Replace me with a computer? – continued

In my last posting I argued that computers, like so many technological innovations, can be “force multipliers” – that is, they can improve my productivity as a teacher. I wouldn’t really describe this as replacing me so much as enhancing my work. How?

  • The one-time, best time lecture. Education websites are abuzz these days with discussion of the “flipped classroom,” where students listen to lectures online and then go to class to engage in more meaningful discussion. This strikes me as a very sensible way to deliver a lot of content, although it does require students to tune in. (More on that in my next post, when I talk about where a computer can’t replace me.) I’ve also used podcast lectures to share content with my classroom successors.
  • The interactive quiz and/or test. My “Moodle” classrooms enable me to write quizzes that teach as well as assess. So, for example, when a student picks a particular wrong answer, a window pops up explaining why he or she might have been tempted by that choice . . . and why another choice is better. These questions/answers take a long time to enter in the computer, by the way, but once they’re written they’re available permanently. Moreover, the computer grades the quizzes and tests AND enters the grades in a computer gradebook. Wow.
  • Drill ‘n kill. Still working on those multiplication tables? The Spanish subjunctive? Teachers tire of going over and over topics we’ve already taught, and we risk losing students who’ve already mastered these skills. Computers – and especially interactive programs that identify errors and hone in on weak points – can really help. I already posted a link to Teach for America teacher (and BYU grad) Ben Pacini, who has talked about how computers have transformed his ability to reach inner city kids of widely varying skills levels.
  • The flexible timing. Anyone who has taught teenagers first thing in the morning knows that they’re not firing on all cylinders at 8:30 a.m. While I love to think that my presence in the classroom enlivens my lectures, I suspect that many of my students are better able to absorb the same lesson at 8:30 p.m. Also, online classes enable students to take subjects that won’t fit into their schedule. Our AP government students, for example, usually can’t find a space for economics as well, and I think that creates a serious hole in their education. So this year we’re (I’m) offering it online, as a summer/fall course.
  • The interactive grading. I’ve made no secret on my blog of my concern that teachers don’t assign enough essays, and don’t grade these essays thoroughly enough, both for content and for writing errors. Computer programs such as have made it much easier to grade thoroughly, because I can insert pre-written comments into essays.
  • The broader team. One of the unexpected pleasures of online teaching has been the opportunity it gives me to teach with partners who share lecturing duties, join me on the online discussion boards, help me choose materials, etc. Sure, that’s possible in a regular classroom as well, but cash-strapped schools can’t generally afford to double-team classes. It’s easy online.
  • The broader classroom. Why should the courses available to students be limited to courses their school’s teachers are prepared to teach, or that the school can afford to offer?

These are all “force multipliers” that teachers can use in traditional classrooms, and indeed I think I prefer the “blended learning” model to classes delivered entirely online.

All of these roles for computers require teachers: as lecturers, as curriculum designers, as quiz and test writers, as discussion leaders. Will they require quite as many teachers? Maybe not, in the long run, but fewer more productive teachers could mean fewer, more qualified, better paid teachers. Think about it – and share your thoughts.


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