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Adapting to Impending Seismic Technological Shifts

Updated: Oct 16, 2021

“Our moral responsibility is not to stop the future, but to shape channel our destiny in humane directions and to ease the trauma of transition.” - Alvin Toffler

The world is changing...quickly. Automation and artificial intelligence are disrupting numerous sectors. We have seen machines replace humans on the assembly line. Autonomous vehicles could potentially eliminate millions of truck driving jobs within the next ten years.

Teachers have traditionally seen themselves as relatively insulated from technological disruption, but the pandemic has shown how quickly the landscape can change. Video conferencing, asynchronous instruction, one-to-one computing, and an endless array of software have facilitated an evolutionary jump that few of us saw coming.

For the foreseeable future, it certainly SEEMS that human “teachers” will be required. As long as parents/guardians need to send their children to a physical space each day, we will need adults in the building to provide a safe and organized educational environment. But this does not guarantee that the teaching profession is safe. In fact, teaching, as we know it, is about to go through a seismic shift.

Virtual and augmented reality (VR, AR) headsets are relatively inexpensive and improving every year. If you have not experienced VR lately, try the Oculus Quest 2. It costs $299 and can transport you to almost anywhere in the world.

AR also holds much promise and could soon become as ubiquitous as cellphones.

As VR and AR get more refined and less expensive, they will be as common as laptops and iPads are today. All subjects, including physical education, art, and music, can be delivered via VR/AR.

It’s hard to imagine all of the ways artificial intelligence (AI) will change our educational system. Cameras, brain-wave trackers, and realistic interactions with AI will either aid or replace human instruction.

Other countries are already experimenting with these technologies, and they present both opportunities and threats. This is why it is so crucial for us to talk deeply about the purpose of school and the metrics by which we determine success. If student achievement on standardized tests remains "God," we will see these technologies used for those ends, and my view is that this leads to a dystopian future. In fact, I would argue that we have already stepped into that dystopia.

But I am not a Neo-Luddite. If we can get our motivations better aligned with our humanity, these technologies have the potential to improve our lives. When balanced with outdoor experiences, technology-free social interactions, and social-emotional learning, they can be useful tools for human flourishing.

Unfortunately, our goals remain primarily materialistic, and as long as that is true, the affordability and efficacy machines provide will be too tempting to pass up. A machine that can teach is going to be far less expensive than a human teacher. A machine never calls in sick, never complains, and won’t make nearly as many errors. A machine doesn’t need benefits, won’t quit, and can be upgraded every year.

While human teachers may never be completely replaced by machines, I believe we will increasingly rely upon machines to customize and deliver instruction. As that happens, the devaluation of teachers we have seen accelerate recently will continue. And we may not like that, but those who owned a Blockbuster Video store weren't saved by their dislike for Redbox and Netflix.

Today it may seem ludicrous to suggest that machines could replace human teachers, but we have seen virtual learning replace face-to-face instruction, right?

I am not making an argument about whether this is a good thing. Toffler wrote, "Our technological powers increase, but the side effects and potential hazards also escalate."

What I know is that policymakers like saving money and getting better results, and if a technology does both, it is likely to be adopted. This is especially true if our international peers adopt and seem to gain competitive advantages as a result.

If we choose not to adopt, will we allow ourselves to fall further behind, as measured by test scores? If we do choose to adopt, what kind of society would we be building? These are incredibly important questions that we must thoughtfully and intentionally consider. These technologies are coming whether we use them or not. Their potential to create utopian or dystopian futures should inspire us to reflect upon the outcomes of our decisions.

A widely accepted end to public education is to prepare young people for a future career, but it is becoming increasingly unclear what the future holds. As AI and automation rapidly transform nearly every sector of the economy, including education, it becomes much harder for us to know how to prepare our students.

Our current concepts of teaching and learning are on a precipice. We may cling to our traditional models, but the exponential pace of technological change will be like a tsunami, and if we fail to prepare, fail to adapt, we will be left standing in our own vacant "Blockbuster Video."

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