To automate, or not to automate? Working with kids

A Glimpse of the Future?

In recent weeks my mid-week posts have focused on the contemporary trend among all kinds of industries to increasingly use robotics or other types of automation, rather than hiring extra workers.

It’s a phenomenon that impacts all kinds of workers–in ALL socio-economic brackets, except maybe for that seemingly-impervious top 1%–and across widely-varied industries. Today, in the last of this series, I intend to address the topic that originally inspired me to look into it in the first place.

I am a retired teacher. Indeed, from its inception in 2009 through mid-2013, the title of this blog was Artdog Educator, and it focused pretty exclusively on education topics. Although both I and the blog have shifted our focus since then, I have been and always will be professionally interested in how people learn.

Thus, I was dumbfounded to read in Education Week recently that there actually are people in New York who think it’s a good idea to save money by replacing substitute teachers with e-learning. What is e-learning? In case you couldn’t figure it out, it’s training conducted via the Internet.

Now . . . educators have anything but a stellar history in the use of digital media for teaching. For a variety of understandable but lamentable reasons, it has taken heroic efforts to get educators anywhere close to up-to-speed in this area. I examined that dynamic in some detail, in a 2011 series that kicked off with the post Teaching Like it’s 1980.

Slowly and painfully, however, educators at all levels have finally–somewhat–in spite of all countervailing forces–embraced digital media. Given that, and the global movement to automate all possible jobs (whether it’s a good idea or not), some brilliant genius, sooner or later, was going to come up with this.

As with the periodic call to “run education like a business,” I can guarantee you that no one who has ever actually BEEN a substitute teacher came up with this plan. I, on the other hand, have racked up ten years’ cumulative, hard-won substitute-teaching experience. 

A little boy and his teacher observe as a Nao robot (by Aldebaran Robotics) writes an equation.

First, let’s backtrack a bit. In my research for this series I’ve run onto the idea that robots or automation could take over several different aspects of childcare or education, from babysitting through early learning, distance learning, and substitute teaching.

It’s intuitive, right? I mean, kids seem inextricably attached to their digital devices, and, after all, parents have been parking their kids in front of the “electronic babysitter” (AKA television/videos) for years.

Great idea! The Trix Cereal Rabbit as your babysitter. What could possibly go wrong?

Sure. And if you think “Nao” or the TV could actually be a good babysitter in the total absence of parents or other supervising adults, just try it. See how quickly you come up on child endangerment charges!

A robot, at the current level of development, couldn’t control the situation. The kid knows that thing isn’t a real person, and has no authority. S/he would play with it for a while, get bored, and go wandering off unsupervised to face the myriad dangers of whatever the world threw at him/her.

Digital media present the same problem in the substitute-teaching scenario. Used in conjunction with a good lesson plan and alert (adult, human, in-charge) substitute teacher, they’ve gotten many a class through many a lesson with some actual learning and student engagement taking place.

E-learning can’t replace an engaging, knowledgeable human teacher who’s firmly in charge of things.

Absent the alert, adult, human, in-charge substitute teacher, you’ve got guaranteed chaos. No matter what the grade penalties, 99% of any class will do anything BUT the busywork on the computer. Any class I ever stepped into as a substitute was extremely reluctant to conduct “business as usual.” They generally required a very firm hand and a lot of creative engagement to successfully establish a genuine learning environment. 

The intrinsic fascination with learning via the Internet has long since faded for digital natives; to them, it’s old hat. They need to believe it’s worth their time–AND more interesting than all the other things they could be doing–for any plan to “replace substitute teachers with e-learning” to actually work.

Digital natives are doing their own thing, when they’re totally wrapped up in their digital media. Doesn’t mean they’ll do lessons unsupervised.

Substitute teaching, done well, is hard work (kinda like nursing! Or developing and writing news stories! Or . . . you get the idea, I hope). It requires a dedicated professional who knows the discipline s/he is to teach, if it’s not to be a wasted “babysitting day”–and we haven’t been able to afford those, for a long time.

If the Independent Budget Office of the City of New York (or any other bright-eyed bean-counters in a similar position) think otherwise, they should try it for themselves. I dare them.

Meanwhile, if they can’t get enough qualified substitute teachers, maybe they should try offering them “combat pay.”

IMAGES: Thanks yet again to Before it’s News, for the “vision of the future” graphic. The e-learning photo is courtesy of UNITAR/UN ESCAP E-Learning. Many thanks to International Business Times, for the photo of the NAO robot in a south Australian classroom (note adult human teacher also in the picture), and to Frenzy Advertisement for the photo of the kids watching a Trix commercial on TV. Many thanks to TheSHRINKRap’s post “Engaging teachers means engaged students,” for the photo of the teacher with an engaged group of students, and to CathNews USA for the photo of the student with an iPad.

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jansgephardt

Kansas City-based Jan S. Gephardt is a writer, artist, and teacher. She makes nationally-recognized paper sculpture and writes sf mystery novels about a sapient police dog.

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