A recent chart from Bloomberg on the future of artificial intelligence and employment lends evidence to a point I have been making for years: teachers will not be replaced by machines. The chart compares a wide array of professions based on required education levels, average annual wages, and likelihood of automation. Sure enough, elementary and secondary teachers are among the most educated yet least paid professionals; and their likelihood of automation: practically zero. Yet the debate about machines replacing teachers rages on. Recent opinion pieces claim that teacher obsolescence is inevitable and something we should embrace. Fortunately, a recent article in the Economist gets the narrative right, pointing out that “the potential for edtech will be realised only if teachers embrace it.”
Research consistently shows that teachers are the most important school-level factor affecting student outcomes—and good teaching goes well beyond presenting information or grading assessments with discrete answers. But for teachers, the mountain of academic and non-academic tasks they must tackle each day often leaves them feeling like they can’t serve all of their students. Fortunately, the future of learning technology is not replacing teachers, but amplifying their ability to meet the learning needs of their students. My hope—and the focus of my recent paper on this topic—is to shift the narrative of “teachers vs. machines” toward a more productive conversation. We need to start talking more about the best ways to integrate technology and teaching in order to amplify teachers’ impact.
Along those lines, here are two areas where technology can amplify teaching.
Reallocating teachers’ scarcest asset: time
Teachers have an ever-increasing list of tasks they must complete each day that often require them to stay late at school or take their work home. Fortunately, technology is increasingly able to do some of these tasks, such as take attendance, administer and grade assessments, deliver basic instruction, streamline lesson planning, and track student progress. By offloading these tasks to technologies such as MasteryConnect, Khan Academy, and Gooru, educators should be able to focus on the aspects of teaching that have the greatest impact on students: providing mentorship and guidance, offering expert feedback on student work that cannot be graded by machines, and engaging students in critical and analytical thinking.
Targeting students’ individual learning needs
Traditional teaching constrains teachers to one-size-fits-all lessons and pacing that make it hard to meet students’ individual needs. As a result, some students fall behind as the class moves forward without them, while other students finish all their work and become bored and disengaged as they wait for everyone else to catch up. Fortunately, technology offers a new alternative to the traditional model. Software can help teachers gather student learning data, analyze that data to pinpoint the daily strengths and struggles of each student, and then deploy various online, teacher-led, independent, and peer-to-peer learning experiences to target students’ idiosyncratic learning needs. When implemented correctly, teachers and software work in tandem to support student learning.
Teachers are indispensable to high-quality education. They give students expert feedback on how to reason, design, compose, and find creative solutions to problems. They create classroom cultures where academic inquiry is exciting and achievement is a shared ambition. They provide students with social and emotional support and coach them on managing both their daily tasks and their long-term dreams. These are roles that machines are unlikely to substitute for anytime soon. Nonetheless, teachers need technology to help them meet the demands that stretch them to the limits of their human capacity.
Technology can do a great deal to support high-quality teaching. But we still have a way to go before technology significantly amplifies the impact of great teachers. The most important work in edtech over the next five to ten years will be figuring out how to design technology and redesign teaching so that technology and teaching become seamless complements in the work of serving students.