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Edtech's war on teachers

In the last 5 years, we have seen a systematic attack by many start-ups against the one thing our students have relied upon for centuries: teachers.

In the last 5 years, we have seen a systematic attack by many start-ups against the one thing our students have relied upon for centuries: teachers.

Edtech companies decry that for education to be able to close the gap between the wealthy and the poor, it needs to be available to everyone and the only way to do that is to make education digital and online. There seems to be a great desire to remove physical interaction with a teacher as if this personal interaction is a barrier to students learning and excelling.

But the most frightening aspect of this line of thought is that Silicon Valley seems to think that humanity is at the point where teachers can be replaced by computers and online designers. But this can’t be further from the truth.

AI, machine learning, and analytics

When companies use analytics to explore student choices, these involve algorithms that are created by humans, and therefore, are limited by the ability of the programmers to conceive how humans think. This is not artificial intelligence (AI) or even machine learning, it’s a human made equation.

Machine learning may arrive sooner to education than AI, but for machine learning to work, we would require an enormous amount of learning data. For example, Computer Go was able to beat a master Go player because it was trained by inputting 30 million board positions from 160,000 real-life games.

Having the data itself, however, is not enough as for machine learning to work, information on choices would need to be positively correlated with the desirable outcome. For something like Go, this isn’t a problem because you can calculate the likelihood of winning (the desired outcome) based on a specific move.

In contrast, creating such a positive correlation in learning is currently impossible. We have no data on how individuals learn and how their learning approach is associated with how they perform in later life. You can imagine how difficult such data would be to gather. Without accurate data, we cannot have accurate machine learning.

But there’s an interesting facet in the ‘human vs. computer’ story when it comes to Go. It took Computer Go 160,000 games to learn how to beat a human. In contrast, it took a human only three games to learn to how to respond to a winning computer.

Humans are very adaptable, and isn’t this adaptability what we want in a teacher?

Learning is more than memorizing facts

Teachers are not simply storehouses of information and students don’t learn by downloading information form their teacher. Information is transferred to students by social and emotional interactions with teachers and other students during contextual activities.

While learning, teachers are trained to respond to students in a myriad of ways depending on the situation and the state of the student, and these responses improve as teachers gain more experience. Teachers challenge how students think and support students as they explore new ideas.

Digital platforms that focus on personalized learning perform the exact opposite role. They require that students move through an online portal or program on their own and provide a limited number of responses in a finite world. As a result, digital platforms inherently focus on isolating students from one another and provide them with little variation.

If the popularity of social media apps tells us anything about humanity it’s that people crave social interactions. Then why are education start-ups trying to remove the social interactions? Why aren’t they instead modelling education around social experiences?

The reason is that teaching in a social environment requires a teacher, and its teachers that start-ups are trying to disrupt.

The digital and the social

If anything can prepare our students for an uncertain future, it’s the skills that provide our students with the ability to work together to solve problems.

To do this, we need to abandon “personalized learning” and the attitude that we need to make education unique for each student. What we need to do is show students that although they are unique, they will be able to create something larger than themselves only when they work with others that are unlike them.

Rather than trying to replace teachers, start-ups need to support teachers with digital tools that help them improve social interactions within their classroom and provide them with more time to interact with their students.

As a teacher, anything that requires me to learn a new platform takes time away from other work I need to do. Digital resources need to fit into my daily routine and make my life easier. And that’s what we try to do at arludo.

A classroom is not just about learning, it's about experiencing, interacting, and collaborating as these are the skills that are necessary for our students to possess in a world where computers take over more human jobs each day.