Computers as Teachers: Pros & Cons

Lonnie Monka Lonnie Monka / July 26, 2017 / edtech

The Fun They Had: predicting machine-teachers

Isn’t it amazing how stories sometimes predict the future? Is it a stroke of imaginative luck, or does the author actually have such clear vision that he or she "sees" the future? One example of such a prophetic story is “The Fun They Had”, by the famous sci-fi author, Isaac Asimov. Written in 1951, this story presents a girl’s diary entry from the year 2157. As the entry unfolds it touches upon our favorite topic here at Knovva Academy -- education!

After finding an old book that explains educational practices from ‘a long time ago’, the stories two characters -- a young boy and girl -- begin to discuss what “education” looks like in their time -- i.e. in the future. Through their conversation, the story presents a futuristic view of education which, for us today, edges towards becoming a reality.

With all of the contemporary technological advancements, it seems like we are on the brink of some major changes in education. Thanks to the internet, more information is now available than people have time to study. Online courses are opening up in mass, granting people access to quality material regardless of their location. The whole field of EduTech (Education + Technology), with its new machines, new software, etc, promises countless budding educational horizons.

In the Isaac Asimov story, we are told about the characters' educational experience, which is advanced even for our time. According to the story, each student has an individual “teacher” that is a machine. With these machine-teachers, each student has individual attention from a source that can contain far more “knowledge” than any real person. Given that this story was written in the 1950’s, it seems pretty prophetic to have anticipated  -- over 60 years ago! -- machine-teachers, which today's computers seem are edging towards.

As we get closer to their actuality, it’s important to clarify exactly what we want from these machine-teachers. Reviewing some of the details of the Asimov story can help us see more deeply into the issue.


Pros and Cons of Machine-Teachers

One positive feature of these machine-teachers is the individual attention. Each student has his or her own machine. Everyone knows the benefit of individual attention: instead of being crammed into the schedule of a general lesson plan, or syllabus, students can learn according to their individual needs. As of now, hiring one teacher for each student, at any level of education, would be an impossibly expensive endeavor. Machine-teachers could turn the dream of individual attention -- for every student, all of the time -- into a reality.

Besides the individual attention, some feature of the machine-teachers from Asimov story might make us think twice about implementing them. The kids in the story complain about being bored by their studies. It seems like their “education” consisted of hours and hours alone with these machines. Some students today might feel bored in their classrooms, dreaming of being able to do all of their learning through computers and cellphones. This story shows us how the opposite extreme is equally problematic: if students only learn from machines, they run the risk of eventually becoming equally as bored. An extreme solution to boredom could, in the end, give rise to a new, equally strong form of boredom.

Sometimes when we think of education we focus too much on the subject matter itself -- i.e. reviewing and retaining facts. It is important to learn names of historical periods and dates, or about various fields of mathematics and their respective equations. Yet, there are other parallel skills and processes that students learn from interacting with real people in classrooms -- for instance: socialization. When working in a group, regardless of the subject matter, people practice cooperation and communication. If you focus on test scores, which are often based on people’s ability to memorize information -- much like a computer -- you can easily miss the other important skills. For many practical and professional activities, knowing how to cooperate can be more important than being able to parrot back retained information.

Overall, as we brace ourselves for the coming integration of technology into the classroom, it’s important to think through these factors and clarify our expectations. Just as Asimov was able to see far into the future, we can imagine and project the future goals that will guide the decisions we make today.


The Future of EduTech

At Knovva Academy, we seek the optimal integration of technology into education. For anyone interested in our virtual classes, which feature real teachers and real groups discussing thought-provoking stories like “The Fun They Had”, then check out our programming and get in touch with our team to find out what would be the best course for you.