Apples for the Teacher, Teacher is an Apple

Why does AltSchool, as described in this article, as well as similar kinds of tech-industry attempts to “disrupt” education, bug me so much? I’d like to be more welcoming and enthusiastic. It’s just that I don’t think there’s enough experimentation and innovation in these projects, rather than there being too much.

The problem here is that the tech folks continue to think (or at least pretend) that algorithmic culture is delivering more than it actually is in the domains where it has already succeeded. What tech has really delivered is mostly just the removal of transactional middlemen (and of course added new transactional middlemen–the network Uber has established in a really frictionless world wouldn’t need Uber, and we’d all just be monetizing our daily drives on an individual-to-individual basis).

Algorithmic culture isn’t semantically aware yet. When it seems to be, it’s largely a kind of sleight-of-hand, a leveraging and relabelling of human attention or it is computational brute-forcing of delicate tasks that our existing bodies and minds handle easily, the equivalent of trying to use a sledge hammer to open a door. Sure, it works, but you’re not using that door again, and by the way, try the doorknob with your hand next time.

I’m absolutely in agreement that children should be educated for the world they live in, developing skills that matter. I’m also in agreement that it’s a good time for radical experiments in education, many of them leveraging information technology at new ways. But the problem is that the tech industry has sold itself on the idea that what it does primarily is remove the need for labor costs in labor-intensive industries, which just isn’t true for the most part. It’s only true when it’s true for jobs that were (or still are) rote and routinized, or that were deliberate inefficiencies created by middlemen. Or that tech will solve problems that are intrinsic to the capabilities of a human being in a human body.

So at the point in the article where I see the promise that tech will overcome the divided attention of a humane teacher, I both laugh and shudder. I laugh because it’s the usual tech-sector attempt to pretend that inadequate existing tech will become superbly useful tech in the near-term future simply because we’ve identified a need for it to be (Steve Jobs reality distortion field engaged) and I shudder because I know what will happen when they keep trying.

The central scenario in the article is this: you build a relatively small class with a relatively well-trained, attentive, human teacher at the center of it. So far so good! But the tech, ah the tech. That’s there so that the teacher never has to experience the complicated decision paths that teachers presently experience even in somewhat small classes. Right now a teacher has to decide sometimes in a day which students will get the lion’s share of the attention, has to rob Peter to pay Paul. We can’t have that in a world where every student should get all the attention all the time! (If nothing else, that expectation is an absolutely crystallized example of how the new tech-industry wealthy hate public goods so very much: they do not believe that they should ever have to defer their own needs or satisfactions to someone else. The notion that sociality itself, in any society, requires deferring to the needs of others and subsuming one own needs, even for a moment, is foreign to them.)

So the article speculates: we’ll have facial recognition software videotaping the groups that the teacher isn’t working with, and the software will know which face to look at and how to compress four hours of experience into a thirty-minute summary to be reviewed later, and it will also know when there are really important individual moments that need to be reviewed at depth.

Here’s what will really happen: there will be four hours of tape made by an essentially dumb webcam and the teacher will be required to watch it all for no additional compensation. One teacher will suddenly not be teaching 9-5 and making do as humans must, being social as we must. That teacher will be asked to review and react to twelve or fourteen or sixteen hours of classroom experience just so the school can pretend that every pupil got exquisitely personal, semantically sensitive attention. The teacher will be sending clips and materials to every parent so that this pretense can be kept up. When the teacher crumbles under the strain, the review will be outsourced, and someone in a silicon sweat shop in Malaysia will be picking out random clips from the classroom feed to send to parents. Who probably won’t suspect, at least for a while, that the clips are effectively random or even nonsensical.

When the teacher isn’t physically present to engage a student, the software that’s supposed to attend to the individual development of every student will have as much individual, humane attention to students as Facebook has to me. That is to say, Facebook’s algorithms know what I do (how often I’m on, what I look at, what I tend to click on, when I respond) and it tries (oh, how it tries!) to give me more of what I seem to do. But if I were trying to learn through Facebook, what I need is not what I do but what I don’t! Facebook can only show me a mirror at best; a teacher has to show a student a door. On Facebook, the only way I could find a door is for other people–my small crowd of people–to show me one.

Which probably another way that AltSchool will pretend to be more than it can be, the same way all algorithmic culture does–to leverage a world full of knowing people in order to create the Oz-like illusion that the tools and software provided by the tech middleman are what is creating the knowledge.

Our children will not be raised by wolves in the forest, but by anonymously posted questions answered on a message board by a mixture of generous savants, bored trolls and speculative pedophiles.

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4 Responses to Apples for the Teacher, Teacher is an Apple

  1. Jerry Hamrick says:

    Way to go, Herr Burke! I was a teacher of math and German before I entered the world of computers just when they were being adopted by businesses and other enterprises of all sizes. At the time I thought of computers in two ways: first as a way to lower production and transaction costs, second as a way to do things that were beyond the ability of humans to do. In the 1960’s we techies were able to see things that we take for granted today—we just had to wait on the hardware to reach the right performance levels.

    I wrote a search program in 1964 that was functionally the same as the Internet searches we use today, but there were no disk drives then that were large enough and fast enough to do the same job we do now. I suppose that there are some things that were not anticipated fifty years ago, but I don’t know what they are. For example local weather forecasting was an obvious possibility back then and now I can check my local weather each day to see what would be the best time to play at my local golf course. Temperature, rain showers, wind vectors, humidity, etc. are all predicted with a high degree of accuracy for each and every hour of the day. I can testify to the accuracy through years of actual experience. GPS range finders are all the rage now in golf, but it is more important to know the direction and speed of the wind, especially in Texas—that information comes from my local weather forecast.

    But I never thought that computers could teach classes, and in fact I was and remain skeptical that they could even help very much. That is if they are used in the general role of teachers’ assistants or to provide programmed learning, or whatever the term of art is now—and your points about the article you read are good ones. BTW, thanks for reading it so I don’t have to.

    But I do believe that there are many important things that computers can do in the field of teaching—things that cannot be done without computers. Well, let me modify my statement. Computers can help teach our children in ways that could be done in a small population of human beings, but not in a large one. For example, education took place in ancient Athens in ways that we cannot use in our large populations—that is unless we use computers.

    To do these things would require considerable changes to the way we now teach, but I think the effort would be worth it. We can teach language skills, especially written, math skills, analytical skills and the like by using computers to enable us to emulate ancient Athens. In short, computers can enable us to govern ourselves as if we are a small city like Athens, and in so doing we will be able to teach our children the things they need to know to assimilate into adult society. We can socialize our children in ways that, I think, would solve many of the racial, sectional, economic problems that plague us today.

    Computers would make it possible for students, entire classes of them, to communicate instantly and constantly with each other as they worked on a real, meaningful problem in a very public way. Adults could be drawn into the work and the results could then be reviewed by other groups of classes and other adults, and finally the problem solution could be put into action. This kind of group work also leads to socialization of the kind that does not usually happen until the student leaves home and goes to college, or the military, etc.

    The technical structure is there. The young people already have the technical skills. What is lacking is the restructuring of the teaching process—and adults hold the key. For now.

    Not long ago, a friend and I went to the picture show. Afterwards I waited for her outside the restrooms along with a dozen or so young males. They all had their phones out, their heads were down, they were oblivious to their surroundings—they were in another world. They read and answered all types of communications, but unfortunately the content of those communications was probably vacuous. But those skills, those imaginations, can be directed toward the real world. Properly organized and nudged by teachers, it could transform our world for the better.

    Our children are able to teach themselves, if only we will help them do it. Computers give us the opportunity to revolutionize our society and it must start in our schools.

  2. Nell says:

    THIS THIS THIS: :: We can’t have that in a world where every student should get all the attention all the time! (If nothing else, that expectation is an absolutely crystallized example of how the new tech-industry wealthy hate public goods so very much: they do not believe that they should ever have to defer their own needs or satisfactions to someone else. The notion that sociality itself, in any society, requires deferring to the needs of others and subsuming one own needs, even for a moment, is foreign to them.) ::


  3. Withywindle says:

    “Generous savants, bored trolls and speculative pedophiles”–the English public school in its heyday? Such, such were the joys.

  4. Mark S. says:

    Another really good post. I am in agreement with most of it and I like how you frame the problems with the silicon valley mindset. I recently had a discussion with a former bigwig at the NSA who couldn’t say enough good things about silicon valley – reflecting, I believe, a general mindset that they are righteous.

    However, I wanted to push back a little on something you said, that now is”a good time for radical experiments in education”. To me this reflects a part of the problem with how higher education and its problems are framed. The problem isn’t really quality of education. Its not really what kids are studying or how they are studying it. Sometimes the best thing to do is just take a class period with no digital media and just discuss Dickens, Rousseau, Weber, the the origins of the American Civil War, etc. I don’t really see problem here. The ‘problems’ in higher education for me deal with a) rising costs for students and b) dwindling pay for teachers. There are answers to these that are quite simple, though you have done a good job complicating them. Any problem with instruction, I would argue is derived from these two problems – both in terms of teachers with no support and students who expect a job due to cost. To say that now is a good time for radical changes in pedagogy to me shows an acceptance of the disrupter/corporate narrative that we just aren’t teaching kids as they should be taught. That is bullshit. Am I misinterpreting you here?

    Now as a good academic, here is where I cover my tracks. I have no problem using digital media. Using a class to discuss twitter and activism, Game of Thrones, or Freddy Gray is no less useful than using it to discuss some great thinker from a disciplinary cannon. I also use blogs frequently and am open to the use of other media. And yes, we should try to connect with students in their own world at times if we hope to ‘reach’ them. But is it radical? This can all be in in the context of a more traditional format and sitting around and discussing thorny issues without clear answers is not only how it has been done for decades or longer but is still the best way to deliver education in the social sciences or humanities.

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