Friday, October 17, 2014

Ed-Tech and Teachers : What's The Future?

What's the relationship between Education Technology and Teachers? 

The most common sense answer is that education technology is the new mode and the teachers are the old mode, linked somewhat in an asymmetric relationship like the one between the weavers and textile factories. The former is just an inefficient form of doing things which technology can do much better, or at least, be able to do much better when it becomes smarter eventually.

Others take a kinder view of teachers and teaching. They actually contend ed-tech will be good for teachers. The advent of ed-tech, in this view, is the panacea for the 'cost disease' of education, because, as the economist William Baumol has affirmed, education is one of those trades where the 'productivity' of the Professor does not go up much, though their salaries keep going up. This problem is at the heart of the runaway costs of education in the developed world, particularly in the US, where college fees beat inflation and all other increased costs by a handy margin.

And, yet, both of these views are perhaps mistaken. When we think ed-tech will replace the teachers, we treat education as transfer of some information and teachers or technologies as alternate mediums of doing so. But we all perhaps know that the act of teaching is not just about transfer of information, and two people can transfer an equal amount of information and still be good and bad teachers. All the other aspects of teaching, of inspiration, of empathy, of negotiation, of judgement, remains well beyond the domains of technology and will perhaps remain in the foreseeable future. This is why when two Oxford academics looked at all the 600-odd occupational categories that exist in a modern economy and tried to project which ones are likely to be automated within the next twenty years, no forms of teaching deemed to be at risk of becoming redundant (and if it consoles, accountants and coders are very likely to go). 

The second view is also mistaken because the costs of college education has not risen above the inflation and everything else for the rise of teaching costs, but primarily because the business model of the universities have changed. From teaching communities, they have become managerial bureaucracies; from institutions deeply linked to localities or purposes, they have become multinational corporations in the quest of global dominance or prominence. The call to make universities more business-like to control costs is wrong because universities have raised the costs because they have become more business-like. With Ed-tech, as long as the conversation is about replacing the teaching communities (and its attendant spirit and values) with clever programmes and server farms, the costs are not going to go down.

However, there is a third possible relationship, which gets a lot less airtime. This view is ignored is primarily because those who talk about education technology, they are usually not educators and never want to be one. They miss the point about what educators really do, perhaps deliberately: Because if they did, they would have understood that what ed-tech does is done by textbooks or blackboards or PowerPoint presentations in a classroom, but not by the teacher. Smarter ed-tech may replace the medium currently used, but it may not replace the user, the teacher, who is in charge of 'sense-making'. Essentially, ed-tech and teaching are operating at two different plains.

If so, then we should be looking at an economic phenomenon called Jevons' Paradox (see the details here) named after the Economist William Stanley Jevons. Though his observations were mainly about energy use and still a big thing in energy economics, the central point he made, that technology-led efficiency may increase rather than decrease the requirement of a resource, may apply to technology-led transformation of education and teaching. At least the last great and lasting technological transformation of education, the use of textbooks by Jean Comenius, only increased the power and prestige of teaching, and even created, I shall argue, a professional teaching class. 

The current lack of understanding of what teachers do partly stem from such professionalisation, where teachers tend to treat all conversations about technological change as unnecessary intrusions in their turf and to block all conversations. But the view that many ed-tech enthusiasts take, that teachers will be made redundant as they failed to move with technology, like the medieval guilds, is wrong, because technology is nowhere close to doing what teachers do. And, also, the resistance of a profession may be a good rather a bad thing, because it acts as a screening and validation mechanism for innovations. We need Doctors not just to treat us but also to make sure that the medicines we take are safe and appropriate, and while medical profession have had its own share of dogma, we have had more than enough evidence that the free market system of alternative therapies, bootleggers and counterfeiters may not be preferable as a replacement. 

However, if we inform ourselves with the possibility of a Jevons' Paradox in case of Ed-tech and Teaching, that Ed-Tech won't replace teachers but may rather re-establish their prestige and hopefully a premium for what they do, this may start changing some of the key assumptions in the Ed-Tech community. True to the 'infotopia' that the technology entrepreneurs and their investors sign up to, the goal of ed-tech is often 'disintermediation', the cutting out of the middlemen such as teachers and going direct to the 'consumers', the learners themselves. But that may be less of a smart goal than it perhaps sounds: The learners who can learn themselves perhaps already learn themselves. The 'non-consumers' of learning, which these brilliant formula-driven creative minds are after, are often non-consumers because they need more mediation and not less of it. This understanding may shift the ed-tech's vision from learner as the consumer to the teachers as their users. And, if this sounds like a bad business plan, one should simply ask Google, Wikipedia or Apple.  

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