Replace me with a computer? Part one

One of the pleasures of blogging is the excuse it gives me to free associate. This morning three strands of personal experience and reflection wove together in my mind.

The first strand was a friendly jab from one of my frequent commentators/contributors, who knows that I am (guardedly) enthusiastic about the potential of online learning. He commented:

Once we figure out a reliable way to measure “value-added” instruction (we haven’t, yet) we’re quickly going to see the fundamental incompatibility between those ideals and the way we have allowed class sizes to get out of control. If your answer to that is to replace the teacher with a computer, okay, but that comes with a package of consequences all its own.

The second strand was my recent experience grading 50+  AP U.S. history essays. The  (actual College Board) question asked students to identify how two of the following affected U.S. industrial workers between 1865 and 1900: labor unions, immigration, governmental action, and technological change. I was struck by how many students wrote that mechanization destroyed jobs and impoverished workers. I wasn’t entirely surprised by this response, since their textbook fails to note that even as millions of new jobs were created during this period, real wages (wages adjusted for inflation) rose 75 percent. But plenty of people noticed at the time. Confronted by the reality of an increasingly prosperous working class, Marxists by the score abandoned the old time religion and embraced social democracy. (Hey guys, remember Eduard Bernstein from AP European History?) But of course it’s also true that mechanization destroyed some skilled craft jobs, and impoverished some workers.

The third strand was the hours I put in this week updating our summer online essay writing course (which, by the way – and yes, this is a commercial break – will be available for credit and a fee to students outside Juan Diego this summer) and beginning to put an economics course online. How do I replicate what was best about these classroom courses? How do I take advantage of computer technology? How do I get around, or try to get around, the disadvantage of not being there, in the classroom, with the students I’m hoping to teach?

My conclusion: computers can’t replace me. But like the machines that expanded worker productivity in the nineteenth century and beyond, computers CAN potentially increase my productivity – that is, the number of students my school reaches, and the effectiveness with which we reach them. At best computers don’t eliminate my skills, but rather enhance them. But it’s also true that computers, and online teaching, potentially permit schools to educate more students with fewer teachers. Economic history suggests that this would increase teacher pay (by increasing marginal revenue product, for you fellow econ geeks) and  allow for some economies of scale. Economic history also suggests that technology will transform jobs more often than it destroys them.

I’ve blogged before about my experiences teaching online, and I’m going to talk about this more in the next post. Here are links to those earlier blogs, by the way:

But first, let me share a story from my pre-teaching days. This is an old story – from way back in the Reagan administration, when I ran the speech-writing office for the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

As I said, this is an OLD story. So old that our office “computers” were Wangs, or word processors.

At first, I couldn’t get my hands on one. My GS ranking was too high – an officer equivalent in Pentagon terms – and only secretaries were issued Wangs. Officers, you see, were expected to dictate, write longhand, or if really technologically advanced, type into an electric typewriter. Since I’d been composing at the typewriter since high school, this meant that I typed out a speech, and my secretary, a bright, hard-working young Air Force sergeant, retyped it into a Wang. I edited with a pen, and she retyped into the Wang – again. (Speaking of the creative destruction of capitalism and technical innovation, whatever happened to Wangs, anyway?)

It took me six months to persuade the Pentagon powers that be to issue me a Wang and let me use my secretary (a single mother eager to improve her skills and prospects) as a research assistant. Eventually I succeeded; office productivity improved; and my sergeant/secretary quickly showed herself to be a creative and motivated researcher.

Not all computer stories have such happy endings, I know. But there ARE some parallels to online teaching. I’ll talk about this in my next post.

One comment

  1. Howard Beale

    I think on-line education with little or no human interaction will actually work well with 20% of our students.

    I think having a real life human being is much better than a computer 80% of the time.

    I think the best of both worlds is a real live human being making great use of technology including on-line resources.

    Bottom line, most people need a human being to teach them. And often times as most of us have found out in life, a teacher is more than just somebody that dispenses information. A teacher can be mentor, friend, a wise sage or perhaps just a listening ear. A computer has no such advantages…

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