Teaching Profession

Technology Should Replace Basic Teaching Tasks, a New Paper Says

By Madeline Will — December 15, 2016 3 min read
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Will machines replace teachers one day?

Probably not, despite some fears that it might—but technology can help enhance and supplement the teaching profession, writes Thomas Arnett, the senior research fellow for the Christensen Institute, a nonpartisan think tank that focuses on innovation, in a new white paper.

“I think we’re still a few years away from fully realizing the potential of what technology can do for teachers, and there’s still a lot of innovation to happen to get us there,” Arnett said in an interview with Education Week Teacher.

But soon—possibly within the next five to 10 years—most schools will have the capability to offload basic instruction and planning onto machines, he said. Computers can gather and analyze student data, freeing up teachers to focus on the high-end impact of teaching “that can’t be substituted,” Arnett said.

This applies less so to the elementary grades, where learning is more hands-on and interactive, Arnett said. But from 3rd or 4th grade on, and especially in high school, he said, technology is poised to make it easier for every student to have full access to a high-quality teacher.

For example, he said, when schools lack high-quality teachers, giving technological and online-learning resources to less-effective teachers can boost student achievement.

As school districts across the country have struggled recruiting teachers for certain subjects, technology has been used as a stopgap measure to curb the shortage. For example, a Georgia school district has hired 10 virtual teachers in middle and elementary schools after not being able to fill the vacant positions. And a Maine high school bought the computer software program Rosetta Stone to serve as a foreign language teacher. In both cases, administrators praised the benefits of technology—but noted that computers couldn’t compare to having a living, breathing teacher in the classroom with the students.

Arnett said he agrees with that. “It’s definitely a solution that’s better than having nothing at all—it’s not something that should be promoted as the solution to the teacher shortage,” he said.

Ideally, he said, technological resources will enhance a classroom teacher’s teaching by taking over basic tasks. For example, technology like adaptive learning software and personalized learning playlists can deliver basic content instruction, so teachers can work with students individually or in small groups to develop social and emotional skills and provide deeper learning. (There are also some technology platforms that teach students noncognitive skills; Education Week recently reported how schools are using online gaming to cultivate students’ social-emotional skills.)

Also, technology can help teachers deliver differentiated instruction by assessing students’ needs and strengths. For example, software can administer and grade basic assessments on a frequent basis, so teachers know students’ current levels of understanding.

Technology “can’t just be used as a substitute for traditional teaching,” Arnett said, and “if it’s implemented in a way that looks like we’re plugging kids into computers for hours and hours a day, I don’t think we’d have a positive reception.”

But when teachers and schools use the tools wisely, technology can truly transform the profession, he said. That is already happening to some degree, but as an Education Week Research Center survey this summer revealed, teachers face systemic challenges in adapting their instruction to new technologies in transformative ways. Teachers are excited about trying out new technologies, but they typically just use technology for routine practices like drills, practice exercises, and reading assignments—not so much collaborative or project-based assignments.

Arnett concludes in his paper that in the next few years, it will be increasingly important to give students “the confidence and ability to thrive in a novel and complex world transformed by artificial intelligence. Fortunately, innovations that commoditize some elements of teacher expertise also supply the tools to raise the effectiveness of both non-experts and expert teachers to new heights.”

More on Teaching With Technology:

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.