Saturday, March 16, 2013

Automation of teaching

For my first post, I am not going to talk directly about MOOCs as such.  Rather, I want to highlight a recent study concerning a language-learning web site called Duolingo. It is claimed that "A team of independent researchers recently found that students on Duolingo take 34 hours to learn as much as a one-semester university course". (link to study)

What I find pertinent about this, relative to MOOCs, is the following.  MOOCs are touted as beneficial because they can automate instructional tasks previously undertaken by human beings.  The MOOC, then, is the latest in a long line of technological innovations that reduce or even eliminate human effort.

That said, it is arguable that there are aspects of teaching that are not amenable to automation.  My own hunch is that automated teaching is essentially an application of artificial intelligence.  Since AI is not (at least not yet) coextensive with human intellectual capability, it seems that certain tasks remain that are not amenable to automation, where a human teacher still has a valuable role to play.

We might welcome, then, a technology that allows the aspects of teaching that can be automated to be automated so that we might have more time and energy for the aspects where a human still ought to be in the loop.  Considering again Duolingo, while it might be able to replace human instruction for the first semester (or year) of reading and writing practice, what it does is open up an opportunity for such courses to increase the emphasis on conversation, discussion, creative writing, and even tentative exploration of literature.  I suspect the situation might be similar with MOOCs across a variety of courses.