In the Future, Will We Need Teachers or Algorithms?

Courtney Williams's picture
Tuesday, January 17, 2012

There are new key trends that I see emerging in education enabled by advancing technology: namely decentralization and gamification. By understanding these trends, it is much easier to imagine why we won’t need teachers or why we can free up today’s teachers to be mentors and coaches.

Software can free teachers to have more human relationships by giving them the time to be guidance counselors and friends to young kids instead of being lecturers who talk at them.  This last possibility is very important—in addition to learning, schools enable critical social development for children through teacher student relationships and interacting with other children—classrooms of peers and teachers provide much more than math lessons.  And by freeing up teachers’ time, technology can lead to increased social development rather than less as many assume.

Still, nearly all the attempts at technology in education have mostly failed so far, but I doubt they will continue to fail. I believe the failures have been failures of tactics rather than failures of strategy. In other words, just because some social networking sites like Friendster and Myspace failed does not mean that all social networking sites (like Facebook) will fail!

Let’s start with decentralization, which involves not only making content available online but also producing content that is interactive and mobile. It’s encouraging to me that we are starting to seriously experiment with content that is different than linear translations of books to online. With the new platforms, we have the ability to rapidly run experiments with new styles, techniques and resources (like social learning) which will lead to a new understanding of education.

At a very simple level, organizations like Khan Academy are making up for students who have bad teachers by starting with good lectures on every topic. And it seems to be working; hundreds of thousands of students are already accessing these videos, making up for what is lacking (likely from their “average teacher” – on the other hand good teachers, the top 20%, like great doctors, will always be in demand, and though each of us can tell stories about an awesome teacher, anecdotal counterexamples to my assertions are not “statistical proof” of the general quality of teachers). Meanwhile organizations like my wife’s are making the basic content for high school education free and continuously improving (because they are open source).

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