Archives for the month of: January, 2012

Okay, I’m taking another stab at my response to Khosla’s TechCrunch article because I don’t think I did him enough justice, or explained well enough my own issues with the piece. In one of my online communities, I was challenged by Doug Crets, a respected colleague, for missing the main points of Khosla’s article and not crediting Khosla with how closely he does align with the needs in education.  My title, “Teachers Won’t Replace Algorithms,” probably led readers down the wrong path, similar to how TechCrunch’s calling Khosla’s article “Do We Need Algorithms or Teachers” misleads readers as well. The issue is not an either/or question—what algorithms can tell teachers about student behavior has the potential to provide valuable tools in education, which will not replace teachers, but rather allow them to do their job more effectively and most likely differently.  My first blog responded to minor points of difference without acknowledging enough how much my beliefs about the future of education and Khosla’s align.

I agreed, and still agree, with every major point that Khosla puts forth:

1)   Seat time is highly overrated as a way to judge who deserves to be awarded a diploma. We all recognize that students learn at different paces, yet we don’t acknowledge this fact in our course and graduation requirements.  A professor friend of mine teaches one of her college classes now using a new model—when students have completed the level of quality of writing to receive an A, then they’re finished. If that takes 3 weeks, then they took a 3-week course. If it takes the whole semester, she’s right by them the whole way, providing support.

This is also true for individual high school courses.  I used the example of Algebra in my last blog because it’s a subject that is often repeated by students who struggle with its concepts.  Some students fly through the material and others need to work with the content in different ways than traditionally presents. Technology has the ability to provide avenues for students who can move on to more advanced materials, while also providing learning solutions for struggling students.

2)   The best man at my wedding works at Zynga, so I recognize both the value of the potential of gamification and the possibilities that big data can tell us about student behavior.  Most people agree with Khosla’s support for what gamification can do for learning. What many educators may not realize is that platforms such as Zynga have also provided us a way to test on a large scale what does and doesn’t work. Khosla captures this when we shares that these “new platforms…have the ability to rapidly run experiments with new styles, techniques and resources (like social learning) which will lead to a new understanding of education.”  Imagine what we could learn about where students get stuck when reading a science article, working through a math problem, or reading a short story, if we applied some of these same strategies/algorithms.

3)   Social media also has a place in the future of education. On a simple level, I already see students asking each other questions at night using social media. Companies such as Grokit and Inkling do this on a larger scale for college students.  Khosla is correct that even the students who help other students learn because the best way to learn material inside and out is to teach it. Again, this doesn’t replace the role of the teacher, just provides more tools for a teacher to use.

4)   Technology has the power to free up teachers to do what we do best—teach our students to think, read, write critically, to engage with the wider world, to be curious, to learn how they learn best, to be empathetic and compassionate and to have the tools they need to solve 21st century problems.  New advances could allow us to reach every single student by diagnosing issues quickly and precisely and engaging them in the ways each student learns best.

5)   Perhaps most importantly, I agree with Khosla’s vision of students enjoying the learning process. Young children absolutely love to learn, they’re curious about everything, and somehow our current system knocks this out of most of them. Technology can provide tools that help us get that love of learning back for all of our students.

When I heard Khosla speak in person, I left feeling similar to how I do now. He has so much right on target, but keeps missing the nuances. For instance, in both this article and in his comments during the interview I observed, Khosla only references lecture as a style of teaching because I believe it’s probably the only one he knows how to name. I wanted to spend a little bit of time with him to give him the language to use that would help him bridge the tech/educator divide. I also want him to say even more strongly that good teachers can’t be replaced by any form of technology. Technology just provides tools for teachers and these tools need to be designed for real problems in education and with real educators as part of crafting the solutions.

As a non-educator Khosla doesn’t always have the exact vocabulary to explain the nuances of the issues facing education, but he should get credit for recognizing (and funding) the patterns in the big picture.  As an educator invested in bridging the edtech divide, I should do more to bring that language to invested individuals like Khosla. Watch for more on this topic!

When Vinod Khosla asks “Will We Need Teachers or Algorithms?,” of course the answer is both.  Really, TechCrunch’s title is misleading because Khosla doesn’t argue that algorithms should replace teachers.  I had the pleasure of meeting Khosla when Mike Arrington was interviewing him as part of StartupWeekend EDU in Seattle, and he comes across as passionate about seeing technology’s potential to change education.

Many of Khosla’s points I agree with wholeheartedly—our system of fixed class time for graduation credit needs replacing, online learning has the clear potential to change the nature of teaching, gamification holds possibilities, and big data has much to teach us about student behavior.  I also love that Khosla sees the potential for each of these new online systems to become “a customizable playground for low-cost experimentation.”

Khosla’s issues with our traditional “fixed time, variable learning” model, for example, as opposed to a more flexible “fixed learning, variable time” model are on track.  Algebra is a good example—some students can learn algebra in a semester while others need two years. Instead of providing slower instruction for these students, we often make them take the course twice. Not an effective method of learning. Similarly, we’re holding back students who could fly through the material and move on to more advanced work.  Currently all diplomas are certainly not equal.  Four years of high school can look very different from one student to another, but they’re all required to sit through the same amount of credit hours.

I’m fortunate to know several folks who are working through these big data problems to understand how students learn better, and I do see them as becoming real game changers in education.  Recognizing how long students remain working on specific problems or reading particular passages can tell us more about where students get stuck. We can begin to find patterns that will enable us to support students more quickly. I can only imagine what tomorrow will bring in terms of better understanding student behavior and learning patterns.

Still, this article shows a lack of full understanding of what it takes to be a skilled teacher, aspects that cannot be replaced by algorithms and online programs. While Khosla does acknowledge the need for human interaction between a teacher and a student—and we know that a single adult, such as a teacher, can make the difference between a student’s success or failure, the teacher relationship goes further, or any caring adult could serve the same role, not only trained teachers.

Being a great teacher does not mean being a great lecturer. Khosla seems to believe that most teachers lecture, which is not the case for good teachers. Sure, there are some teachers with a gift for explaining topics clearly. Programs like Khan Academy have the potential to be able to offer multiple explanations of concepts with the hope that a student will find one that makes it all click. However, the role of a teacher should not be seen as a conveyer of knowledge—if a teacher practices this way—“sage on a stage,” then he or she is not a great teacher.

One of the greatest skills a strong teacher has is to be able to guide a discussion or activity so that students discover what they think, believe and want to know. Great teachers can also provide students opportunities to learn empathy and compassion. Skills a computer can’t teach. A skilled teacher can push student thinking further than most computer programs.

Twentieth-century skills such as collaboration, creativity and innovation can’t simply be learned by playing an online game or earning a badge. Different skills are involved in collaborating online than collaborating in person, for example.  Can a computer program teach innovation? Creativity? Inquiry goes beyond researching online.

The one advantage that most teachers would jump on– the potential for help with the time-consuming task of grading—Khosla doesn’t even mention.  Many great teachers become administrators or leave education entirely because of the sheer volume of grading. Though I worry that a machine can’t replicate a teacher’s encouraging comments, artificial intelligence could certainly screen for content or math problems. A computer could comment on a student’s code in a computer science class, as another example.

Khosla and I both agree that online learning has the potential to change the nature of the classroom and the role of the teacher, but algorithms and computer programs will never replace skilled teachers.  With the advent of better targeted online programs a teacher can be allowed to spend more time teaching her students how to be critical readers, writers and thinkers, prepared for the challenges of the 21st century.