Will technology replace teachers? No, but ...

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In the future, will a machine replace me and smash other machines on my behalf?
In the future, will a machine replace me
and smash other machines on my behalf?

I've worked on, advised and evaluated educational technology projects in dozens of countries over the past fifteen years, mainly in middle and low income countries. As anyone who works intimately with information and communication technologies (ICTs) on a daily basis knows, change is a constant when working in the technology sector. (In contrast, while rhetoric about change is a constant in the education sector, change itself is much slower in coming ....) While the technologies themselves may change quite often, though, many of the most common questions related to their introduction and use remain largely the same.


I remember working with teachers in Ghana in the late 1990s as part of a pilot initiative to introduce computers and the Internet into a select number of schools in a few of the major cities. Towards the end of the third day of a five day workshop, we had a teacher show up at the door to our classroom, apologizing for his tardiness and asking if he could join the course. He explained that he had traveled for a few days to reach the small school outside Accra where out training activity was taking place, hitching rides on trucks and then transferring between long haul buses, because he had heard about this thing called the Internet that was going to "change education forever" and just had to see it for himself. Given how many people had wanted to take the course, we had a strict policy not to allow latecomers into the workshop, but we waived it for this gentlemen, because we were so taken by his story and by the hardship he had endured to join us.

We waived the policy for another reason as well. It is decidedly not politically correct to say so, but we also allowed this teacher into the class because he was ... old. He claimed to be over 70, but said he wasn't exactly sure of his exact birthdate, other than that it had occurred on a Friday. While my Ghanaian colleagues expressed some skepticism that this fellow was actually as old as he claimed, there was no doubt that he was decades older than any of us in the room. He was an English teacher, he said, noting that he had heard that it was possible to get access to all of Shakespeare's plays on the Internet, for free, and wanted to see how this was possible. A computer became available (the teachers using it had been frustrated that poor bandwidth kept interrupting their CU-SeeMe session and so decided to return to the dormitory before dinner), so we sat down, fired up Alta Vista, and typed in >.

After scanning the search results, one of the young teachers grabbed a mouse and pointed, clicked and scrolled her way through play after play after play. The older teacher was simply flabbergasted. He said something to the effect of, "Now I have seen everything. It has been my dream as an English teacher to be able to read all of Shakespeare's plays. Now all teachers will be able to do this. Education will change forever." We kept the computer lab open for a while so that he could be assured that all of them were indeed there ("There's Hamlet! The Tempest. Coriolanus!"); he promised that he would be the first one at the lab door once we opened the following morning. As we were shutting things down, he articulated a concern that I would hear voiced hundreds of times in the coming years, in many variations:

It would be very exciting for me to be a young teacher today now that the Internet is coming. But I am glad that I am not a young teacher, because I fear that these computers will eventually replace us teachers.

Will technology replace teachers?


Here's a short answer to that short question:

Introducing new technologies will not replace teachers.

Experience from around the world shows us that, over time, teachers' roles become more central -- and not peripheral -- as a result of the introduction of new technologies.

Introducing new technologies will, however, replace some of the things that teachers do -- and require that teachers take on new, often times more sophisticated, duties and responsibilities.

That said, teachers who don't use technology will be replaced by teachers who do.

And: In places where there are currently *no* teachers, technology can help in some very useful ways to, in part, overcome this absence.


In my experience, introducing computers and the Internet into education systems for the first time almost always meets with resistance -- sometimes quite significant resistance -- from certain portions of the teacher population (and often from teachers' unions as well).

Such resistance is understandable, and perhaps to some extent even inevitable. Change can be scary -- or at least rather inconvenient.

Note that the type of resistance I am talking about here is of a very basic, initial, almost instinctive nature. It is not the resistance of teachers who, for example, have worked in a system where computers have already been introduced, with negligible or even negative effect, and who thus look on educational technology initiatives with a very skeptical, jaundiced eye. It is not the resistance of teachers who see the introduction of yet more technology as the lamentable enabler of more (and more! and more!) standardized testing. Nor am I talking about worries about wages (Will we be paid more if we are expected to learn these new 'computer skills'?) or changes in related expectations and job responsibilities (Will we be expected to do or accomplish more, or something for which we have not been trained, now that we have these new gadgets?).

No, I am talking about a more basic fear here, one that (potentially) challenges the primacy and traditional role of the teacher in the classroom and vis-a-vis her students:

My students will know much more about computers than I do.
How can I not look stupid in front of them when I try to use them in my teaching?

And, more ominously:

Will I (eventually) be replaced by a machine?

Greetings, pupils. Please find an available power outlet, class will begin shortly.
Greetings, pupils.
Please find an available power outlet, class will begin shortly.

For those who dismiss such worries out of hand as those of people who simply fear change or 'don't get it', here's a dirty little secret: There are many folks who secretly hope for this to happen. Indeed, I have spoken to more than a few policymakers over the years (and many more businessmen) who have expressed the hope that computers will provide a way for them to replace teachers. Computers don't have unions, a policymaker once told me. The private sector is often less secretive about their hopes for the introduction of new technologies. We are very excited about MOOCs, an entrepreneur once told me, because you only have to pay one teacher to teach thousands of students, rather than a few dozen students like is the case today. Just think of the inefficiencies we can wring out of the system!

All by way of saying: When it comes to teachers and technology the intentions of some of the folks behind efforts to introduce lots of new technologies into schools aren't always honorable.

It is important also to note that, while technology will not replace teachers, in places where there are currently no teachers, or where there are not sufficient numbers of capable teachers, technology can play a vital role in providing access to educational resources and opportunities for learners that are otherwise unattainable. This is not to contend that students will, if simply 'left to their own devices', be able to educate themselves to the same extent than if they had a capable teacher to help guide and support them. Certainly not! That said, UNESCO currently estimates that "93 countries have an acute shortage of teachers", and projects that "28 (or 30%) of these countries will still not have enough teachers in classrooms by 2030". Using technologies in an attempt to help address *some* of the educational challenges in such places while education systems work on narrowing the teacher gap seems a prudent thing to explore.

That said:

In no education system around the world where I have worked has the introduction of new technologies made teachers less vital or central to the teaching and learning process. On the contrary: As dust settles after new equipment arrives in schools (and eventually begins to work, more or less), and the initial hype around the potential for quick 'transformational change' subsides, the role of the teacher is almost always more central, indeed fundamental, than it was before the introduction of technology.

While many policymakers, education officials and parents (and even many teachers themselves) may profess a belief in the 'digital native hypothesis' -- that young people somehow instinctively understand technology and know how to use it in ways that their elders don't -- there is a big difference between being able e.g. to quickly figure out and manipulate an on-screen menu system, or to blast a bunch of aliens, or to record a short video and post it to YouTube, and being able to successfully utilize whatever new technologies are at hand in service of a student's learning needs and objectives. For that, students need the help and guidance of their teachers.

This isn't to say that introducing new technologies will not change the roles that teachers are expected to perform, however.

While, generally speaking, introducing new technologies makes the jobs of teachers more important, more central to the learning process in many ways, it also makes teachers less central or integral (or even needed) to many of the activities currently associated with being a teacher in many parts of the world.

Books -- a technological innovation that helped transform educational practices in previous centuries -- didn't replace teachers, but they did help enable new forms of autonomous learning, and replaced and changed the nature of some of the things that teachers traditionally did.

B.F. Skinner's teaching machineNew technologies can, and no doubt eventually will, replace many of the routine administrative tasks typically handled by teachers, like taking attendance, entering marks into a grading book, etc. (That said, in the short run, administrative burdens on teachers often increase in practice in the short term as a result of increased technology use. I once visited a school in Russia where, in a scenario that seemed to me a pointed example of pointless bureaucratic inefficiency enabled by the introduction of new technologies, frustrated teachers had been required to enter student test scores both manually on paper forms and electronically for many months, 'until the kinks are worked out of this new system".) Standing at the blackboard in front of the class and methodically writing out dates to memorize and new vocabulary to learn -- such manual activities can often be done much more expeditiously (if perhaps not always more effectively) through using projectors and basic presentation software. Machines (perhaps even "teaching machines") may also handle some of the routine, low-end cognitive tasks (e.g. posing multiple-choice questions and grading tests) that teachers currently perform.

That said, while routine administrative burdens on teachers may (eventually) lessen, and some routine low-end cognitive tasks may gradually be taken over by software, the introduction of new technologies over time typically means that *more* is asked of teachers, not less.

The development of the types of so-called '21st century skills' -- problem-solving, critical thinking, cross-cultural communication, etc. -- as well as a variety of non-cognitive skills (such as grit and mindset) are increasingly considered to be important to success in academics, and in life. Toa great extent, these are the sorts of skills that teachers, and not machines, are uniquely able to help students develop. But doing so is not easy, and often requires more highly capable teachers than many education systems currently have. Being able to utilize new technologies in support of their teaching, and to keep up with technological changes, challenges teachers to continue to learn themselves. The increased availability of data on student performance as a result of utilizing new technologies, with their ability to track student activities in ways simply not possible when 'assessment' meant an occasional test using pencil and paper challenges teachers to absorb these data and modify their teaching in ways that are most useful to their students, both collectively and individually.

Eventually, while technology will not replace teachers, teachers who use technology will replace those who do not.


While the proliferation of new technologies helps to enable many of the efforts to introduce more testing in many education systems around the world, it is perhaps worth considering that the sorts of things that are most easily testable using technology are, almost by their very definition, those things that are most easily taken over by machines. If you can automatically assess something (a fact, an activity) using a machine, someone will eventually write an algorithm to help a machine regurgitate that fact, or perform that activity, automatically (and most likely flawlessly).

In his recent Jefferson Lecture to the National Endowment for the Humanities in the United States, the journalist Walter Isaacson speaks about the potential for "a partnership between humans and machines, a symbiosis where each side does what it does best. Machines augment rather than replicate and replace human intelligence. We humanists should root for the triumph of this human-machine partnership strategy, because it preserves the importance of the connection between the humanities and the sciences."

And, it might be added, the importance of the human connection between teacher and student.

Note: The image used at the top of this blog post of so-called Luddites smashing a loom ("In the future, will a machine replace me and smash other machines on my behalf?") comes via Wikimedia Commons and is in the public domain. The second image of two robots ("Greetings, pupils. Please find an available power outlet, class will begin shortly") comes courtesy of the Wikipedian JosepPAL via Wikimedia Commons and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. The final image, of B.F. Skinner's "teaching machine", comes courtesy of the Wikipedian Silly rabbit via Wikimedia Commons. It is also used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license; its inclusion here was inspired by this upcoming book.


Michael Trucano

Visiting Fellow, Brookings, and Global Lead for Innovation in Education, World Bank

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