“Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto.”

7 04 2014

Good news everybody!  Robots will only replace SOME us at our jobs by 2034, not all of us.  Who’ll be safe?  As the Huffington Post explains part of it:

Human social intelligence is critical for those professions that involve negotiation, persuasion, leadership or high touch care. Those positions demanding high social intelligence tasks might include public relations specialists, event planners, psychologists and CEOs.

Does that include university professors? You’d hope so, but that would force the people in control of universities to actually respect the quality of the education they produce and I’m not sure we can trust most of them to do that. The corporatization of higher education over the last forty years strongly suggests that most of them would rather treat education like any other manufactured product.

If education were a real factory problem this transition might actually be an improvement. It’s not just that robot arms never get tired or ask for a pay raise. They can work with greater precision than even the best skilled craftsmen. I’ve toured the steel mill on the south side of Pueblo, Colorado many times now. While 10,000 people used to work there during WWII, fourteen people can handle a shift in a building the size of several football fields rather easily now. [And even then, a few of them are just waiting around in case something goes wrong.] Foreign competition, pensions, environmental regulations aside – the payroll in that plant would have gone down over the last fifty years just because of automation. Furthermore, the steel they produce there might actually be better as a result.

Can you say the same thing with a MOOC? The New York Times Magazine makes an argument for the effects of automation on workers in general that reminds me a lot of the argument for MOOCs:

Man invents a machine to make life easier, and then that machine reduces the need for man’s work. Ultimately, it’s a virtuous cycle, because it frees humans up to work on higher-value tasks.

Flip your classroom with the latest MOOC, spend more time in class teaching one-on-one. Everybody wins, right? Only if you completely ignore the class politics that surround labor-saving machinery of all kinds. Nick Carr, explains this point here far better than I ever could:

The language that the purveyors of the endless-ladder myth use is fascinating. They attribute to technology a beneficent volition. The technology itself “frees us up for higher-value tasks” and “propels us into more fulfilling work” and “helps us to expand ourselves.” We just need to “allow” the technology to aid us. Much is obscured by such verbs. Technology doesn’t free us or propel us or help us. Technology doesn’t give a rat’s ass about us. It couldn’t care less whether we have a great job, a crappy job, or no job at all. It’s people who have volition. And the people who design and deploy technologies of production are rarely motivated by a desire to create jobs or make jobs more interesting or expand human potential. Jobs are a byproduct of the market’s invisible hand, not its aim.

If you think most administrators give a rat’s ass about whether there’s a human being or a robot at the front of the classroom then you haven’t been paying attention.




6 responses

7 04 2014

This has got me thinking about the higher-ed sector that has been most successful in resisting automation: athletics.

Why are we not seeing calls for online coaching? Think of the savings! Once the coaches have been outsourced (to Coachera? Athleticity? SportX?), we can go after the trainers. We’ve had workout tapes for decades now; isn’t it time for athletics to get with the program? If the training of minds can be automated, why not the training of bodies?

The final step, of course, is to replace the athletes themselves with robots. The precedent is there:

Of course, coaches, trainers, and players might object. They might complain about things like a decline in the quality of play, but obviously they’d just be self-interested Luddites with a vested interest in the status quo.

7 04 2014
Jonathan Rees


7 04 2014

This is the greatest suggestion I’ve heard in years.

7 04 2014

Reblogged this on Learning and Labor.

11 04 2014
Pat Lockley

I wonder if flipping is worse than a MOOC. If you flip, you record the lecture in advance, and then do something else in the lesson (or the student watches in advance) – so you spend twice as much time doing stuff as you used to.

It seems a lot more work for everyone

12 04 2014
Link love | Grumpy rumblings of the (formerly!) untenured

[…] Something about robots and academia. […]

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