“Those evil-natured robots, they’re programmed to destroy us.”*

26 07 2011

So you thought I was kidding about replacing professors with robots? Here’s step one, as reported by Nashville Public Radio (via Tenured Radical):

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is giving Tennessee a $1 million grant to help college students take the most efficient steps to a degree. The grant will fund a new computerized advising program….The computer software looks at students’ transcripts and experience and suggests areas the student may be interested in – and the courses to take to follow that path.

TR adds:

When the neoliberal education professionals adjunctified higher education, I always wondered how they were going to solve the problem of not having full-time faculty available to actually meet with students.

It may take a while to get to robo-professors, but Bill Gates does have an awful lot of money.

There was an interesting article in Newsweek a while back on the question of whether robots are costing American jobs. I’m not sure I buy their conclusion, but I did find this interesting:

It’s not that robots are cheaper than humans, though often they are. It’s that they are better. “In some cases the quality requirements are so stringent that even if you wanted to have a human do the job, you couldn’t,” [Jeff] Burnstein [president of the Robotics Industry Association] says. He cites General Motors, which uses robots to lay a bead of sealant on windshields, because humans can’t do the job as precisely.

Who thinks this advisor program will be better than an actual advisor? Raise your hand! I thought not.

The key takeaway from that distinction ought to be obvious: there are good technologies out there that make life better and there are bad technologies that make life worse for everyone except the people who are making a pretty penny selling them to unsuspecting consumers who think the future is always now. That’s why I want to start throwing furniture when I read something like this:

[F]or our students there is a definite “cool factor” we can’t ignore if we want to be successful teachers in the modern classroom. Whether first-year assistant professors or senior scholars, showing that you can use and understand the technologies of the world that students live in buys you credibility and respect for everything else you want to teach. I say this as someone who has read thousands of student evaluations and discussed this issue with many administrative colleagues. A mathematics professor gives this example: “If a student comes to you asking for help in using their graphingcs calculator and you reply, ‘I never learned that,’ they instantly feel you don’t respect them and are out of touch.”

Although anybody who’s taken up reading this space in just the last month might be surprised to learn it, I am not a Luddite. I have a blog, for Pete’s sake. On this blog, I’ve written quite carefully about how I use PowerPoint and the wonders of Zotero. I enjoy reading the people I follow on Twitter more than I do any news site on the web. While I’m on Facebook, I now kind of wish I could get off – which is precisely the point. I distinguish between good and bad technologies, while the logic of the last quote is that if all the kids are doing it – whatever it is – then we professors ought to be doing it too.

Despite what you may read in the Chronicle, I’m not the only one out there who approaches all the hype about ed tech with some skepticism. Here’s Lora Helvie-Mason, whose excellent post is more about personal technology, but I think the sentiment there is still the same:

In my opinion, the trick is to balance the innovations with the pedagogy and purposeful intent to enhance the work we do as educators (and to avoid getting overly captivated by the glistening new technology that is continually available without first considering what it brings to the educational environment).

[emphasis in original]

I can’t wait to see the evil robots try to make that kind of distinction.

* Darn the Flaming Lips for disabling embedding on my inspiration for the title to this post.


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4 responses

27 07 2011
Middle Seaman

We should take things too literally. Average advising is simple enough for a computer program to do. Hack, you can do it with an app on a smartphone. What is missing comes in two forms: there are complicated cases, there are students with special needs or special requests we want to accommodate. A program cannot do it (at least not yet). More importantly, students and teachers need the human exchage that matters a lot. For instance, convince a student that a plan you suggest is the best for the student.

The citations refer to students as a monolith that has a single entity; it is the student robot. That is a terrible generalization. A bright teacher lacking some technological skills will be liked by many students who naturally respect ability, dedication and effort.

The last nail: many universities use Blackboard as a crucial technological means of teaching. lackboard is an antiquated tool with an endless collection of flaws. How about fixing it first.

27 07 2011
Jonathan Rees

MS:

The students as monolith critique is an excellent point. It reminds me of all those surveys that say students hate e-readers which might be a reverse students as monolith argument, but nonetheless suggests that they’re unpredictable on matters of technology.

28 07 2011
“Those evil-natured robots, they’re programmed to destroy us.”* (via More or Less Bunk) | sociologyallstar

[…] So you thought I was kidding about replacing professors with robots? Here's step one, as reported by Nashville Public Radio (via Tenured Radical): The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is giving Tennessee a $1 million grant to help college students take the most efficient steps to a degree. The grant will fund a new computerized advising program….The computer software looks at students’ transcripts and experience and suggests areas the student ma … Read More […]

28 07 2011
Music for Deckchairs

From my recent rinkside seat at LMS vendor demonstrations, I can say that there are some features of academic life I’d be delighted to automate. I don’t think they’d make me more dispensable. So I like “canned comments” to streamline the grading and feedback process, for example. And with a big class (say, a couple of hundred), I really like anything that’s going to automate the process of firing off a friendly reminder that a deadline has been missed.

In fact, if there’s one thing that really makes me feel robotic, it’s writing the same email over and over, year in year out.

But if higher ed is going to start using analytics to drive enrolment suggestions, like Amazon, and is perhaps not going to be entirely above the practice of gaming analytics to push suggestions for product we need to get off the shelves–you’re right, there’s something very tiring about this bright idea.

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