Thursday, August 30, 2012

Robots Attack!

I'm always amazed at the recurrence some ideas seem to take in my day.  Maybe I'm just being hyper vigilant but lately the topic of robots keeps popping up.  The August issue of iste's Learning & Leading magazine arrived proclaiming "We Love Robots!"  I've seen a lot of buzz about STEM learning with Lego Robotics but perhaps we are playing into the hands of our new overlords.

ro·bot  (noun)
    1. a machine that resembles a human and does mechanical, routine tasks on command.
    2. a person who acts and responds in a mechanical, routine tasks on command.
    3. any machine or mechanical device that operates automatically with humanlike skill.

This post could go in a couple of directions based on that definition.  My first inclination is to ponder who the robots in education are?  An argument could be made that traditional schooling has been preparing students to perform as robots, but I'll steer clear of that weighty topic.  I'm thinking more along the lines of 'computers in education', or is it 'education in computers'?  When students go to a computer lab are we just plugging them in and allowing the computer to manage the learning process?  The line is increasingly becoming blurred as to whether computers are used as learning tools or whether they are assuming the role of the instructor.

This past week Audrey Watters addressed this conundrum in the 2012 Learning 2.0 Virtual Conference with her presentation: Robots in the Classroom.  I've been a fan of Audrey's Hacked Education blog for some time and she didn't disappoint with a thought provoking presentation on the role of robots in Education.  From Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics to robot essay graders, she posed a number of ethical questions on just how far educators should hand control over to machines.

We don't normally think of computers as robots, but they can be a "mechanical device that operates automatically with humanlike skill."  In fact, as Audrey pointed out, computers are exceeding humans in certain educational roles.  Computers are being used as robo-graders for millions of standardized tests each year, and I'm not just talking about the bubble questions.  Robo-readers are also being used to grade the essay portions as well.  A New York Times article reported one automated reader "can grade 16,000 essays in 20 seconds" (I can hear all the English teachers groan from here).  Computerized tutoring is another rising trend.  It's hard to argue against a computer's effectiveness in this role when it has the capacity to adapt to the myriad of learner differences much more easily than a classroom teacher.  Some Florida schools found it more economical this year to offer summer school online than to offer site-based instruction.  Learner management systems are also becoming more advanced with personalized options.  So is it possible that we may see the day when an entire school district goes online for the entire school year?  That really isn't that far-fetched of an idea.  The question we need to ask ourselves is whether or not these are intrinsic improvements for Education.  Are these developments occurring for efficiency or for economic reasons?  Does computerized instruction dehumanize learning?  Most people would agree that a computer is a tool but we are fast approaching a threshold where this tool may become another member of the faculty.

Science fiction author Sir. Arthur Clarke once said "Any teacher that can be replaced by a machine should be."  To that end I would refer the machine to Asimov's First law of robotics: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

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