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Are Robots the School Teachers of the Future?

By Lindsay Poirier on October 5, 2011

Have you seen the 1990-film “Class of 1999?” In it, a Seattle school system is so ridden with gang violence and drug abuse that not even the police will dare to intervene. The Department of Defense is brought on to implement a program where robot teachers, referred to as Cyborgs, are employed to educate students and provide discipline when students misbehave.

With programmed tactics for corporal punishment, they have no problem maintaining control of a classroom, but as they develop into more intelligent entities, their decisions trend towards opting to kill off delinquent students.

As a disclaimer, I will point out that I, in no way, recommend this movie for quality or even for entertainment. It does, however, instill appropriate fear of what can happen if we begin to rely on machines for educating students, particularly in developing areas or areas with unstable education practices.

Realistic educational technology

1999 was a bit of an opportunistic estimate for when robots would appear in classrooms. In the past decade, however, advancements in technology have made instruction simulation so effective that the necessity of a well-educated, high quality teacher in a classroom has been brought into question. Several benefits can even be drawn from allowing technology to dictate student education in developing countries.

  1. Relying on technology for classroom instruction creates an even playing field where all students are learning everything that needs to be covered according to curriculum standards. They are all also receiving the same high quality information. This cuts out concern for poor, unreliable, or novice teachers, a problem that unfortunately is prevalent in many developing countries.
  2. Making use of technology ensures proper assessment of students so that unbiased decisions can be made about student progression. This cuts out the worry of teachers “passing students along” rather than ensuring that they really know the material.
  3. Taking advantage of technology for student instruction can greatly cut down on teacher salary costs. By placing the burden of teaching lessons on programmed instruction, paying extra for a well-educated teacher with lots of experience becomes superfluous.

There are currently plenty examples of schools in developed nations embracing this technology. Just last week I was in a classroom that made use of SMART Board technology and associated “virtual teacher” apps. The 4th grade teacher in charge of the room told me that she believed the technology would soon replace her job.

For those not acquainted with the technology, SMART Boards are interactive white boards that can project computer displays and allow students to interact with them through touch. SMART pens allow students to write on the screen, and the board is able to translate the student’s handwriting into computer text and then save it as a Document file on a connected computer. Resources and applications supplied with the board feature “virtual teachers” that provide a lesson, ask students for feedback, and then advance when students give correct responses.

Implementing this technology in a classroom requires existing infrastructure for electricity and Internet, an instructor device (desktop/laptop/iPad) to connect to, and software to enable the use of all aspects of the hardware.

Sound a bit sophisticated for use in the developing world? SMART Technologies doesn’t think so. In December of 2010, they launched the 400 Series SMART Boards, providing the technology at lower cost exclusively to schools in EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa), Asia Pacific, Latin America and Mexico. These schools could now purchase an interactive whiteboard and short-throw projector for $2,599. This figure does not include software, maintenance, or professional development costs.


Even more outlandish, in 2009 the human-like robot teacher, Saya, was introduced to a classroom in Japan. By manipulating the rubber molding of her face, this robot was programmed to express six different emotions – surprise, fear, disgust, anger, happiness, and sadness.

It could tell students to be quiet and was even reported to make children cry after reprimanding them. While not currently able to deliver classroom instruction, there is hope that by integrating this sort of “emotional” robot teacher with existing “virtual teacher” tools, this technology will change the way today’s classrooms are instructed. The cost of a made-to-order robot teacher from Japan: $51,000.

Let’s take a moment to not even consider these higher cost technologies. More prevalent in the developing world, software is employed on low-cost laptops, desktops, or tablets to simulate teacher instruction. In these classrooms, an entire curriculum can be imparted to students through a computer program, making a quality human teacher unnecessary.

So can technology replace teachers?

Through evidence pointed out above, I am inclined to say yes, or eventually yes. Should technology replace teachers in the developing world? My firm and whole-hearted stance is that it should not.

Think back to primary school. I bet that just about everyone reading this post can point out one teacher that was particularly inspiring. In developing countries where truancy policies are enforced to a much lesser extent, inspiring teachers are vital in encouraging kids to stay in school, rather than opting to stay at home to work and provide for the family. Expectations for students to continue education and earn a promising career are also lower in developing countries, a tendency that can only be transformed with motivational human role models within the classroom.

Unfortunately, there are no inspiring robot teachers. They are all programmed to spit knowledge out at students and expect students to spit it back at them. A computer cannot develop personal distinctions between students. It cannot develop creative or innovative ideas for teaching material in a new way. It cannot comment on papers, providing students with extremely valuable positive feedback or critiques. It cannot pull a struggling student aside and determine if there are personal issues related to his/her performance. It cannot encourage students with a particular strength and interest in a subject to consider certain career paths.

Many will make the claim that technology excites students in developing countries, and this makes them want to be in school and learn. While I agree that interactive technology can add a level of student interest over teacher lectures, once the novelty of technology and computer instruction wears off, students will not maintain this excitement level.

Furthermore, in developing regions where a baseline for education standards and expectations has not been refined, employing technology as an alternative to human instruction makes it much more difficult to gauge design specifications for effective instructional software. Creating instructional software requires having a firm grasp on student expectations and an understanding of what motivates students of a particular background to learn. This is more intuitive in developed countries where methods for effective student instruction have been extensively researched and practiced.

In developing nations, education should be viewed as more than just imparting knowledge. It is responsible for adequately preparing a student for a role in the world. While technology can be a great tool for promoting interactive learning and providing information beyond the scope of a teacher’s knowledge base, it cannot replace the intrinsic value of having a human devoted to a child’s educational development present in a classroom.

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I am an undergraduate student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute studying Information Technology and Science, Technology, and Society. The focus of my studies is on International Development. I have a particular interest in incorporating ICTs in primary education in Sub-Saharan Africa.
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3 Comments to “Are Robots the School Teachers of the Future?”

  1. Hi Lindsay,

    Thanks for this interesting opinion piece! You’ve hit on some of the issues that I find most frustrating and intriguing in ICT4E, so I just want to respond to some of your ideas:

    1) I find your suggestion that “several benefits can even be drawn from allowing technology to dictate student education” extremely problematic. It propagates one of the key issues with contemporary approaches to ICT4E: a prioritizing of “tech” over “ed”.

    As we’ve seen with numerous ICT4E projects that take tech provision as the primary goal–in both developing and developed contexts–supplying ICTs alone does not in and of itself spark improvements in pedagogy or learning. As a result, I would argue that what ICT4E needs to do is in fact the exact opposite of what you suggest: allow the needs and goals of student education (in a given context) to dictate which technologies are *most appropriate* to be employed in support of those goals.

    2) You also state that “relying on technology for classroom instruction creates an even playing field [for] students.” I would argue that this is categorically not the case. In fact, introducing technology into a classroom can *increase* existing inequalities (ie. socioeconomic) between students, of which access to technology is really only a symptom.

    For example, say a school adopts an ICT where the majority of software and content is in English (as it currently is). Student A comes from a well-educated family where she regularly speaks English with her parents at home. Student B’s parents don’t speak English and as a result he only really uses the language at school, where most of the lessons are based on rote memorization rather than conversation. Further, although the teacher speaks English well, her English reading and writing skills are less strong. In this case, employing this ICT actually puts Student B–and the teacher!–at a greater *dis*advantage than before, rather than leveling the playing field as you suggest.

    3) I’m particularly uncomfortable with your statement that “Taking advantage of technology for student instruction can greatly cut down on teacher salary costs. By placing the burden of teaching lessons on programmed instruction, paying extra for a well-educated teacher with lots of experience becomes superfluous.” There are three main reasons for my reaction:

    First, I may be misreading this, but it seems to me that you’re suggesting that technology may replace teachers in developing countries… as in: buy tech, fire teachers?!?! I know you say later that tech shouldn’t totally replace teachers, so I’m not entirely clear on what your argument here is.

    In a developing context, replacing teachers with tech could have a dire ripple effect on the local economy (unemployed can’t buy goods, which impacts all other areas of commerce) and make the often already high unemployment rate even worse! And if the teachers’ salaries (which would have been spent in and supported the local economy) are now being rerouted to a big tech firm in N.America or Europe, who benefits? Is this contributing to local ‘development’?

    I think that in this scenario, we have to ask ourselves “If this [reducing the number of teachers] is the result of implementing this tech, what are the broader consequences? Are they mostly positive or negative–and for whom?”

    Second, teachers are notoriously underpaid in many developing countries. It’s actually a major challenge for developing countries to attract and retain “well-educated teacher[s] with lots of experience” and this is a big setback in many education systems. This is in part because existing teacher salary costs are *negligible*, particularly in the context of the enormous long-term financial investment that an ICT4E initiative requires. Often, teachers salaries could be doubled or tripled for a fraction of the investment that a single year of an ICT4E initiative requires. So taking advantage of tech might cut down on salary costs (if you fire the teachers?!) but greatly increases costs in other areas.

    Finally, there is a large (and ever-increasing) body of literature that indicates that teachers are INTEGRAL to the success of an ICT4E initiative. They are necessarily *the* key factor in how (and if) a technology is utilized effectively in a classroom. Further, they must be adequately trained and supported in order to fulfill this role.

    Consequently, ICT4E initiatives actually require *better* educated teachers, which in turn requires an increase in investment in teacher training. With this in mind, upping their salaries and providing better education in traditional teaching methods is in fact considerably cheaper (and, often, likely to be more effective in improving learning outcomes) than starting an ICT4E initiative.

    This isn’t to say that ICTs don’t have enormous potential to be beneficial in education, in both developing and developed contexts. I totally agree with you when you stay that it’s a misconception that ICTs are too “sophisticated for use in the developing world”–the innovations happening in mobile tech in Nairobi alone blow that idea right out of the water!

    I just think that those of us in this field need to remember that tech itself isn’t a “magic bullet” solution, and that ignoring socioeconomic contexts and the importance of teachers can lead to an ICT4E initiative that harms more than it helps.

    These are issues I’m extremely passionate about (as I think you are too) and I’d love to discuss/debate them with you further! Thanks again for your thoughts!


  2. lindsaypoirier says:

    Hi Samantha,

    Thanks for your responses. I really appreciate your feedback.

    First, to clarify my stance on ICT4E: I believe that well-planned, well-researched, well-designed, and well-developed software can supplement a teacher’s lesson plan and act as a tool for engaging and exciting students in “hands-on” activities.

    In this article, I’m not referring to this sort of supplemental education tool. The article instead focuses on educational software that attempts to mimic the role of a teacher, imparting entire lessons plans to students. I mention “virtual teacher” applications, where students can sit in front of a SMART Board animation that introduces vocabulary of a lesson plan, imparts the main objectives, asks students to answer exercise questions, and will not progress until all students show progress in their responses. Some teachers or practitioners believe that this sort of software can simply be run for an hour and act as the day’s lesson plan for a certain topic. The argument can thus be made that “if technology can supply lesson plans and ensure student progress, a strong focus does not need to be placed on getting quality teachers in classrooms.” I do not agree with this argument in any way, and this is not the sort of ICT4E initiative that I support. I do not believe that technology should ever be allowed to supplant teachers, a point that I hope became very clear in the latter half of the article.

    Keeping this in mind, when I mention the “benefits [that] can be drawn from allowing technology to dictate student achievement,” I am referring to the arguments that are often cited by those who do believe that technology can be a “silver bullet” in education. I agree that it definitely cannot be viewed this way. The points made at the beginning of this article were meant to introduce the counter-argument points that I hoped to dispute throughout the remainder of the article.

    When I refer to the technology creating an “even-playing field” for students, I do not mean it to be interpreted in terms of socio-economic factors but instead in terms of potential teacher bias that results in passing students along to the next grade without ensuring that they are ready. Technology has the potential to cut out teacher bias in assessing the readiness of a student to move on to future grades by providing assessments based on standards of progress.

    I should point out here, that, although this is an argument that is made by many, it also serves as a counter-point argument to my article’s main point, and I probably did not take enough time to dispute this point in particular. To summarize my stance on this topic, I also do not believe that any sort of computer software can better assess the readiness of a student to progress than a human teacher. Teachers can better monitor student effort and determine if there are external factors holding a child back from grasping certain material. There are also instances where children really do understand concepts but have trouble with it when it is presented in the form of an assessment. A computer may determine that a child needs to be held back and retaught material, when in fact, this child just needs to be given alternative ways to prove his/her knowledge.

    In writing this article, I had a feeling that the last point that you mention would strike a chord with many in the field. First, again, the purpose of including this point in the article was to mention the counter-arguments that many will make to my stance that technology cannot replace teachers in education. Many will not suggest firing teachers, but claiming that teachers do not need to hold as many credentials for student instruction because software (and even the Internet) can hold such an infinite wealth of information. These individuals may ask, “why place such a focus on educating teachers when the technology itself can impart necessary knowledge to students?” In this case, teachers would merely act as facilitators in the classroom: progressing the slides of a presentation or telling students which lesson plans to complete and when.

    The points that you made about this “cutting back on teacher salaries” comment exactly describe my own thoughts on this stance.

    My main objective in writing this article was to dispute the idea that technology can replace classroom teachers. As mentioned, “My firm and whole-hearted stance is that it should not.” In providing the initial counter-arguments, I had hoped to set the landscape for where many believe technology can take education, and then, in offering my own views, (as seen after the heading “So can technology replace teachers?”) i had hoped to relay a warning as to getting overly caught up in the belief that technology can be, as you referred, a “magic bullet” solution in the developing world.

    So, all in all, we are completely in agreement on the issues related to ICT4E. Education comes before the tech; teachers are intrinsically valuable to all aspects of student development; issues in widening the socio-economic gap need to be considered when using tech in classrooms. There are numerous other points that you made with which I completely agree.

    Thank you so much for taking the time to read and respond to my article! As mentioned above, I greatly appreciate your feedback and discussion points, and I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts on future posts.


  3. Hi Lindsay,

    Thanks for your reply! You certainly cleared up some of my confusion with your initial post, it seems that I wasn’t quite clear on where were stating your opinion and where you were playing devil’s advocate (which I agree is an important perspective for us to approach these issues from!)

    I still don’t totally agree that technology it and of itself “has the potential to cut out teacher bias… by providing assessments based on standards of progress,” as technologies (like other assessment tools) are still designed by people and, I would argue, are therefore not neutral tools as they’re often portrayed to be.

    It’s also an interesting point you make about the possibility of teachers not being fired, but instead experiencing less emphasis being put on their education/credentials because of the sentiment that “technology itself can impart necessary knowledge to students.” That’s a potential (I’d argue, negative) outcome that I hadn’t really thought about before.

    It was great to be able to discuss with you! Looking forward to reading more of your posts and continuing the debate.