Shape Shifting and Automated Teaching

In my current position I am working on helping to identify and deliver the technology that would assist in the delivery of Master level courses at scale. Before the pedagogy evangelists go all Opus Dei on me let me stress that I am a firm believer that technology is not the definitive answer alone (without good design or sound pedagogy the technology will always fail). Recently I have read a few articles, tweets regarding the place for emerging technologies in modern day education.

Joel English, vice president of the Aviation Institute of Maintenance, to describe adaptive learning as a “shape-shifting” technique –Shape Shifting Tutors

The above got me thinking, we live in an age where technological terms sound awesome and make things that are normal sound life changing however, we are obsessed with making them feel human and calling them Smart or any other techy term (don’t get me started on the AI everything craze!).

An example would be a watch, a normal battery powered watch with one face which informs the wearer of the time (if the battery hasn’t died). Now let’s compare that to a Smart watch. Immediately the word smart hooks us with intrigue and wonder into how the watch is smart and possibly even presuming it will do things we label smart (collect step data, blood pressure, location, light up etc).

Essentially the watch is still a watch however its now grown into a life style tool that has a digital user layer (the watch bit) and a massive data layer which consumers don’t question. Tech companies spend wads of cash making things that normally sound as interesting as a potato into making that potato sounds like chips.

In Edtech we are seeing more companies leverage aspects of emerging technology (e.g. machine learning) to create and promote products that blur the lines of technology and human. Chatbots are an interesting example with some bots hidden behind a layer of confusion with names and personas that are keen to help but lure us into a strange world of questioning ‘what am I talking too?’.

If we strip away the glitz and glamor of the tech chatbots just respond to identified words or navigate users to an outcome via mapped flows however they are talked about as if they were built by the greek gods.

Another example is adaptive which at first glance seems to be like Xerte or a SCORM packages. Its marketed as offering personalised learning experience to 1-1000s of users and allows teachers to access data regarding the student’s activity and journeys through the tool. The data generated is massive however the same can be said for an LMS and we are still trying to figure out what we should do with that information. At scale this sounds like an attractive solution (tapping into the personalised learning vibe currently rampant in Edtech) however how much work is required by the content creator to map the learning paths and outcomes, will the data be analysed is adaptive learning a faceless teacher.

Is this the future of Edtech or is it just jazzy terminology that sounds like an awesome research project but practically (let alone ethically) a headache? Are we in the dangerous zone of placing the technology ahead of the students and the teachers learning experience?

I another article (see below) argues that robots should be visible as robots and not disguised as humans plus raises the question why we are obsessed with building robots in the vision of humans that are essentially flawed (Myles bot would chew gum with its mouth open and and talk loudly).

I would suggest that robots and tools created to augment the learning experience should have a role in education however we need to be upfront with all audiences explaining why we think they can be beneficial for learning and how they are only meant to augment and not replace or pretend to be a teacher whislt ensuring the user’s data is not being extorted. Basically think Aliens when Ripley in the power loader!



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