Teaching in the machine age:
How innovation can make bad teachers good and good teachers better


December 7, 2016
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As scientific understanding and artificial intelligence leap forward, many professions—such as law, accounting, animation, and medicine—are changing in dramatic ways. Increasingly, these advances allow non-experts and machines to perform tasks that were previously in the sole domain of experts, thus turning expert-quality work into a commodity. With new technologies displacing workers across many fields, what will be the likely impact on the teaching profession? Will machines replace teachers?

Despite the hype and fear, machines are unlikely to replace teachers anytime soon. Rather, they are poised to help overcome several structural barriers that make it difficult to ensure that an effective teacher reaches every student.

School systems face a number of challenges, including teacher shortages, a lack of clear methods for developing high-quality teachers, and teacher burnout and attrition, to name a few. And even the best teachers struggle to address the diverse learning needs of their students or find time to focus on developing students’ deeper learning and noncognitive skills amidst pressures to cover core instruction.

Innovations that commoditize teacher expertise by simplifying and automating basic teaching tasks provide school leaders with new options for addressing three challenging circumstances:

  • When schools lack expert teachers. Innovations that commoditize teacher expertise can go a long way in amplifying the effectiveness of the existing teacher workforce. Research shows that putting high-quality curriculum and online-learning resources in the hands of less-effective teachers can boost students’ educational outcomes.
  • When expert teachers must tackle an array of student needs. Even high-quality teachers struggle, at times, to address the varied learning needs of their students. A common response is for schools to train teachers how to differentiate instruction. But implementing differentiated instruction with fidelity on a day-today basis can be difficult. Fortunately, computers can provide many aspects of basic content and skills instruction, empower teachers with better assessment data, provide learning resource recommendations, and give teachers more time and energy to work one-on-one and in small groups with students.
  • When expert teachers need to teach more than academic content. A growing body of research shows that deeper learning and noncognitive skills play a significant role, alongside content mastery, in determining students’ academic and life outcomes. Innovations that commoditize teacher expertise give teachers greater capacity to focus on helping students develop these important skills.

Rather than seeing technological progress as a threat, teachers and education leaders should take advantage of the many ways technology can enhance their work. Computers, non-experts, and expert teachers each have comparative advantages that complement one another. Computers are ideal for targeting students’ basic content and skill gaps and providing teachers with real-time assessment data. Non-experts, such as paraprofessionals and novice teachers, provide the human touch needed for supervising and motivating students and troubleshooting nonacademic learning difficulties. Expert teachers carry out sophisticated teaching tasks, including developing new instructional approaches, diagnosing and addressing students’ nonacademic learning difficulties, providing feedback on oral and written communication, fostering an achievement-oriented classroom culture, and talking with parents about students’ individual education plans.


Great teachers are the most valuable resource in our education system. And expert teachers’ work is unlikely to be reduced to standardized procedures or automated algorithms anytime soon. Yet, ensuring that every student has access to excellent teaching is not a trivial task. Fortunately, as innovations simplify and automate distinct aspects of teaching, both effective and less-effective teachers will see their capabilities enhanced by computers. This pattern provides a key insight for practitioners and policymakers who are working to guarantee that all students have access to high-quality teaching.

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Thomas’ research focuses on the changing roles of teachers in blended-learning environments and other innovative educational models. He also examines how teacher education and professional development are shifting to support the evolving needs of teachers and school systems.

  • Dan McGuire

    Great to see you guys coming to the point of understanding how technology can actually enhance the relationship between student and teacher http://developingprofessionalstaff-mpls.blogspot.com/2010/08/response-to-m-horns-comments.html

  • accurate windchimes

    Well done Thomas!! You gave a detailed view on how the technology now-a-days helping teachers to become expertise in their innovations and on how to improve teacher-student relationship with many innovations ahead. We as the reader are very keen to know more about innovations and technology as we like accuratewindchimes.in

  • Gabriel’s Seeds

    This article is worth to be quoted and refered. I’d like to mention one more student barrier that technology can partly help, motivation. Technology plus teachers motivation is the powerful combination. We have found quite useful to use videos and online learning games that fit best students interests grouped on talents and to combine them with learning lessons http://www.gabrielsseeds.eu.
    Thanks Thomas.

  • Duane Bemister

    We have developed tools that will enable Expert Teachers to reach a far larger audience and allow each learner to advance at their own pace. This is a bottom up solution that can be embraced without cost or authorization. You can view an eleven minute video available at http://wisdomquest.com that demonstrates the solution.