Automating Education

Does teaching require teachers?

When MOOCs were all the rage, so too was the idea that the teaching professoriate was living in its last days–surely some videos and interactive AIs could soon eliminate the need for individual instruction and the uphill-both-ways slog to brick-and-mortar colleges. But no one ever seemed to graduate from MOOC programs (not least because almost no one ever finishes any given MOOC class), and so a brief moment of respite came to higher ed, one where the fundamental mission of the university, at any rate, was not threatened.

Many educators presently consider the real threat to be competition for students (exacerbated by new poaching policies that colleges and universities have unfurled in response to a smaller generation of young people). I don’t want to dismiss those problems, which legitimately threaten institutions with closing their doors.

But the bigger threat to colleges and universities–and thus to their educational mission and the benefits accrued by a well-educated citizenry–is not small enrollments but the internal (infernal?) desire of educational institutions to strangle themselves in bureaucracy and bad ideas. In a recent post to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Erik Gilbert notes that a few spectacularly failed “interventions” have emerged from Schools of Education and swept through K-12 schools to the detriment of student learning. These include the widely debunked theory of different learning styles and the even worse effort to teach reading without phonics. These pernicious education fads have limited the educational achievement of students. One further idea that Gilbert engages threatens to dismantle higher ed as we know it.

Faculty at colleges and universities must now engage in endless tasks of outcomes assessment that, at best, serve as duplication of traditional grading and, at worst, tie up educational outcomes in the most limited intellectual terms imaginable. For example, my own department was tasked with assessing student learning and our teaching approaches. When it was suggested that faculty could (even more) regularly meet to discuss different approaches to material and learn from one another, we were politely informed that discussing syllabuses and instructional materials and daily class outlines was surely a good practice but not “student-centered” or “measurable.” The first of those two requirements insists that whatever we do to assess our practices must be done directly from student products, such as papers and exams (which is precisely what grading already is). The second means that whatever we do must be expressed in such a way as to be measurable: so the proliferation of rubrics for rating students has conquered the calendars of academics.

Faculty are often required to create classes where every single idea, assignment, and instructional moment is precisely (down to the number of sentences!) connected to a programmatic goal. The more you mechanize the cogs and wheels of education through secondary and tertiary modes of assessment and all learning attached to them, the stupider you make teachers and the easier to automate education. Of course, it won’t be excellent education that gets automated…but we’ll forget what that looked like as we pursue assessment-fueled learning outcomes.

Folks who study artificial intelligence will be familiar with the Turing Test, held up as a way to determine whether a machine can be said to think. In short: if I communicate with a human being and a machine (both purporting to be human beings) and I cannot determine which is the human being and which the machine, then the machine must be intelligent. While things may change in the future, for the present machines only succeed in Turing Tests when people dumb themselves down in the communication: we offer little and we expect little, a combination that can make Siri seem pretty clever. When people are stupid, machines appear smart.

We are dumbing down education by an assault of rubrics, assessment reports, and–by far the worst–construction of course assignments that can be acceptable only when they offer a precise step-by-step journey from learning goal to student project. We are mechanizing education to the detriment of the students. In the process, we are willingly participating in our own professional disenfranchisement.

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