The impact of technology on the teaching profession

Last week there was a big fanfare to celebrate the teachers of my home country, an annual recognition of teachers across the nation for all their commitment and contribution to the cause. Past and present teachers were celebrated and rightly so for it is the profession that ensures cultural transcendence. The local teacher institution has stood the ebb and flow of time for more than a century and not much has changed of how learning transpires in the classroom.

However, food for thought. Will we still be celebrating teachers in the next 25 or 50 years? I consider myself a mere observer of emerging technologies and intuitively see how disruptive everyday technology has been for better or for worse to the age old profession. If I were to be asked, with the exponential advancement in technology: will technology eventually displace the teachers? My answer is unfortunately yes. It is inevitable. But before tin hats are crafted, hear me out.

The displacement of profession by technology is not exclusive. It will eventually displace many professions that we know of today, and above it many new professions will manifest because of adapting to new technology. There is no specific due date of when, but Moore’s Law has so far remain true (An aside, this reminded me of the movie Pacific Rim I caught two days ago. The Kaiju is the technology, and humanity is the teacher. Gradually but surely the rate of Kaijus became more immense until eventually humanity had to clog the breach, or in the instance of technology, the power plug). There will come a time when eventually technology becomes almost human, and they don’t have to come in the form of cyborgs either.

However, I have saved the good news for last. In order for technology to displace the teacher, there are certain specific clauses that need be met. Firstly, Web 2.0 has to shift into Web 3.0, or what Tim Berners-Lee refers to as the Semantic Web. Currently, the internet can only register information on the internet in a literal manner, but when it comes to the human capacity to extract semantic meaning out of a given media, the internet is still far behind. John Naughton in his book ‘From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg’ puts it best.

“The goal behind the semantic web is attractively simple. It is to add ‘a layer of meaning on top of the existing Web that would make it less of a catalog and more of a guide – and even provide the foundation for systems that can reason in a human fashion” (p. 231).

Moore’s Law has never failed, but somehow the Web has taken a bit of a stutter in its attempt to break the humanistic barrier. My limited knowledge cannot fathom if this stumbling block is to do with not finding the right algorithm to mimic how man negotiates semantics, but it is after all an abstract concept. The only means by which I can see it happening is when machines have the capacity to be programmed with all the humanistic traits.

This brings us to the field of artificial intelligence. There has been impressive developments in AI research and AI machines have surpassed the calculative and logic intelligence of humans indeed. But again, much is expected of abstract intelligence such as emotions and the psyche. Even between individuals, brains are not wired the same. Cognitive capacity and all that lark.

So is there already a technology system intelligent enough to cater for the varying needs of students. Perhaps. There has been movement in the Adaptive Online Learning Systems group (AOLS) of how systems are able to interpret learners’ learning preferences, assess them, and grade their essays prescriptively and on style and content. A few institutions have already pioneered AOLS with courses that are run from start to end without the need for teachers. Nonetheless, AOLS has its limitations and after almost 10 years of research in this niche, development hasn’t favoured it to be commercially viable in the near future.

These prerequisites are big asks indeed and there is no telling when researchers working on these fields will find their breakthrough. Nonetheless, it remains to be seen if technology will displace teachers even after fulfilling these conditions. For now, it’s a safe bet that the profession will continue on for several more decades if not forever, because technology may take the vocabulary but never the humanistic traits of a carer of learning. For further reading on the topic, Neil Selwyn has a dedicated chapter on the impact of technology on the teaching profession in his book ‘Education and Technology: Key Issues and Debates’. Among his elucidations, one is most certain and that is… technology may master the science of teaching, but will it master the art?

I would like to take this opportunity to say happy teacher’s day to teacher-practitioners and may the teaching profession prosper in tandem with developments of technology.