Why we must not fear the rise of the Robot Teacher


Robot teachers seem inevitable. Technology is developing at such a pace that teachers are entirely overwhelmed by what is available to them in the classroom. As a classroom teacher who tries very hard to stay on top of these things I can tell you that it doesn’t matter how much time you dedicate to reading and trying out new apps, gadgets and software, if you go onto Twitter at any given moment you will be made to feel inadequate and behind the times within about 7 seconds.

Nonetheless, what is important is to have a clear overall picture of the trends and movements within your arena – in this instance, education technology. And, to me, robot teachers seem inevitable.

Technology in education is a huge growth area, but that no one has quite mastered it yet. Things are changing and developing so fast that no one can quite harness the ‘perfect model’ to replicate around all schools even within a country, let alone a global community.

Global community is indeed one of the key growth areas in education. Never before have we as teachers been so able to communicate and explore ideas with our colleagues around the world. We can invite (virtually) other educators into our classrooms and teach students on other continents simply through the wonder of technology advancements.

Online courses are becoming more and more popular, and soon there will be a genuine trend of students at the entry point of higher education deciding whether to get their degree virtually at a distance, or on a campus as online courses and MOOCs become fully accredited. The next area for online courses to tackle is in the secondary or K-12 markets. Whilst home schooling might not be an ideal model for all, there will be people who will see advantage sin having ‘expert’ teachers that they might not have access to in their local areas and schools, coming into their homes over an internet connection and teaching their children how to master trigonometry, rhetoric and chemical reactions. Would this be a bad thing? It would have an impact on the social element of school; the ‘soft skills’ of socialization are so often overlooked when discussing these things that it’s important to remember that we learn a lot about people, friendships, authority, leadership, teamwork and relationships in the face to face, real world of school.

So what if schools still existed, but the teachers were virtual? Expert teachers would deliver lessons and these could be live or pre-recorded and the students are then still all together sharing the learning experience. But then who looks after the children in the real world school? The now redundant teachers of old? That probably wouldn’t go down very well. Robot teacher perhaps? Would a student take orders from a robot teacher though? Would they be quiet when asked, sit down, take notes etc? Well if the teacher was C3PO probably not, if it was Robocop then it seems more likely, but this doesn’t seem to help much either.

One trend picking up more and more followers is the Inverted Classroom model. If you’re not familiar with it, in a nutshell it is a system whereby teachers record their lessons or use those of another and ask students to use homework time to watch these videos that ordinarily would form the majority of a lesson. The student then comes to class, knowing the basics of a new concept or idea and the teacher and students use class time to develop a deeper understanding of a topic instead of sending the students away to complete what can often be a perfunctory assignment. This is a great use of everyone’s time and makes great use of technology – an example of Redefinition using the SAMR model.

A teacher can teach a lesson brilliantly once and then use that recorded lesson again and again and share it with his peers and indeed the world, making the learning experience for students he will never meet, better. A great example of collaboration and a great example of how teaching and learning is improved by a globally connected community.

Something that often is not a good use of a teacher’s time, is marking. Despite the cynicism of others, I was really quite excited when EdX announced a new piece of software that could mark student work. So you can imagine my dismay when it was revealed how easily it could be fooled by nonsense and that basically the technology isn’t yet good enough to cope with such high level concepts.

A colleague of mine said he thought it would be awful if a machine did our marking, as it would mean we wouldn’t know where our students were with their understanding.

There are a lot of ways to respond to such a statement. I chose a simple matter of fact. As an English teacher, it is easy to get bogged down in correcting grammatical errors, speaking mistakes, formatting errors and completely lose track of what your student is trying to tell you. If a robot teacher could make all of these corrections clear to the student, then I would be freed to actually focus on the content, on the ideas, on communicating with the student. I would have more time to create much more meaningful responses to their work and they would still be getting the important nuts and bolts education about grammar and spelling, but probably in a more thorough and consistent way than a mere human could ever manage.

A robot that can actually think and communicate like a real person seems a long way off, but machines that can take over repetitive, time-consuming tasks are all around us. Education is a cornerstone of human civilization and handing over control of any element of this to a machine is a sensitive issue, but it is already happening. As soon as we stopped sending paper registers to the office and even before that when we dropped the chalk board in favour of an Overhead Projector, the benefits of automation were being realised.

 If in the future a machine can correct my students’ work then I will have more time to engage with them in a more meaningful way. If my students can watch a video introducing them to Shakespeare and the video is presented by the foremost scholar on the subject, it doesn’t mean that I am redundant, it means that I will become a more knowledgable teacher and I am facilitating the best possible learning that my students could ever have. I can continue the discussion long after the video stops rolling and hope to engage my students through as many different channels as possible.

In the future of education, I see robots. But I also see teachers, much as they are today, only happier, more free, more knowledgable than they have ever been, more engaged with the idea of lifelong learning and instilling it into their students because they too are living this way. And of course I see students. These students are learning in so many different ways. They have essays corrected by machines, they create media using machines, they learn using machines, but at the heart of all that they do is communication and interaction with their peers and with their real life teachers.

 Do not be afraid of the robot teachers; they will help us create a new paradigm in which learning and not administration is continuously at the heart of all we do as educators.




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