn over time?
Mitra suggests that the connections we get from the cloud are making our current concept of education as obsolete today as riding a horse and fighting with a sword.  Perhaps even within our generation, our grandchildren might come to us and ask us incredulously if it was really true that "there was a time that people used to believe that education was very important."

Is our current system of education obsolete? Do you have any experiences as a student that would support Mitra that 'the absence of a teacher is a pedagogic tool'? 

19 comments:

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  2. Although Mitra's experimentation in India, that brought suggestion of possibility of children who can teach themselves without any formal instruction from a human instructor, caught my interest I have to say that our current education system that began to integrate technology use inside the classical lecture oriented education is not obsolete, I think that merging the technology power and a teacher's own capabilities in contrary a new addition.I have to disagree with Mitra's suggestion of removing teachers from the main picture of education despite I favored children that could teach themselves without any instructors to educate them, human instructors in my eyes are not separatable from the education system itself, they are intervined- No machinery, no matter how improved they are, can replace a alive instructor..at least that's my opinion about this subject. When I trace the memories of my student life I cannot find a specific point where I didn't have an education without a guidance of a teacher.

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    1. You make a good point...they used to say that computers won't replace teachers, but teachers who use computers will replace teachers who don't. :) However, if a teacher delivers the same thing that a computer can do, e.g., turn to page 56, the answer to question 3 is 'a', etc., then I can see Mitra's point. Aligned to Mitra's approach is the relatively new educational paradigm called 'connectivism' - see http://www.huffingtonpost.com/stephen-downes/connectivism-and-connecti_b_804653.html. This new approach would seem to suggest that the role that the teacher plays is going to have to change (or possibly that the concept of a 'teacher' as we know it will no longer have any meaning in the 'connected' world). BTW...you can follow Stephen Downes on TWITTER at @Downes

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  3. That is simple observable fact that our current education system that began to blend technology use. whenever the learners have assignments the first searhing tools is to look up internet! However, I think the classical lecture, I mean student-teacher-oriented education, is not obsolete so it's good to see student-student, teacher-student association still though. My thoughts do not match up with Mitra's advice of removing teachers from the main picture of education because everybody has a different type of understand, that is a bit related with deep understanding and the surface learning. I do not remember whether I had a such an experiences in my education life :) but no! Although, one point that I want to highlight on is the teacher guidance and the tehnology based on humans are quite different from each other and I think we should not harmonize each other to themselves.

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    1. Mitra does use technology (primarily the Internet), but his suggested approach is very much based on human interaction, with technology only as the 'tool' to serve problem-solving. His ideal classroom is to have students working in groups of 4 or 5, with a class-elected student as the 'policeman' to make sure all groups are on task. As you mentioned, Mitra sees a need for a 'guide', and introduced a 'cloud granny' so groups can consult the 'cloud granny' when they are stuck in solving the problem. Again, the 'could granny' only asks questions or gives encouragement, not the answer.

      I have observed that almost all Turkish students are reluctant to work in groups. Almost invariably, they prefer to work alone, and they generally look to the teacher to tell them the 'right' answer. If this is the 'outcome' of the education system, do you think that the 'system' (in which the teacher plays an important role) is serving the best interests of society?

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  5. That was really interesting topic. Students'learning with only their efforts can be possible in a limited extent.I can'T disagree with Mitra, but when I looked at our current aducation system , I see that it is not obsolete because education is a way of development. And the teachers show us where we will go.Then, when I look at Mitra's idea(as I understand)about the stundets' self learning, I agree that children can learn without guidance. But there is a question in my mind. To what extent can children learn?I think ıf there isn't a teacher, student can learn something, but without a teacher, they can't how they can benefit from the knowledge and how they can use the knowledge effectively, so the the guidance of a teacher is necessary for further development.

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    1. Interesting perspective on learning from a young age. Have you seen Ken Robinson's TEDtalk about how "education kills creativity"? See http://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity.html

      Perhaps the question is not about the role of teachers, but rather the role of our current system of education (in which teachers play an important part). If the actual system of education is in question, then it is natural to wonder if the actual role of teachers needs to be re-examined as well. What is the primary function of our current system of education? Do you think that our current education system is producing creative, critical thinking, innovative members of society?

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  6. I have seen that learning by individually without any teacher or instruction can be possible where the settings that lack efficient teaching environment which refers to those local settings that are illiterate communities such as India. It showed me that it can be possible under these circumstances but does it mean that it is enough for gaining deep understanding of the use of technologies without there is a counselor that make them aware why they use these technological tools for what purposes? For example, I have a course called CTE319, I am becoming aware to what extend I can use the tools, applications and related features of technology in my profession. I am being taught how to use them for different purposes which increases my consciousness while I am learning how to use them. I also learn their limitations which make me aware not to use the tools that are insufficient for certain situations where the needs can not be met enough. It shows me that the necessity of a teacher model in teaching rather than learning individually. Therefore, I can't easily say that okay, we have started to use technology ın our today's education system( e.g presentations) in our teaching and learning process so if technology can manage to teach us let's replace technology with teachers. I think it would also clash with me as a teacher candidate who can also be a role model for students to show the way that they should go over. I question also to what extend if technology replaces with teacher can provide affective characteristics between students that can affect their learning positively? Considering this case technology lacks providing affective characteristics of a teacher that encourages students in the learning process. Therefore, my point of view, teachers should not be replaced with technology.

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    1. Remember, Mitra said that if a teacher just does what a robot could do, then the teacher should be replaced by a robot. This begs the question of what is a robot capable of. Have a look at this article: http://www.faronics.com/2012/robots-the-next-generation-of-teachers/ and http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-1342152/Robot-teachers-human-faces-roll-classroom-run-English-lessons.html as examples of where robots have already started appearing in classrooms. Perhaps the question now is not whether robots can be teachers, but in what circumstances is it better to have a human teacher instead of a robot.

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  7. As using technology for education started to spread day by day, people get used to it. Using technology in school curriculum is very useful, beneficial for students. With technology they will be able to create different ideas online. They will save more time and develop in using technologic materials. However, I think technology cannot take the teacher's position. When students are controlled by a teacher, it leads more meaningful learning. Realia is more beneficial in teaching. Teachers have more effective role than the technology. I think listening instruction from a teacher is more effective than just reading it from the screen. Teachers have big role in education, not technology:)

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    1. You echo the sentiments of Nil about the value of a 'real live' teacher as opposed to a computer screen, but in particular you refer to effectiveness. I wonder, how effective is a teacher in a class of 40 students (not untypical in Turkey)? Do you think that there is a role for computers in more individualized instruction?

      Also, Mitra's metholodogy revolves around collaboration in small groups. In your experience, how much small group work did you do in the language classroom? How much was centered on the teacher?

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  8. In my opinion the role of a teacher is unique and cannot be replaced by technology. Still, nowadays technology plays a big role in education and cannot be underestimated. So, I think that both of them are important but we cannot replace the two between each other. To me, combining the two of them would work the best. A teacher should use technology whenever needed in education in order to be up to date and effective. When I become a teacher, I will use technology with my students and I will try to be up to date with technology.

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    1. Can you think of any specific ways that you will use technology with your students, and reasons why these ways might be more effective than just having a teacher on their own?

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  9. I do not think that the current education system is the obsolete one. Additionally, I do not think that learning can occur without a teacher, only by technology. The role of the teacher cannot be underestimated and the technology is an assistant tool in learning period. Through technology you can provide several things to your students as videos,articles.. but I do not think that it is effective without a teacher.

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    1. Why do you think the current education system is not obsolete? Mitra has shown that it is possible (and often better) for 'real' learning to take place in the absence of a teacher. The key question here is what is 'real' learning...in Mitra's case, it involves thinking outside the box, being creative, developing critical thinking skills. How well does the current system of education perform in these areas?

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  10. It is amazing how many of these types of discussion never use the word "CURIOSITY". The issue is not children teaching themselves it is exploring on the basis of their curiosity. They end up learning in the process of exploring. Our system of teaching is often shoving uninteresting junk down children's throats.

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    1. Indeed - 'curiosity' or 'divergent thinking' are innate qualities of our human psyche--and they can survive in some individuals even after twelve years of concerted effort to eradicate 'curiosity' from the souls of our youth by formalized education and standardizes. See Ken Robinson's plea for a shift in the current educational paradigm https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U

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