All lies and jests...

Image from Pixabay
I was intrigued to read a blog post by Tim Holt that was written in response to my own recent post on teachers and technology. In his post, Tim (I will refer to him by his first name throughout to give him the respect he deserves) concludes, rather bleakly that he is 'putting his money on the march of technology', implying that teachers will one day have to make way for artificial intelligence. In order to reach this conclusion, Tim refers to what he perceives are several flaws in my original argument that teachers should not, and cannot be replaced by technology.

Tim, who is a director of instructional technology, makes his argument that all of the roles and attributes of teachers can be replicated by machine intelligence and quotes from Sir Anthony Seldon to support this claim. Yes, Seldon is effusive in his commentary on the future of education, and yes he talks of advances in the use of technology that will create personalised, inspirational environments for learning. If the full text of his interview is read however, Seldon is advising that although computers might be able to 'instilling knowledge into young minds' teachers will still need to be in the classroom, to manage the learning, behaviour and other essential pedagogical aspects without which technology would fail miserably. Seldon is not, as Tim implies, completely positive about artificial intelligence. He concludes that he is 'desperately sad' by the rapid technological developments and their threat to teachers, and says that he is 'alarmed' by artificial intelligence.

It is true that many of the human attributes we take for granted can be recreated within complex algorithms and represented as 'machine learning' or the 'recognition' of facial expressions or vocal tones. And yet, try as they might, no-one, including Tim - has yet been able to refute my claim that the main reason teachers will always be needed is because they have a distinct advantage over computers. Computers always follow the rules. It's the nature of their programming. However, teachers can and do break rules - this often happens when a teacher intuits the need to help a student.

Tim refers to one of my another of my recent blog posts where I present a model of change, and attempts to use this as refutation of my position. He claims that:

"Wheeler even seems to ignore a blog entry he wrote a few days later where he talks about disruptive technologies and even graphs out what happens when new technologies replace old, which would be the example of AI replacing classroom teachers:"

It's a neat trick to try, attempting to turn an opponent's own ideas against him, but the argument is falls over because Tim fails to acknowledge (or notice) the caveat I present on the same page to this model (below). It is simply that when we over-disrupt - for example by attempting to replace human systems with technology, for the sake of technology sake - then we often regress back to square one (i.e. inertia).

Also, how could I ignore my own writing, if I have only just written it? This is a counterintuitive argument to me, but at least it proves that Tim Holt is not a chatbot! Thank you for reading the blog posts Tim. I'm flattered that you are aware of them, but I would be grateful if you could read them in their totality before you attempt to turn my own arguments and ideas against me.

I'm not sure I would like to live in the world Tim Holt describes. In answer to another question he poses about my knowledge: Yes, I am aware of the upcoming AI developments, and although great advances are being made in areas such as machine learning, cognitive computing and even emotional modelling, teaching will remain the preserve of humans. I'm not convinced that something as complex and vital as teaching could ever be hived off to a computer. Imparting of knowledge is one thing. But it is such a small aspect of a teacher's daily work.

Technology is useful for supporting, enhancing and even extending the capabilities of humans. It was not created to replace our minds, creativity and emotional intelligence. I certainly wouldn't wish for my children to exclusively use technology to explore their world. We are highly social, and we all need human interaction. The pseudo-utopian world Tim Holt espouses sounds like an absolute nightmare.

When Arthur C Clarke intoned 'Any teacher who can be replaced by a computer, should be', he was indeed bemoaning bad teachers that delivered instruction. But the implied caveat was that there were also other (good) teachers in the equation - and that these would not need to be replaced by computers.

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All lies and jests... by Steve Wheeler was written in Plymouth, England and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Tim Holt said…
Excellent! Thanks for the response!

Good to have a solid debate across the pond. My only caveat to your argument is this: In almost every case where we have said "Humans cannot be replaced because…" humans have indeed been replaced. Cotton gins replaced humans in the cotton fields. ATMS replaced bank tellers. Computers replaced telephone operators. Robots replaced assembly line workers and on and on and on. In the US, we hardy hear radio DJs anymore because they have been replaced by faceless nameless automatons. Self driving trucks will no doubtlessly replace truck drivers within the next decade. Indeed, as we speak machines are being tested to replace medical doctors, one of the most "human" of all occupations. And while most of these example are those of a machine replacing a repetitive motion kind of worker, some are not, as I demonstrated in the creation of the AI artwork.
And while I dont say it is right or wrong (indeed no less a brain than Stephen Hawking has given dire warnings about the advance of AI) I am saying it is inevitable, much like Sir Seldon has stated.
Steve Wheeler said…
You make some useful points Tim, but my view on this is that all of the jobs that were replaced by automation in the last century were manual work, whilst what we are talking about with teachers (and doctors) is a form of knowledge working where deeper forms of problem solving, critical thinking and reflection on practice are at the fore (and where the stakes are higher because people's lives and learning could be in jeopardy). I take the weak AI argument (which is real because it is here) against the strong AI argument (which is always 10 years away and never gets any closer), because tools such as cognitive computing are able to support and inform decision making, and will not replace the human decision maker. AI seeks to do just that - supplanting humans in every aspect of their work, which is something that Hawking warns about in his interviews. That's why I say it's a pseudo-utopia that would be unwelcome to most humans. I don't think it's inevitable because we have free will to be able to ensure it doesn't happen in a strong AI sense. And as another Seldon (Hari from the Asimov Foundation trilogy) was instrumental in - the future is unpredictable, and anything - literally anything - can happen to push us irrevocably off course from our grand schemes and plans.

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