Resisting the digital automation of teaching


07 August 2020

COVID-19 has certainly pushed teachers and technology into the headlines. In the short term, technologies such as Zoom, Google Docs and Microsoft Teams are proving invaluable ways for educators to continue doing their jobs as best as possible. However, the sight of TAFE teachers, lecturers and tutors hastily turning to remote teaching methods has also triggered renewed calls for the longer-term radical rethinking of education.

As Frederick Hess observed in the initial weeks of the lockdown, “a few education analysts have started to sound positively giddy about this exciting opportunity to spitball ideas and try out nifty new programs”. Since then, EdTech gurus have been quick to talk of the ‘silver lining’ of COVID-19 and ‘the genie [being let] out of the bottle’. Andrew Cuomo – state governor of New York - perhaps best encapsulated this sentiment when arguing for a permanent switch-over to sophisticated ‘remote learning’ across the education system:

“The old model of everybody goes and sits in a classroom and the teacher is in front of that classroom, and teaches that class, and you do that all across the city, all across the state, all these buildings, all these physical classrooms ... why, with all the technology you have? … It's hard to change the status quo. But you get moments in history where people say, ‘OK I’m ready. I'm ready for change. I get it’. I think this is one of those moments.”

Reimagining teaching, again

As with many aspects of the pandemic, these arguments for change are not new. Technologists have long been calling for the radical digitisation and automation of teaching – especially across the tertiary sector. These visions move well beyond what most teachers might currently understand as ‘digital education (for example, managing student learning through the college ‘learning management system’). Instead, the development of powerful artificial intelligence (AI) technologies, driven by powerful advances in computational processing and ‘big data’ generation, continues to fuel arguments for a radical ‘reboot’ of how teaching and learning takes place. Crucially, neither the expert teacher nor the ‘bricks and mortar’ classroom tend to central components of these reimaginings.

Such arguments are certainly ambitious, but they are not without substance. Indeed, the technology already exists for student cohorts to go through much of their college day working fully online and without coming into direct contact with human teachers. Facial recognition systems can be used to verify each students’ ‘attendance’ as they study at home, as well as continuously monitor their attention and engagement. Powerful AI-driven systems can provide ‘personalised learning’ provision – analysing each student’s past performance to calculate bespoke recommendations for what they should learn next. Helpful software-based ‘chat bots’ and ‘conversational agents’ can appear at any time to answer queries, offer guidance and support. At the end of the day, students can be assessed through automated marking systems and online proctored testing.

While few people anticipate that these technologies will do away with the need for human supervision altogether, there is a growing feeling that the teacher-led classroom is no longer the ideal setting for teaching and learning. Even when these technologies are deployed in a physical classroom, it is beginning to be reasoned that highly trained, costly professional teachers are no longer required to oversee proceedings. Indeed, digital education systems are sometimes sold with the promise of being ‘teacher-proof’ – i.e. guaranteeing high quality learning regardless of the individual teacher. The logical connotations of ‘teacher-proof’ technology is straightforward. If AI systems are doing most of the educational heavy-lifting, then it does not require a highly-trained professional educator to steward the technology and occasionally trouble-shoot any glitches.

At the moment, these powerful applications, platforms and systems are beginning to be introduced into Australian education with very little dissent from the education community. This is perhaps unsurprising, given that we live in a world that is increasingly shaped by Silicon Valley and the idea that digital technology is a neutral ‘tool’ rather than a threat. Indeed, this new wave of AI-driven educational innovation has tended to be sold to teachers as a benign source of support and assistance. We are assured that the AI-assisted teacher will be freed from repetitive tasks to work with individual students and utilise their pedagogic and industry expertise. However, as many other professions are now finding, there is a fine line between being ‘assisted’ and being told what to do. Teachers working with personalised learning systems can quickly find themselves blindly following whatever the system directs them to do. What tech companies might be keen to market as ‘empowering’ can easily be experienced as constraining. All told, we cannot assume that increased automation will result in increased autonomy.

Getting to grips with the harms

Given all the above, tertiary educators need to quickly get to grips with the possible harms (as well as benefits) that these technologies might bring. In particular, we need coordinated push-back against the implication that highly trained, expert professional teachers are no longer needed in face-to-face classrooms (or their online equivalents). So, as the 2020s progress it will be increasingly necessary to restate the case for teachers, tutors and lecturers, and resist the excessive automation of the classroom. Current TAFE educators might feel confident that their skills are irreplaceable, but employers are going to increasingly suspect that digital technology might be more efficient, reliable and cheaper than humans. These claims are going to be made with increasing urgency as the post-COVID global economic downturn takes hold. The logic of digital automation fits well withthe enduring popularist suspicion that teachers have long been a conservative and over-unionized workforce that is stubbornly resistant to change. Such thinking is reinforced by a general sense that all professional work that involves routine, structure and protocol is susceptible to automation. If journalists, accountants, lawyers, doctors and architects are now having to fear for their jobs, then why not teachers?

With all this in mind, it seems likely that the next few years will see highly trained expert teachers come under pressure to justify their existence. Pessimistically, AI-driven educational technology could well usher in an era of deprofessionalization. We might end up with a new generation of ‘teachers’ in name only – poorly-trained and precariously-employed individuals acting primarily as non-specialised ‘facilitators’. So how should the education community respond? There is clearly a need for teaching unions, professional associations and everyone else with an interest in teaching to stand up and be counted. There needs to be concerted efforts to emphasise the ‘value added’ of having professional teachers in face-to-face and online classrooms, and to better promote the idea of what expert teachers do. In short, educators need to talk loudly about how expert human teachers are able to support learning in ways that can never be replicated fully through technology.

In the short term, we also need to be watchful that the ongoing COVID-19 disruptions are not misused to force radical education reforms by those who stand to profit directly from them. What teachers and students have been doing over the ongoing college shutdowns is certainly not comparable with the sophisticated and deliberate forms of online education being spruiked by EdTech advocates. Instead, the online education being deployed by colleges during the first half of 2020 is best described as a form of “temporary distance education”. These are emergency measures – involving what Sean Michael Morris describes as people “who never expected – nor ever wanted – to use digital technology to communicate or work” forced into quickly developing ways of studying and teaching as best they can.

If anything, then, COVID-19 has provided a stark reminder of the crucial (but often taken-for-granted) role that real-life classrooms, campuses and fully-present teachers play. In the aftermath of this crisis, there is a clear need to reframe ongoing debates about the future of tertiary education in ways that acknowledge – if not celebrate – the societal value of face-to-face education led by expert educators. No-one would claim that TAFE institutions are perfect – there is clearly much that can be improved, and substantial problems continue to blight our education systems. Yet COVID-19 has demonstrated how campuses and classrooms are woven deeply into our shared experiences of what makes for ‘good’ education – i.e. a communal, socially-driven and genuinely empowering process. As the initial shock and panic around the virus begin to fade away, to now argue for the complete digitisation and automation of education seems an even more misguided argument than it did before the pandemic took hold.

Neil Selwyn is a professor in the Faculty of Education, Monash University. His latest book Should Robots Replace Teachers? AI and the future of education is essential reading for those that want to engage with the possibilities and risks further.

This Article was originally published in The Australian TAFE Teacher, Winter 2020.