Thursday, December 27, 2012

# 30 Man vs. Machine

    It's 1983 and I am sitting at a brand new McIntosh computer in the new lab at Queens University's Faculty of Education. I am excited to be embarking on a new learning experience in computer programming. The teacher is a heavily published professor of computer education, up on all the latest trends in the profession. He stands at the front of the room and with authority speculates, "One day, these machines will replace all teachers!" "In the future we will live in a paperless society." He says these words with so much conviction that we all take compliant notice of the fact that we are part of something 'cutting edge'.

    However, after my initial impression of awe evaporates, a cloud of disappointment and doom floats over my work station. I wonder why I am here, studying to become a teacher, when my job is going to obsolete in the future. When will this happen?  When will I become obsolete?  I didn't want to interrupt his lesson with so many questions, so, I close the window on my concerns and pay close attention to the teacher at the front of the room. I conclude that I should 'get on board' with this futuristic thinking and learn how to operate these machines.

    In the coming years, I notice all the schools have computers and the public, including teachers, are buying them for home use. So, I buy one, I take courses on how to use it and marvel all the wonderful tasks it can accomplish on my behalf.  However, after a few years of constant upgrading I start to change my attitude about these devices. I realize that after a while, having a computer as your teacher is boring, like listening to a chess game on the radio.

    Over the next thirty years, I am often a victim of the waves of advertising by computer companies selling these machines and their accessories. Men sit in staff rooms, and compare the power of their processors, the size of their hard drives and how well their video card works. I use to think only socially insecure boys bond with machines, but apparently many of these guys physically grow into men. The sales pitch is always fueled by guilt. "You will be lost if you don't own a computer!", Your child will be left out...." At a professional development conference I was told, "Teachers need to stay on top of the new developments and therefore must have a computer."  In addition, these computing machines are expensive, three and four thousand dollars change hands regularly as they become obsolete yearly. It must be the marketing success story of the 20th century.

    Looking back, I realize school boards have spent billions of dollars on computers over the last three decades. While they have generated obsolescence for low paying jobs like school secretaries; they have created jobs for more expensive technicians and repair personnel. They have also saddled teachers with more work because what use to be typed by secretaries in the office is now done by teachers, usually at home on their own time. Teachers are also creating their own resources on their computers and photocopying replaces blackboard use. It would be interesting to see some statistics on how much money teachers have spent over the years on computers and how many hours of extra work have been added to their day.

     It seems that there has been a steady assault on the need for teachers over the decades. Currently, schools and boards use 'clouds' to post everything a student needs to complete requirements. It seems that attendance, and completing assignments is optional. In some cases students are exempt from final exams or exams are sent to a third party by Internet and proctored in another location. Students can access assignments from home, use their cell phones, file the assignment online etc.. There is less need for human contact. I don't think this vending machine approach to education is a positive direction for anyone. It is enough to make me think teachers really are becoming obsolete in the field. 

    At the risk of sounding like I have disillusions of a broad conspiracy I do believe successive governments have made efforts to undermine teacher's authority over the years. We are often buried under the weight of constant 'new' initiatives coming from various levels of management. The bottom line seems to be, get the 'numbers' of graduates up so campaign promises can be honoured. Teachers have really been caught in the middle of this as our opinions are rarely respected when they do not compliment the ones laid out by government. You wouldn't hire a doctor, accountant or lawyer and then not demonstrate at least some respect for their opinion.

    Today, I have 18 computers in my classroom to supplement the delivery of the curriculum. All of the machines are outdated, as is the software.  The printer is long gone and they refuse to replace it because of the expensive toner, and maintenance costs. It seems that while the original idea of replacing teachers with computers looked good on paper, the purchase and maintenance have proven too extravagant for most boards. I suspect the next big movement will be to convince everyone to buy their own computer and bring it into school everyday. (I am kidding, this initiative is already a reality.) The fact is public schools can never keep up with the constant wave of new computing devices that enter the market every year.

   In retrospect, I still believe a student needs to have a good teacher and that teacher should be a human, not a machine. For people who are just jumping hoops to use courses as a stepping stone for future academic or employment ambitions, I can see the validity, but not for people actually want a real education.

    I have a teacher friend who claims kids don't remember as much about what you taught them as how you treated them. Human interaction sticks with us longer than relationships with machines. This is the past, present and future weakness of computers.  They are just machines and while they certainly have a place in the learning process they are just another tool in the process. There is no human contact, no reading of the visual and vocal cues so important in the learning process.

   I never thought that I would ever forget that McIntosh computer, that program (which has been in the software graveyard for decades), but I remember that professor's words. He was looking to the future and we were naive enough to believe his crystal ball gazing as truth. It might seem that computers will one day take over the teaching position, but I doubt.  You can't duplicate the relationship a student has with a teacher. The only people who look to a machine as a replacement for human contact are the socially deficient. For that reason, the good professor at Queens was dead wrong.