The Robots are Coming

There’s a quote that is credited to Arthur C. Clarke, the author of 2001: A Space Odyssey, that goes something like:

“Any teacher who can be replaced by a machine should be.”

I have to admit that when I first heard this quote I was completely in agreement with Clarke’s sentiments. I believed that teachers offered so much more than a computer could replicate. In my mind, teaching is fundamentally an enterprise built on forging interpersonal relationships. It requires human interaction. It requires individuals who are able to assess students’ needs and respond with targeted instruction. In Education and Experience, John Dewey captures it best when he writes, teachers must:

“be able to judge what attitudes are actually conducive to continued growth and what are detrimental. He must, in addition, have that sympathetic understanding of individuals as individuals which gives him an idea of what is actually going on in the minds of those who are learning.”

To do this, I believed, teachers needed to interact with the student with whom they work. After teaching online for the last decade, I began to believe that the human interaction required for teaching could be successfully mediated via machines (computers, learning management systems, etc.). But I still doubted that machines could replace teachers completely.

I’m not the only one. A few weeks ago, Education Week published an article detailing the use of artificial intelligence in teaching environments. The site had surveyed K-12 teachers about their beliefs about AI-powered teaching robots in their classrooms. The vast majority, 84 percent, didn’t believe that teaching robots would help improve student learning in their classroom. 90 percent did not think that student learning would improve in classrooms where chronically low-performing human teachers were replaced by artificially intelligent robots. The article then went on to examine different efforts that explored the use of teaching robots in academic settings. Take Jill Watson, the “teaching assistant” who was added into Ashok Goel’s computer science classes at Georgia Tech. While students sought assistance from Ms. Watson throughout the semester and even nominated her for an outstanding TA award, they didn’t realize she was actually an AI-powered chat bot created to help offer assistance in Dr. Goel’s classes.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the use of artificial intelligence in classrooms since I heard an episode of the 99% Invisible podcast last month. Titled “The ELIZA Effect,” the episode detailed the historical evolution of chat bots from the initial ELIZA program at MIT in the 1960’s to sophisticated OpenAI programs today. While the episode examined some of the technical aspects of chat bots, it also discussed the human impacts of their use. Take the initial ELIZA program. It was designed to simply parrot statements back at users in the form of questions, but people reported “having these really long kind of soul-bearing conversations with this program.” Despite its simplicity in communication, people found value with interacting with the program and some suggested that the program offered therapeutic benefits to users. And this troubled Joseph Weizenbaum, the computer scientist who created the ELIZA program. Weizenbaum was horrified that people could have meaningful conversations and interactions with a machine and he spent the remainder of his life advocating against the use of artificial intelligence for human interaction. Discussing Weizenbaum’s apprehensions with AI, Delaney Hall, one of the 99% Invisible producers, writes:

“Weizenbaum objected to the idea that something as subtle, intimate and human as therapy, could be reduced to code. He worried that if machines snuck into the therapist’s office, then where else might they end up? He began to argue that fields requiring human compassion and understanding just shouldn’t be automated.”

Which brings us back to teaching. As a field, teaching requires human compassion, understanding and interaction. And, as Weizenbaum predicted, artificial intelligence and chat bots have ended up in our field, too. But maybe that’s not a bad thing. Used as a complement to human teachers, AI-powered teaching bots might be able to help differentiate instruction or provide real-time feedback to students. Almost every teacher I know laments over the demands of the profession and how there’s just not enough time in the school day to individualize instruction or provide targeted feedback to support every student’s needs. Could artificial intelligence help to reduce those demands? Absolutely. Maybe not today, but definitely someday in the not too distant future. The robots are definitely coming.

A Treasure Hunt

I went on a treasure hunt this weekend. Long ago when we moved into our home, I buried a videotape someplace in our attic. During the previous years, as my wife moved from apartment to apartment, the videotape had moved with us. When we finally bought our home, the tape found a more permanent location, tucked in the back of some filing cabinet or box. I couldn’t really remember where I had stashed it. While I valued the tape enough to hold on to it, I didn’t want it in plain sight. Some things are better left hidden.

But I hunted for it this weekend. I spent several hours looking through dusty old boxes and overcrowded drawers until I finally found it. A videotape of my first demonstration lessons from a methods course from 1991.

Months before the lessons were recorded, I had just completed my undergraduate degree in physics and had decided to go into teaching. In the methods course, I was learning how to design and deliver lessons to engage students and help them learn. The videotape captures those seminal moments of my development as a teacher. I can remember recording three or four lessons in that class. One was about making a sandwich. Another focused on electron levels in an atom. I can’t recall the content I teach in the other ones. Of course, the videotape holds evidence of all of those demo lessons, but I haven’t watched it in almost thirty years. In fact, I’ve actively avoided watching it.

In my mind, the video captured all of my failings as a new teacher. My mistakes. My stuttering. My lack of confidence. My vulnerability. And I couldn’t bring myself to witness those failings again. So, I hid the videotape someplace in our attic and tried to forget about its existence.

One may wonder why, after years of actively avoiding the videotape, I went on this “treasure hunt” this weekend. My motivations stemmed from a brief but meaningful conversation I had with a colleague last week. I was helping to lead a professional development workshop and a colleague stayed late on the last day to thank me. She explained that she came to our institution without any teaching experience and now three years later, she felt she was really starting to gain confidence and expertise as a teacher. She thanked me for all of the support and guidance I’ve given her. I was moved by her thoughtfulness and gratitude.

On my drive home that day, I reflected on my own trajectory as a teacher and all of the people and events that have helped me to grow. I thought about the colleagues who challenged me to do better by modeling effective practices. I remembered the squirrelly middle school students who helped me develop classroom management skills and the unpredictable high school students who taught me the importance of empathy and trust. I thought about the parents who sent me emails of criticism and support and about the sleepless nights I spent worrying about students and lessons. I thought about my son and daughter and how their lessons of patience and kindness have informed my teaching role so immeasurably.

As I reminisced about my last 28 years of teaching, I thought back to my first methods class and those early demonstration lessons. And I remembered the videotape hidden in the attic. While it still showcases all of my initial failings as a teacher, it also captures the starting point of my career, before all of the amazing influences informed my growth.

It’s all there in the demonstration lessons recorded on this videotape. I now just need to find a VHS player to view them.

Top Posts from the Decade

2019 marked the 8 Blog’s tenth anniversary. As we start a new year (and a new decade), I thought I’d use this week’s post to look back at the top posts from the last ten years.

1. Teaching: Transmission, transaction or transformation: Written in August 2017, this post examined the roles we play as teachers and the ways we interact with the students.

2. What’s your teaching metaphor? I love a good metaphor. This post from August 2016 discussed some of the common metaphors used to describe teaching.

3. Presenting to colleagues: Written in July 2013, this post outlined some ways to give stronger professional presentations that engage and involve participants.

4. Being a worm in horseradish: Malcolm Gladwell is one of my favorite authors and podcasters. In this post from May 2013, I examined the worldview concept and how tacit norms can impact teaching and learning on our campuses.

5. Applying multimedia principles to screencasting: Written in September 2012, this post discussed how Mayer’s Multimedia Principles can inform the creation of online instructional videos.

6. Innovation involves risk taking: From February 2012, this post told the story of Michael Wesch, an associate professor of cultural anthropology at Kansas State University. Wesch celebrated the failures of integrating technology in classrooms and the lessons we can learn from chaos.

7. Biking through Scaffolding: This is one of my favorite posts. Written in September 2012, this post tells the story of how I taught my daughter to ride her bike. And the lessons she taught me in the process.

8. Democratizing teaching and learning: This is another “family-oriented” post. From April 2012, this post discussed how the traditional roles of teachers and students are evolving by telling the story of my son who taught his grandmother to use an iPad.

9. The Protege Effect: From March 2016, this post examined the power that teaching can have on a person’s learning.

10. The SAMR Model: A critical perspective: The SAMR model is still one of the dominant frameworks for technology integration in schools. This post from May 2016 critically examined its utility and applicability.


Top Posts from 2019

As the year comes to an end, I thought I’d take a moment and look back at the year. It’s been a pretty exciting year for the 8 Blog. Over 10,000 people visited the blog this year and the blog logged its 100,000 visitor sometime in February. After a decade of publishing weekly posts, I’m so appreciative for all of you who keep coming back to read my musings. Thank you!

As a way of wrapping up 2019, I want to review the top viewed posts from the year. Happy New Year!

1. Climbing the Mountain– Written in August, this post described my emotional journey through applying for promotion and navigating the (unexpected) feelings of success.

2. Carrots and Sticks– How to get people to participate in professional development? In this post from September, I weighed the challenges with incentives and mandates.

3. An Empty Seat – In this post from March, I discussed how considering the needs of our students may not always be as easy as it sounds.

4. Supporting At-Risk Students Online – Have you ever attending a keynote presentation that rocks you to your core? Dr. Newton Miller did this at this year’s Distance Teaching & Learning Conference and this post from August captured my reflections on his amazing presentation.

5. Start with Thanks – We all mess up sometimes. In this post from October, I discussed one of my recent mistakes and outlined the need to remember to express gratitude to our collaborators.

6. Improving Teacher-Student Relationships– From April, this post discussed how finding common ground and similar interests can help to foster rapport with students.

7. Illusion of Expertise? – How does learning through videos impact students’ perceptions of their expertise? In this post from February, I discussed an episode from the Hidden Brain podcast and how it relates to Joshua Eyler’s 2018 book, How Humans Learn.

8. Campus Learning Communities – In this post from October, I listed all of the books we’ve used at our institution to support different campus learning communities.

9. Back in the Saddle – This fall, I taught an undergraduate class after a three-year hiatus. In this post from October, I discussed my feelings of dissonance and excitement from teaching this class.

10. Counting What Counts – In another post from October, I share some advice that a retiring teacher offered at my daughter’s graduation.

Exploring Tradition and Change

As the year (and the decade) comes to a close, I thought I’d share a (somewhat) holiday themed post from the past. Enjoy this post from June 2012. Happy Holidays!

Last week, Nigel Thrift, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Warwick in England, wrote a compelling article for the Chronicle of Higher Education.  In the article, Thrift presents a radical change in how undergraduate teaching will be done in the future.  Thrift writes:  “most teaching in the early years of an undergraduate degree will gradually cease to be via lectures and will instead take the form of online presentations produced by professionally trained presenters backed up by teams of academics.”   To support these online presentations, students would participate in “peer questioning” activities that would help them build understanding of the material.  Thrift’s vision of the future also includes instructors engaging with students in peer-to-peer social networks and physical learning spaces evolving to include more adaptable, fluid structures that can be easily changed depending on need.

Since Thrift presents a radical departure from today’s undergraduate experience, his article garnered quite a few comments from Chronicle readers.  Some comments commended Thrift’s vision and his willingness to present a possible model for discussion.  Others, however, examined the online presentations that Thrift proposes which began a thread on traditional lecturing and their perceived effectiveness.  As one commenter wrote in defense of traditional lectures, “Odd that lectures have promoted ‘deep learning’ for hundreds of years–have they suddenly stopped working?”  Another commenter posted that s/he “grieves” the change in education and that “we are so busy changing that we rarely pause to acknowledge our feelings about what we have lost.

These comments brought to mind a video I watched recently.  Michael Crow, the president of Arizona State University, gave the keynote at the Education Innovation Summit held in Scottsdale in April 2012.  In his keynote, Crow presents the need for “massive change” in education but also outlines some of the potential hurdles to change.  Education, Crow argues, suffers from filiopietism, which is the “excessive veneration for tradition.”  It’s why instructors “grieve” the coming changes in education or hold onto lessons that they say have worked “for hundreds of years.

Crow’s position calls to mind a story I heard a few years ago.  A mother was teaching her daughter how to roast a turkey.  In the lesson, the mother removed the drumsticks and wings and repositioned them in the pan.  The daughter asked why she needed to do this.  Did it help the turkey cook faster?  Did it make the turkey tenderer?  “I never really thought about that,” the mother explained “It’s just the way I was taught by your grandmother.  We should ask her.”  The mother calls the grandmother and asks why she dismembered the bird prior to roasting.  The grandmother laughs and explains “The turkey wouldn’t fit in the pan we owned so I had to cut it up to make it fit.”  And so, the family tradition began.

By sharing this story, I don’t mean to suggest that instructors blindly make educational decisions without thought or reason.  The challenge, however, is that many of us who work in higher education are the successful products of the tradition of higher education.  We’ve navigated coursework, lectures, and thesis defenses and been successful.  Yet, we’re the ones that need to bring about the change that is needed for higher education to survive.  To do this, we have to fight the urge to hold onto century old methods and overcome “our veneration of tradition.”  But we need not change just for the sake of change.  We need to strongly examine everything we’re doing and analyze how it supports our larger mission of student learning.

Surveying Faculty Perceptions

A few weeks ago, the Educause Center for Analysis and Research (ECAR) released its annual report of faculty perceptions of information and instructional technology. For those of us who work with technology and professional development in higher education, the yearly release of the report is a little like Christmas. We get to examine research collected from thousands of faculty members across over a hundred US institutions. The report provides a holistic snapshot of what’s happening in our field and what areas need more attention. I know it may sound kind of nerdy, but to me, it’s interesting stuff.

While I’ve linked to the full report above, I thought I’d share a few of the big takeaways that I found interesting…

The majority of faculty prefer some level of face-to-face instruction.
While 51% of faculty who participated in the study prefer blended learning environments, 73% prefer a teaching environment that is either completely or mostly face-to-face. Only 9% of faculty prefer to teach mostly or completely online. Among instructors who have taught at least one online course in the past 12 months, nearly twice as many prefer a mostly or completely face-to-face environment, compared to those who prefer a mostly or completely online engagement with their class.

Technology bans persist.
Rather than just look at laptops, the report breaks down classroom technologies by categories (laptop, tablet, smartphone and wearable technologies) and examines faculty classroom policies of each. Not surprisingly, smartphones were the most banned technologies, with over 50% of faculty reporting that they banned use of smartphones in classroom environments.  Interestingly, almost 50% of faculty also encourage or require the use of laptops in their classes. Clearly, faculty see instructional benefits with some technology (laptops) and instructional distractions with others (smartphones).

Innovation is a complex process to engender.
Across the report, the complexity of higher education environments resonates. For example, older faculty (Baby Boomers and Gen Xers) are almost twice as likely as younger instructors to prefer teaching fully online. While this may be due to a variety of reasons, the authors write:

Older faculty may be tenured and also likely free of the tyranny of teaching evaluations that often stifle pedagogical experimentation and creative approaches to teaching. Compared with younger tenure-track faculty or adjunct instructors who have professional (and personal) incentives to curry the favor of students, tenured faculty can (and should) leverage their positions of authority to serve as catalysts of change for their departments, institutions, and higher education writ large.” (Galanek & Gierdowski, 2019, pg. 6)

Later, when they examine the data on technology bans, the authors report the impact of professional development on faculty technology policies. They write:

Among faculty who receive professional development regarding the use of technology in teaching and who rate that training as good or excellent, 47% ban smartphones. By contrast, 63% of faculty who did not receive this professional development ban those devices.” (Galanek & Gierdowski, 2019, pg. 15)

This is all to say that the factors that influence whether faculty adopt an innovation like online learning or support instructional technology use is based on a lot of factors. While those of us working with faculty professional development already recognize this, the latest ECAR report drives the point home.

Galanek, Joseph D., and Dana C. Gierdowski. ECAR Study of Faculty and Information Technology, 2019. Research report. Louisville, CO: ECAR, December 2019.

Being hospitable

I’m a Parker Palmer fan. I know there are lots of people who aren’t that into Parker Palmer, but I don’t know of any other educational scholar who touches on the emotional aspects of the teaching profession quite like Parker Palmer does. I’ve read The Courage to Teach probably five or six times over my career and each time it feeds my “teacher soul” in ways that I hadn’t anticipated. In my interactions with students and other teachers, I find myself trying to channel my inner Parker Palmer and tap into my own courage to teach. My class last week was one of those occasions.

Earlier this fall, I wrote a post about how I was teaching an undergraduate class after several years of teaching graduate ones. It has been a great experience. I’ve gotten to know some amazing preservice teachers and help them develop evidence-based understandings of assessment to support student learning. More than the content of the class, though, we’ve shared a lot of great conversations about our trajectories as students and how our experiences as students can inform our identities as teachers. We’ve talked about becoming advocates for change and how we need to be champions for our students, both in words and deeds. Our final class met last week and it was definitely an emotional experience for many of us.

As I sat in my office after the class, I reflected on the overall experiences of the semester for the students and for myself. While I wanted to revel in the joy of the students’ reactions to our time together, I kept thinking about one student who had made a dramatic shift during the semester. Through the first few weeks of the class, Dave (not his real name) presented himself as the model, engaged student. Dave arrived early to class, participated thoughtfully in class discussions and always contributed valuable insights in his papers and online posts. But midway through the course, Dave became more reserved. He didn’t participate as much during class and started arriving late. His work wasn’t the high quality he had once shared.

During our last class, I had the students write short reflections on their work during the semester. Drawing on some of the activities I shared in a blog post last fall, I wanted to provide some “meaningful course closure” by “engaging “students in reflection not only about what they have learned but also how they will use these ideas in the future.”  While many students wrote in-depth, thoughtful reflections, Dave’s was sullen, dark, and, at times, disrespectful to me, our class, and our university’s whole teacher education program.

As I read Dave’s reflection, I wondered how Parker Palmer would handle this. In The Courage to Teach, Palmer talks about how effective teaching requires the development of “relational trust” which is “built on movements of the human heart such as empathy, commitment, compassion, patience, and the capacity to forgive.” Someplace along the way, I lost some relational trust with Dave, and I didn’t want our time together to end without a chance to rebuild some of it. To do that, I’d need to channel some of that “compassion, patience and capacity to forgive” with Dave.

So, I emailed him and invited him to meet to chat. While he was initially hesitant to talk, when we finally sat down for a few minutes to iron things out, he was much more receptive. We discussed his engagement as a student and his work in the class. We discussed his written reflection and the emotional journey he had taken during the semester. More than that, however, we discussed his future role as a teacher and how teachers emotionally react to the students with whom they work. I’m happy to say that things definitely left on better terms than they had during our final few classes together.

Besides relational trust, Parker Palmer also explores some other critical elements that inform our work as educators. In situations like the one I shared with Dave, one aspect that I try to remember is the need for teachers to “be hospitable.” Palmer writes:

Good teaching is an act of hospitality toward the young, and hospitality is always an act that benefits the host even more than the guest. The concept of hospitality arose in ancient times when this reciprocity was easier to see; in nomadic cultures, the food and shelter one gave to a stranger yesterday is the food and shelter one hopes to receive from a stranger tomorrow. By offering hospitality, one participates in the endless reweaving of a social fabric on which all can depend—thus the gift of sustenance for the guest becomes a gift of hope for the host. It is that way in teaching as well: the teacher’s hospitality to the student results in a world more hospitable to the teacher.

While my hospitality was toward Dave, it was also a gift a hope for me. Through our conversation I was hoping that maybe someday in the future, when Dave works with a student like himself, he’ll have a better example of how to deal with it. That he’ll be patient. And empathetic. And be willing to forgive.