A friend tells me about her grandson who just started school. There is one big problem: the primary school teacher suddenly resigned, the school cannot find a substitute, so all those 25 children are shuttled from one teacher to another. What do they learn, how does this unsettling experience form their first impressions of the whole educational process? We do not need to elaborate on the importance of the very first homeroom teacher, of the role they play in every child’s life. Sadly the same disquieting tendency can be observed in other countries today. My French colleague tells me the same story about her school. There is a definite shortage of teachers in many countries, probably all around the world. I believe this is one of the reasons why the whole question of whether robots would and should be used in education instead of humans arises.
In many spheres of life, in various industries more and more machinery is introduced to perform many simple tasks. It is all about programming. After all air planes fly on auto-pilot, does this mean that in the near future human pilots will become redundant? It is not just a question about one profession, it is a question about humanity. Robots or humans? This is certainly not a new topic. From the medieval Golem to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, to robots, (the new word coined by the Czech writer Karel Capek or his brother as the legend has it), to Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”, the novel in which he used a quote from William Shakespeare’s “Tempest” as the title, to Evgeny Zamyatin’s anti-utopia “We”, to the modern “Origin” by Dan Brown - those who like science fiction may produce a long list of titles. Today we live in the brave new world of unprecedented technology advances, as well as in the era of IVF, surrogate mothers and yes, machines substituting humans in various fields of formerly strictly human activity. Just a little stretch of imagination may produce an incubator instead of surrogate mothers. In the same way we can imagine lessons conducted by robots instead of humans. Remember that story by Isaac Asimov, “The Fun They Had”? I know I wrote about it many times. In it, human children taught by a robot learn that in ancient times, children used to have real human beings for teachers, wasn’t it fun!
Are robots, androids, and avatars an option? This depends on what exactly society wants the young generations to learn. What do we teach our children at school? Is it just a package of facts for every subject? To form the conditional sentences, we should use such and such constructions. To turn active into passive and vice versa, we should change the word order and the verb tenses. And so on. We also listen to the children’s stories, share their joys and woes, interact with their parents or guardians. We teach them discipline and self- control, search for new motivation, show them how to connect with their peers by, yes, composing “those stupid dialogues”. We choose the topics carefully and teach not only the vocabulary but also the ways and means to implement the new knowledge, we show them why and how our subject may be useful in their future life. We try to bring them up as responsible members of the society. At times, if a child finds herself or himself in a difficult situation, we become surrogate parents too. We can program the robots, compile new curricula which presupposes a wider use of technology in the classroom. All of these measures are just teaching aids, instruments, not education as such. Even a very sophisticated robot is still just a tool. True, nobody can predict the paths technology development may take. One can envision robots which are indistinguishable from humans, and picture babies born in incubators. One can understand the concerns formulated in the new Dan Brown’s novel and the controversy it caused. Let us remember that fiction is not fact. An author usually takes the traditional premise, “What if...”, and develops a possible scenario. We can do the same.
Can any teacher today imagine oneself in the role of a consultant to a robot? I can’t, maybe because as a mother I know that human children need human interaction. Teenagers may seem to be attached to a device of some sort 24/7, but when anything happens, when their emotions overcome them, they forget the technology and wish only to be reassured by the responsible adults in their life. I am all for using ICT and whatever modern teaching aids are available in the classroom. Robots and technology in general may help governments solve the problem of teacher shortage. A decent salary for human teachers would go a long way toward the solution too. This topic gave me furiously to think, as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot liked to say, for which I am duly grateful. It certainly merits a good discussion.
Nina MK, Ph.D.