The Robot Teachers

by Stephen Downes

"Can you recommend a good doctor?" This is the final question in an article by Tony Bates about teaching, and it frames the debate nicely. We would be very disinclined to turn over the healing profession to automation, and in the same vein, should be equally hesitant when it comes to teachers.

My first thought on reading the question was, "they're all good." Obviously there is some variation between doctors - and I had a dentist once the year before his retirement I would not recommend to anyone - but the difference is slight, especially when compared to the difference between having a doctor and not having a doctor.

The quality of doctors is a combination of the educational system and the character of the individual who graduates from it. We live here in a society that values excellence in the professions, and highly skilled and motivated individuals join the professions. In Canada, this also includes teachers, mostly, and as a result, we have one of the best educated societies in the world.

But it's funny. Medicine, of all the professions, is one of the most dependent on computers, machines and robots. From x-rays and MRIs to the monitoring devices of ICUs to electronic patient records (a work still in progress) to all manner of diagnostic and treatment systems. I take pills manufactured by robots (and dispensed by computer), my breathing at night is managed by a computer, the lenses on my glasses were shaped by an automated grinding system, and I get robocalls to remind me that I'm scheduled for a checkup next Tuesday at nine.

So we have two sides to this. On the one hand, in education, we depend on the professionalism of our teachers, and trifle with that at our peril. We depend on their education being excellent, and on their passion and motivation. On the other hand, if our doctors were as hesitant to employ technology as our teachers sometimes are, our lives would be measurably shorter and inestimably less comfortable and less secure.

So, while I understand what motivates Tony Bates to express such concerns regarding the automation of education, by the same token, I am wary of arguments that recommend we stop using the robots and the computers.

Here's Tony Bates: "he (his editor) wanted me to change what I was writing to make the case that computers can replace teachers in higher education." Why? "He told me that his CEO and a number of CEOs from other companies all thought this was the right way to go, and were trying to influence the market to accept this."

And this brings in the other side of the debate about health care: privatization and corporate control.

In Canada we have a public health care system. Like our education system, it is one of the best in the world. Outcomes are comparable to those in the Unites States, and frequently better, and Canadians spend about half as much on health care. Wait times are comparable and, of course, nobody is turned away at the door of a Canadian hospital because everybody in the country has insurance.

By and large, Canadians feel a conversion to an American-style system of privatized health case would be a disaster, even with the salve that is Obamacare. This isn't a close election-style preference.Polls show that 94 percent of Canadians prefer the public health care system. Even while Canadians face a barrage of contrary media (for example, from the Fraser institute) they aren't buying it. They can see the horror stories from south of the border, and express an almost zero desire to switch. Who can blame them?

This is the sceptre Tony Bates faces in his dream. It is the conversion, erosion and eventual destruction of one of the best public education systems in the world, under the guise of automation. It is the eradication of the professional that we today call 'teacher' or 'professor' and his or her replacement with the educational equivalent of an automated food-services operator asking "would you like fries with that?"

The results of such a system would be predictable, and again, one can point south of the border for evidence of that possible future. Though Americans pride themselves in having the best education system in the world, it just isn't true. What can be expressed with statistics is also experienced by Canadians as fact. It is perhaps shameful to admit, but Canadians have long made sport of the low level of American education. It's the whole health thing all over again.

The explanations are myriad. There is the income gap, which is much larger in the U.S., and reliable the best predictor of educational outcomes. There are structural and institutional factors - the wealthier districts tend to get better schools and more funding. There are cultural factors - in some cultures, we are told, education and achievement are valued more highly than in others. There are those who blame the teachers and teachers unions (though of course teachers in Canada are almost 100 percent union).

Most of these factors, though, are mitigated, if not eliminated entirely, with public support for education. Again, it's like health care - yes, poorer people in both Canada and the U.S. are likely to have lower health outcomes, for a variety of reasons. But in Canada, poorer people are less likely to delay a visit to the doctor, less likely to allow an illness to become too serious to treat, less likely to die an early death.

Similarly, where education is a public good, the causes of low educational outcomes are mitigated. Funding between wealthier and poorer districts, instead of varying by parental income, is more or less equivalent (though the rich even in a public system extract a disproportionate share). Poorer people, in a public system, are more likely to be exposed to positive role models and to acquire the values of professionalism, passion, motivation, and the rest. And of course in a public system poorer people fund themselves - at least some of the time - in an environment that is informationally rich and intellectually challenging.

If the rest of the automation of education is to undercut education as a public good, Canadians - and society in general - have a great deal to worry about. And it is clear, as Bates shows, that an organized campaign is underway to create this outcome.

Bates again:
This is just a small sample of the evidence he could have assayed to make the case that automation is being used as a mechanism to privatize the educational system.

And again, probably every educational blogger experiences that gentle but incessant pull to write about and support initiatives that lead toward a privatized system. Want to get on TED? Don't support public education - instead, talk about how business and the markets can do it better. Want to get hired to write for Britannica? Espouse the market-based perspective. Want to win an award? Check the gotchas. Want to give your blog a boost? Be an Apple Educator or Google Certified Teacher. Want to be known as supporting 'free education'? Support the commercialization of educational resources. Want Shuttleworth or Hewlett money for your educational support or research project? Support the commercialized approach.

There is an ongoing and incessant campaign afoot to privatize education. In the United States, education is almost the last bastion of public expenditure. In Canada, both health care and education face the forces of privatization and commercialization.

The results are wholly predictable. In all cases, the result will be a system that favours a small moneyed elite and leaves the rest of the population struggling to obtain whatever health and education they can obtain with their meagre holdings. As more wealth accumulates in the hands of the corporations and the wealthy, the worse health and education outcomes become for the less well-off in society.

But here's where the challenge arises for the education and university system: it was designed to support income inequality and designed to favour the wealthy.

(Indeed, from my perspective, one of the greatest scams perpetrated by the wealthy about the education system is that it has a liberal bias. But if you separate out social issues - beliefs concerning  "'multiculturalism, immigration and racism' (the most common category chosen by colleges), or 'environmentalism, animal rights and food'" - and focus exclusively on questions of economy and distribution of wealth, the purported liberal bias disappears.)

Examine the structure of the traditional university system, especially as instantiated in the United States, but also to a certain degree in Canada and many other nations. Admission is regulated by tuition, and in the most elite institutions, the tuition is the highest. The recent British experiment in voluntary moderation was a failure. Admission in private universities is also enabled by legacy, the result of favours granted by and to alumni of the university. There is in addition a bias in elite universities toward graduates of a small number of preparatory school.

In this sort of environment the preferred model of learning is very personal and very professional. Having a teacher or professor in this sort of environment is less like dealing with a hospital or clinic, and more like having a personal physician. It's all hands-on, it's all very close, supporting and caring. And it is very effective, at least, from the perspective of securing positions of power, privilege and wealth. The associations created here last a lifetime, and are parlayed into wider influence. Want to go to Davos? Say the right things, support the right causes.

So long as this is what educators believe they provide, they will serve as agents for the commercialization and privatization of their own discipline, rather than as protectors of the public system.

That's why I'm so concern about the turn taken in the article written by Tony Bates. Here he is again:

To successfully achieve such learning outcomes, learners either have to be incredibly self-motivated and already highly knowledgeable (i.e. already well educated), or they need an environment that supports the development not just of these outcomes, but also the development of their thinking and decision-making. This requires fostering or supporting their motivation to learn, dealing with gaps in knowledge or lack of learning skills, providing timely feedback, and above all providing guidance, criteria and direction to ensure that they meet the necessary standards to operate effectively in the real world. This is what I call teaching, and much if not all of it is difficult or impossible to automate.
This is the model of the private education, of the personal physician, of the service reserved for the elite, not the least because we cannot afford to provide it for everybody. And this is a key point of this article: so long as we cling to this as the model for education, we push it toward privatization.

To be sure, Bates is aware of this, I would think.
Yes, this was possible 50 years ago because we had an elite system, and few students per professor. Now we have, especially in North American Tier 1 public research universities, very large classes and many students per professor (made worse in first and second year by tenured professors focusing mainly on research and graduate education). So we have fallen back almost completely on ‘instruction’ rather than on ‘teaching’ in undergraduate programs.
 And he is quite right. The system has drifted from the prep-school and Ivy-League model of learning, has drifted away from the boardrooms and warrens of Cambridge and Oxford, to resemble something much more structure, must less personal, much more 'outcomes focused', and much less attractive. It has devalued the role of the teacher and professor, relegating them to the role of tutor or instructor or semi-professional support system. In universities, much of the teaching is done by underpaid graduate students. In the public school system, teachers are under increasing pressure, facing lower pay. Even their pensions are under attack.

No, it is not a good system, and simply taking this and automating it is not a solution. And Bates is quite correct to warn of the most likely outcome: an in-person education system granted to a small number of people who actually attend these elite universities, and a mostly or fully automated system sold like CDs and television programs for the rest of us. We - those of us who are not in the one percent - would be reduced to being educated vicariously through others.

We know this model fails. " For over 30 years computer scientists, working in the field of artificial intelligence, have been trying since then to improve on ‘programmed learning’, which failed to deal adequately with the development of cognitive thinking skills beyond the level of comprehension and memory." Yet this is the sort of education being designed today though systems such as adaptive learning systems and common core. This is the sort of system intended to be supported by learning analytics. And yes, the Coursera, Udemy, MITx and similar initiatives are the means to this end. A Netflix for learning. An Amazon for achievement. Except that it will sell a hollow dream, as the divisions between those who are genuine participants in academic and literary society, and those who are not, will be permanently established.

To be sure, this must be understood: this is as much a political outcome as an economic outcome. Those of us who end up on the wrong side of the vicarious education divide are and will be shut out not only from positions of wealth and power, but from any role or say in the definition of knowledge, intellect and culture. Those people we read, those influencers of public opinion, those who are credited with discovery and celebrated as innovators and inventors - they will all come from the in-person side of the vicarious divide. Political discussion, literature, culture - these are and will be shaped in the interests of, by and for, those with wealth and power. Dissent will not be suppressed, because it will no longer be necessary; dissent will no longer be possible.

If we cannot have an educational system that was designed by and for the industrial age, with classrooms and textbooks and standardized curricula, then neither can we have the education system that existed before that age, with professorial discussion circles, individual advisers and mentors offering support and collegiality, personal instruction, guidance, criteria and direction. We must move beyond what we have if we are to have a public system worth keeping, but not in a direction that further reinforces the divide between a high quality education for some and a facsimile for the rest of us.

I think there is only one way to achieve this: to develop teachers and instructors as a professional class at the service of a public education system, leveraging and working within a technological environment equally accessible and supportive of all. Not programmed learning, but also not the private-school education taken to be the high standard of learning today. Something better.

Let's first look at the recommendations offered by Tony Bates:
  • using online learning, rather than building new campuses or physical facilities, to expand access.  
  • use of shared materials, and not just open educational resources, but developing courses or programs that can be used across several institutions.
  • economies in the delivery of programs by maintaining content quality through the use of tenured or research professors for the design and development and monitoring of course delivery, but reducing delivery costs through the use of well-trained online adjunct professors and automated marking where appropriate.
  • course designs that move the work away from the instructor to the student. Examples are collaborative learning, development of self-management learning skills, problem-based learning.
This is the traditional system, with some technological enhancements, where education is still considered to be 'delivered' by means of 'programs'. It will not work, no more than a model of 'delivering' health care through 'health programs' would help a society be healthier (as evidenced by the failure of the HMO model, which is exactly that).

We have to stop thinking of education as a delivery system. We have to start thinking of an overall publicly-accessible and supportive educational environment.

It's not about duplicating the success of the private school approach that has characterized the design of 'the best' education through the last century. It's about making that advantage irrelevant. It's about making it so you can't get anything more if you take the personal-physical or personal-teacher approach, because everybody already has access to the best. And - like live music - is we want we can sample it from time to time in person, because it's fun.

We must develop the educational system outside the traditional system because the traditional system is designed to support the position of the wealthy and powerful. Everything about it - from the limitation of access, to the employment of financial barriers, to the creation of exclusive institutions and private clubs, to the system of measuring impact and performance accordiung to economic criteria, serves to support that model. Reforming the educational system isn't about opening the doors of Harvard or MIT or Cambridge to everyone - it's about making access to these institutions irrelevant. About making them an anachronism, like a symphony orchestra, or a gentleman's club, or a whites only golf course, and replaced with something we own and build for everyone, like punk music, a skateboard park, or the public park.

So what does a technology-enable 'public education health system' look like? As I said, it will be staffed by education professionals, and ultimately the design will be largely informed by these professionals, as once having taken over management of the system for themselves, they can begin to implement reforms that make educational sense, rather that follow prewscriptions emplpoyed by economicsts or put in place for political reasons.

Education professions in this model may be affiliated with institutions, but are also regarded as providers in their own right. People in the community may access education either through the institution or directly through the professional. They don't 'enrol' in a particular institution, or 'belong' to a class or curriculum, though they may tend to favour one institution or one professional. As with the health system, (at least in Canada) they can attend any institution they want, and have a wide choice in the educator they want. They may from time to time seek the assistance of specialists, for particular needs (for example, language training or compliance training).

What is most important is how education is thought of in such a system. It is not something that is 'delivered' or 'transferred' from an institution to a person. An education is property of a person ('property' in the sense of 'quality' or 'attribute', not in the sense of 'ownership' or 'possession') just in the same way as health and fitness are properties of a person, something they have all their lives, something they develop and grow and maintain, something they are themselves ultimately responsible for.

Just as a healthy person needs affordable and accessible food and water, housing and transportation, so also an educated person needs learning resources, intellectual challenges, role models and examples, employment and invigoration. They need, in the words of Seymour Papert, hard fun. There are many ways this can be provided in a technologically advanced society - transmission (via books and videos) and programmed learning are only two possibilities, and (probably) the most minimally effective of those.

In this model, the public education system isn't something you put aside 18 years your life to go to and 'access', no more than a child spends the first 18 years of his or her life in a health institution developing strength and fitness. In this model we find much more interesting, varied and engaging pass-times for children and young adults, integrating them more and more into the wide web that is society as a whole. Yes, children and young adults continue to have role models and mentors, but they only model in which every child can have access to this is one where every adult is in a position to fulfill this role.

The way we need to design such as system - and we need to begin designing it now, before the privatizers destroy what we have - is to begin designing educational professional support systems: the array of software and services we would want an educational professional to have at his or her fingertips on an as-needed bases.

We need also to begin designing the educational resource support system for individual learners, including access not only to free or easily affordable educational resources - the learning 'bread and butter', so to speak - but also learning environments, network support structures, and access to learning inside work and other environments. I have spoken in the past about treating educational reosurces as a utility like water or power; we need to begin building this utility and putting it to work in hospitals, courts, manufacturing plants, parks and museums, and any other place people get together to work or play.

We will gradually begin assessing individuals by what they do and what they contribute, rather than according to what they earn or what they take. Systems that make this sort of assessment possible will need to be designed, and incorporated into the tools we use to make hiring decisions. (It would be the opposite of a phenomenon happening today, using a person's credit score to evaluate insurance or employment prospects - again, a measure intended to entrench the rich.)

And we need to put into place mechanisms of association that undercut and make obsolete the associations formed by the elite in their private institutions - the networks of connections that serve as alternative fora for political opinion, language, culture and dissent. These networks - of which the connectivist courses are early prototypes - will replace the Skull and Bones and similar societies, making them obsolete and ineffective.

And finally - we need to begin to define what we mean by a professional educator, a person who is the steward of this system and who accepts, as an individual responsibility, the support and maintenance of a high level of general education and intelligence, for all members of a society, in support of the individual and social good. I suggest it is a role that has very little to do with content delivery, very little to do with standardized curriculum, very little to do with textbooks and classrooms, and is only orthogonally attached to educational institutions.

And it will not be performed by robots.


  1. Hi Stephen (and others)

    Thank you for such a comprehensive post, and for the useful links.

    This is what I have learned after nearly 20 years of teaching in a university: Whatever their stated goals and strategic mission statements, the primary purpose of institutions of higher education is to advance the careers of their most powerful and privileged members. It's about power - who has it, how they wield it, and whose interest it serves - before it is about education. It's about ruling rather than leading. Leaders uses their position to empower others to take their place; rulers use the power of their position to keep others in their place.


  2. Hello Stephen,

    I was pointed toward your blog by Will Richardson, and I am glad that I was. As a public school teacher in the US, I can only shake my head at what I'm seeing education here become. The privatization and industrialization of education continues apace, with no signs of letting up, and both of our major political parties fall over themselves to see who can apply more business-like metrics to it.

    I am intrigued by your last paragraph, about becoming a professional educator. In many ways, what you are looking for is the 21st century version of a librarian - one who curates, collects, creates, and can explain knowledge to a wide range of people. And, they would be someone who others seek out for that reason. It's a lovely vision of what educators could be in a more just, equitable, and thoughtful society.


  3. Hi Stephen (and others)

    Thank you for such a comprehensive post, and for the useful links.

    This is what I have learned after nearly 20 years of teaching in a university: Whatever their stated goals and strategic mission statements, the primary purpose of institutions of higher education is to advance the careers of their most powerful and privileged members. It's about power - who has it, how they wield it, and whose interest it serves - before it is about education. It's about ruling rather than leading. Leaders uses their position to empower others to take their place; rulers use the power of their position to keep others in their place.

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