I refer to the years 2020-2022 as “The COVID-years”. Suddenly, teachers across the planet received a new job description. In addition to being the instructional planner, facilitator, and personal mentor, teachers became digital specialists as well. They were told, “Sure, you can educate the youth, but can you do it using a remote control? Using a system with which you may not be familiar?” And they rose to the occasion! As a teacher among the ranks, I know how difficult it was, and am both impressed and grateful for the work those brave educators did. As we move forward in the 21st Century, I believe online education is going to increase and evolve. A dear friend of mine wholeheartedly believes that education as we know it will ultimately be replaced by automation, the beginnings of which may be rooted in both the need and the possibilities that were introduced in those fateful years of change.
Unfortunately, the results of the “massive global virtual education” experiment were mixed (to put it generously). I’ve recently been talking with my peers about the Covid years, and an overwhelming majority says, “It didn’t work for my kids. Probably 95% struggled and missed out because of the online format.”
That being said, some kids did thrive. I saw it in my own classrooms. In fact, when I got my Masters online in 2013, the online platform was possibly THE reason I was able to complete my degree program, allowing for flexible scheduling and pacing. Even without rising to the extreme of fully asynchronous online courses, I see the virtue of math automation software. Apps and websites exist to help kids explore concepts, and more importantly perhaps, provide immediate and meaningful feedback. If nothing else, automation can help make teachers’ lives easier!
Making teachers’ lives easier
I’ve always said, teaching kids is three full-time jobs. Educators get paid for 40 hours, and in that time, most of it is spent in front of the classroom, delivering the instruction and managing student behaviors. Planning what will happen in the classroom is another job, and if it’s done well, it involves research, unpacking the standards and expectations, determining differentiated instruction options so they’re ready on the fly if they’re needed, and keeping an eye on the pacing of the content to make sure you can get through everything — all this for each course on the teacher’s lineup. And what’s the use of all of that, if we never know how well we did? Testing, and analyzing that data is crucial in completing the ‘instructional cycle’, but it takes SOOOO MUCH TIIIIIME!! You need time to administer the assignment or test, then grade the papers, leaving meaningful feedback so the student can reflect on their learning and improve. To any educators that have managed to cram all 3 jobs into your 40 hours, I salute you. I know I never could.
Automation can do a lot of these tasks. Websites such as IXL provide adaptive practice. This means, it gives a question, but unlike a static worksheet, the site can determine what question the student needs to see next based on whether or not they answered the previous one correctly. Not just that, but a worksheet is likely to sit on the teachers desk for a day or two until they find the time to correct it. All the while, those kids may not even know they weren’t doing it correctly! Diagnostic tools help student establish a baseline of knowledge and can recommend specific skills to help them progress. Differentiation never had it so good! If automation reduces the teacher’s workload, I’m ALL FOR IT.
Possibilities? Or inevitabilities?
I recently read an article about automated education. I’m linking it here so you can check it out. The premise is that automation is somewhat inevitable. It is the natural trend for people and corporations to find efficient ways to get a job done. During the Covid years, online schools saw something like a 200% increase in enrollment. Businesses such as Edgenuity have begun showing up as supplemental courses for students who need credit recovery or to make up credits, even in the public schools.
The article also discusses the benefits in terms of cost. A teacher costs anything from $35k – $70k a year. And to run a brick and mortar school, you need a bunch of them. It would seem that could eventually pose a problem. According to a study from governing.com, more than half a million teachers have left the profession since 2020. Generally, the industry sees turnover, losing about 8% per year but that is rising, including a disproportionate number of seasoned veterans. Some states have started giving higher wages and incentive pay, but I have anecdotal evidence of several schools who are dealing with shortages. “Our chemistry classes are all completely automated right now, because we can’t find the teachers to teach it.”
The cost of buying automation may be larger at the offset, but once the resources are created and the automation scripts written, that “teacher” can teach a limitless number of students with little to no additional cost. Budgeting concerns and teacher shortages may just increase the use of these automated instructors in schools across the planet.
I can’t say I can honestly imagine a world in which the job of teacher is obsolete, replaced by teacherbots. That sounds like an odd dystopian reality, sterile and free of emotion — practical but lacking sincerity. But I can foresee a reality in which the role of a teacher is drastically changed through technological innovations and automations. My teachers, back in the 80s and 90s were “the sage on the stage”. If I wanted to learn something, I needed a book, or I needed someone who had the knowledge I sought. These days, every expert ever published is a click away. Learning a concept is less about seeing it modeled, and more about understanding the context and path for which a student should go about learning them. Teacher as “sherpa”, a tour guide showing students where resources are and how to use them for their intellectual benefit.
An appeal for proactive solutions
So, my question is this. As our lives become more increasingly dependent on technology, what will this look like for teachers and how can they prepare themselves for the changing role they’ll play in their students education? What resources should be in place? Part of the underwhelming efficiency of the “mass virtual schooling” of 2020 was the abrupt change and placing the entire responsibility on the educators themselves. With enough forethought, we can go ahead and start creating the supports and structure of a brave new classroom.
How have you seen the rise of automation in your own classrooms? What are your thoughts about the changing educational setting? What solutions and supports do you long to see as your role as teacher evolves?