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Can Machines Replace Teachers in Education Systems?

By Lindsay Poirier on August 26, 2011

Any teacher that can be replaced by a machine, should be.” – David Thornburg

Does this statement make you cringe? Squirm a bit in your chair? I’m not surprised if it does. As access to technology proliferates among schools in developing countries, a call for improved teacher training, curriculum, and methods of assessment seems vital to ensuring that the initiatives are sustainable. How else can you ensure that children are using time spent on a computer effectively and for educational purposes?

Despite this logical breakdown, research conducted in India over the past decade disputes these views. Let me preface an explanation of this research with a brief story:


January 2011, Arusha, Tanzania : A brand new computer lab has been set up at Yakini Primary School, and all of the students are extremely excited to use a computer for the first time. Even though there are 13 computers in the room, the solar-powered generator electricity only allows 4 to be turned on at a given time. When the third year class enters the lab, 8 students huddle around each computer.

Today, after spending the past few days talking about the uses of a computer and its parts, we will finally be turning the computers on and seeing them in action. The plan is to practice using a mouse by working with windows. The class assignment is to open the ‘My Documents’ folder, maximize the window, minimize it, re-maximize it, and then close it. ”Once you have completed the assignment, please do not touch the computer. Just wait for me to get around to your group.” I begin working with the group of students at the first computer.

By the time I reach the students at the last computer, I am quite surprised to find that, not only have they completed the assignment on their own, but the desktop background has also been changed from the image of green hills to a Black Labrador dog. Awestricken at these novice geniuses, I ask the students, “How did you do that?” With each student chiming in his or her own input, they navigate their way back through the steps to where they changed the image. I’m so impressed that I do not bother reprimanding for not following instructions.

This story illustrates New Dehli researcher, Sugata Mitra’s, suggestion that students using technology in unstructured, self-organized groups can help each other guide their own learning. In 1999, Mitra began experimenting with educational technology by building a PC with a high-speed internet connection into a wall in the slums of New Delhi. He then left the computer with no instructions for use or devices for language translation, planning to observe how individuals interacted with it.

Soon two children were huddled around the computer. Within minutes they had taught themselves how to point and click and were browsing the internet by the end of the day. After repeating this “Hole in the Wall” experiment throughout rural communities in India, he came to the conclusion that children, living in areas that lack adequate resources for instruction, could teach each other how to use a computer by working together in groups.

He makes several arguments for the benefits of this type of learning in classrooms:

  1. It reduces the costs of efforts such as One Laptop per Child. While Mitra supports the design of the laptop, he believes there should be one laptop for every four children so that groups can work through their setbacks together.
  2. When children are learning technology and exploring interests in an unstructured setting, they become excited about learning and retain much more.
  3. Expecting children to work through the dilemmas on their own teaches them innovation and creative problem solving, two skills essential to any job. Instead of producing students that are able to memorize a laundry list of items, this approach produces students that know how to pinpoint where to find the same information.
  4. Having children work together in groups teaches teamwork and collaboration.

I do not doubt that there is a place for Mitra’s recommendation of self-organized group learning in ICT4Ed. It’s a great opportunity for students to explore their curiosities, learn skills in innovation and problem solving, and retain steps to a much greater extent than they can with rote memorization.

However, I do believe that it is important to discern an appropriate time and circumstance for this method of learning. For instance, providing students with an allotment of time each day to freely roam the internet together, researching topics of their own interests, could be a great opportunity to keep them excited about technology and to show them how they can find answers to pressing questions and work through problems on their own.

This, however, can not replace the role of a teacher and a curriculum. Knowing how to use the tools for gathering information is an excellent skill but will not help a student requiring computer knowledge at a time when tools are not at hand. Following a structured curriculum ensures that students have the foundation of fact-based information to make them productive even when technology is not readily available. Furthermore, it ensures that all students are participating and learning the skills that they will need.

To illustrate these points, let’s look at back at my story and point out some of the gaps:

  1. All of the students may now remember exactly how to change a desktop background. This does not mean, however, that they know how to verbalize the steps that they took without the computer screen directly in front of them. If someone were to ask one of the students to write down the steps, the student would not know the terms needed to describe the steps discernibly. Having a solid, curriculum-based foundation in educational technology and being assessed on it without a computer screen makes a student much more productive in times when technology is not available.
  2. Students may have worked together to describe their steps to me, but this does not account for the one student, towards the back of the group, that is not paying attention or contributing to the group’s input. Having teachers and providing assessments can make sure that all students are gaining knowledge, not just the ones that put forth the most effort.
  3. Changing a computer background may have been a great lesson working through computer screens to bring about a change on the computer, but it is not much of a useful skill in technology. If computer instruction consists of students roaming about the computer, exploring their interests, there will be quite of bit of pertinent information that they will likely not take the time to learn on their own. Making the desktop background look pretty is much more interesting to a student than learning the difference between RAM and ROM or how a file system works. These are skills that are important, so it is necessary to have a curriculum in place.

Taking this into consideration, while Sugata Mitra sets forth an interesting model for student learning that may have a place during a fraction of the school day, teachers, curriculums, and assessments cannot be replaced by machines and curious children.


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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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2 Comments to “Can Machines Replace Teachers in Education Systems?”

  1. tloughran says:

    Lindsay Poirier has posted a substantive and very helpful set of reflections on ICT training. Like Lindsay’s, my reflections on her post are based on my own particular and limited experiences (see http://tinyurl.com/tloughran) and in that sense they constitute something of a set of hypothesis in need of further testing. But here they are, for what they’re worth.

    Lindsay has some limited sympathy for Sugata Mitra’s delight at his discovery that students pushed into lockstep interaction with technology find creative ways to use it for their own purposes. She grants that there is a place for students to “explore their curiosities (…and) learn skills in innovation and problem solving”, adding that this sort of freedom enables students to “retain steps to a much greater extent than they can with rote memorization.” But Lindsay questions the extent to which allowing creative activity of that sort will ensure effective use of technology for “educational purposes”, which for her seem to include acquiring a “foundation of fact-based information to make them productive even when technology is not readily available.”

    Productivity would not be first on my list of educational purposes. I think that education succeeds precisely insofar as it issues effective invitations to students to become mature members of their communities. Different communities have different accounts of maturity, and thus rival purposes in education. Freedom and dignity, rather than productivity, are central values of communities with whom I choose to collaborate. Productivity in some measure is important in a dignified human life, but it’s a means, not an end. Moreover, it’s something of the tail on the dog: ignite passion for community goals, and students will learn, just-in-time, to be productive (with helpful guidance from more mature members, fulfilling the essential role of teachers on this approach).

    Free inquiry on this model is not primarily valuable because it is a more efficient route to effective retention of steps (though it may be such a route.) Students should see technology as a gateway to free inquiry and free productivity. In developing contexts, it is all the more important that students grasp technology as a locus of creative collaboration. The rate at which progress in the STEM disciplines is accelerating makes a learning-by-rote approach to ICT training destined to leave the most disadvantaged further and further behind: old hardware and software is becoming older, faster. So the activities of mature participants in the global ICT community–collaborative and freely-productive activities–must be presented right up front in ICT training. Collaboration must come before keyboarding, not after spreadsheets.

    So I agree with Lindsay that teachers and curricula are essential in ICT4E, but not to provide students with just-in-case ordered basic knowledge and skills. Education is an onramp to interaction in a global community that is changing too rapidly for a just-in-case, ordered-basic-knowledge-and-skills approach. Instead, the teachers we need know that their students need to learn and do things while under their guidance that are different from and in optimal cases surpass what they themselves can do. Teachers need to model learning, rather than knowing, in a globally connected world. Restricting student activity to their instructor’s current view of what students need to know and be able to do is on this approach the kiss of death in ICT4E. At any rate, that’s my hypothesis.

  2. Med says:

    Lidsay has just brought to surface one of the thorny issues in education and ict. do we need to give students freedom: when dealing with computers. does a police like control of what students are doing on the computer produces negative effects to the planned educational purposes of the session ?
    These are two questions that largely debated in the educational spheres of ict practitioners. I am not going to start the debate here for it needs another long article to put forward the arguments and counter arguments but i will just brief you of what i personally deduced from my personal experience as a technology user inside my classroom wih my students.I think teachers should be tolerant and lenient when it comes to students using computers. we know some students are quick learners and other are slow learners. the quick learners would just do the task you asked for in a short span of time while others are still struggling to figure out how to handle it, the time left for those smart students will be diverted automatically to discovering that strabge machine in front of them , this should not be considered as deviation from teacher instructions but as a well wished for creative activity that teachers need to encourage and insist on.Giving students some freedom and letting them feel like they are resposible for what they are doing can absolutely have huge positive impacts on their learning.