Are teachers going the way of dinosaurs?

A new book The Fourth Education Revolution: Will Artificial Intelligence Liberate or Infantilise humanity? (2018), co-authored by Sir Anthony Seldon and Oladimeji Abidoye, is creating waves within the community of educators worldwide. It predicts that artificial intelligence will create ‘holographic teachers’, who will ‘individuate’ learning for every child. Earlier, Seldon, one of the world’s most authoritative commentators on education, and a well-known writer of contemporary political biographies (Blair Unbound (2007), Brown at 10 (2010), Cameron at 10 (2015) ), and currently vice chancellor of Buckingham University, UK, had made a time-bound prediction that within ten years, school teachers will lose their traditional role and effectively become little more than classroom assistants, as the technological revolution sweeps aside old notions of education.

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Similarly, a paper presented by PwC at the World Education Forum meeting held last year in Dalian, China on the theme ‘Macroeconomic impact of artificial intelligence to 2030’ predicted that tutoring as a vocation is likely to be wiped out by artificial intelligence (AI) in the next five years.

There are multifarious responses to the prediction that teachers will soon become extinct. Some say it sounds familiar; we have heard such prophets of doom often, so just ignore them. Others assert that AI is already a game changer and is bound to fundamentally alter the practice of education. With the emergence of AI, adaptive machines will provide an opportunity for everyone to learn from the best teachers who will listen to the voices of learners, read their faces and study them in the way gifted teachers study students. If every child in a classroom can constantly enjoy individual attention and guidance, even the most talented classroom practitioner could become redundant.
There’s no denying that ed-tech has decentralised and democratised access to knowledge to the extent that it’s no longer wholly dependent upon the traditional twin sources of knowledge — textbooks and teachers. Therefore, 21st century teachers need to adjust and refine their skills in line with emerging technologies and use innovative ed-tech tools to make engaging and involving learning experiences for students. In short, technology has highlighted the inadequacy of the classical expert-novice relationship. Indeed, the emergence of AI in education seems to have added an interesting twist to the unfolding narrative of education in the 21st century.

But the argument that AI-driven ed-tech tools will replace teachers in the near future needs to be carefully examined. Infusion of technology into education — especially K-12 education — needs to be calibrated bearing in mind the socio-economic conditions and varying cultural contexts of Indian society.

An illustrative example is revealing. In a remote village of Arunachal Pradesh plagued by irregular electricity supply, tech gadgets are mostly run on power generators or inverters. Our team was demonstrating the ‘K-Class solution’, a blended learning solution which makes digital resources and ed-tech tools available offline. K-Class is built on K-Yan, a protean device that can transform any smooth hard surface into an interactive learning space with an in-built sound system. It works as a community computer and even a local server. As K-Class came alive on the simple press of a button, dull classroom walls turned into a vibrant interactive board playing a variety of audio-visuals allowing the teacher to seamlessly switch to the traditional blackboard work simultaneously. Students from nearby areas got to learn of this innovation and came running to experience the wonders of technology-enabled learning unfolding before their eyes.

At the end of the demo, some children rushed to the wall where the video lessons had been projected and a teacher had been writing with a stylus. They started feeling the wall. Just a few minutes earlier, it had captured their imagination and provided them valuable information. Where had that magic vanished, their mesmerised eyes seemed to be asking, as their hands moved on the wall to get a faint touch of the characters who were live a few moments ago. And that’s when the teacher took over and started demystifying the ‘magic’, into learning.

The conclusion to be derived from this illustrative example is that it’s not technology per se, but the coalescence of technology and adaptive teaching that makes classroom lessons engaging and effective. AI cannot replace teachers who know how to use appropriate technology to create engaging lessons capable of igniting young minds.
However, old-style school teachers who resist and insist on wishing away new digital technologies which have the power to make their jobs so much easier and refuse to reimagine their roles beyond traditional transactional functions, do face extinction and could go the way of dinosaurs.

(Vagish Jha is the Mumbai-based assistant vice president and academic head of IL&FS Education & Technology Services Ltd)

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