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Will computers replace schoolteachers?

By Gregory Ferenstein, Special to CNN
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  • Gregory Ferenstein: Minimally supervised students with laptops can outdo lectured ones
  • Unless schools change, he says, more teachers will be replaced by computers
  • He cites a professor's research that says computers help bring out students' natural curiosity
  • But computers won't replace teachers who are more than experts spouting facts, he says

Editor's note: Gregory Ferenstein is an author and educator. As an author, his works on technology, education, and politics have appeared on CNN, The Huffington Post, and in The Washington Post. As an educator, he designs communication curricula for college students, and he also holds a master's degree in mathematical behavioral sciences. In his free time, he practices capoeira, an acrobatic Brazilian martial art.

(CNN) -- Cash-strapped school districts, from Florida to Washington, have discovered that minimally supervised students hunched over laptops can outperform their lectured counterparts for a fraction of the cost.

A broader review of research by the U.S. Department of Education in 2009 discovered that "students who took all or part of their class online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction."

As long as schools measure performance simply by rote memorization on multiple-choice tests, no teacher can compete with instant access to the world's information. Unless schools change, more and more teachers will find themselves replaced by computers.

Traditional large-class lectures deliver the same material at the same speed to 30 different young minds. With Internet-based instruction, the pace of learning can be perfectly tailored to students; they can instantly explore points of confusion, then return to the primary material without interrupting anyone else. No more teaching to mediocrity and no more ignoring the least advantaged or the gifted.

The child-driven education
Can computers take place of teachers?

Since online teachers are unencumbered by much of the disciplinary and bureaucratic nonsense of brick-and-mortar schools, they can devote far more time to actual instruction. Fewer teachers are needed to achieve the same small-class-size effect.

Though teachers like Chris Kirchner of Coral Reef Senior High School in Miami have called Florida's e-learning labs "nearly criminal" for removing the human component from instruction, schools teetering on bankruptcy will reasonably look for cheaper solutions to meet federal funding standards. Simply, interactive websites and textbooks can teach fractions and the stages of cell reproduction every bit as well as a lecturer.

Traditional instruction dramatically underestimates the percentage of self-starters whose boundless curiosity has no need for authoritarian direction. In the slums of India, Newcastle professor Sugata Mitra scattered unsupervised stand-alone Internet stations and challenged eager children to teach themselves. In mere months, children significantly increased their math, reading and science knowledge, leading one academic reviewer to conclude that the shocking results were simply "too good to be true."

Mitra: Students can teach themselves with computers

For students who are not as self-motivated, artists and game makers have teamed up to create compelling virtual learning environments and interactive textbooks.

The Federation of American Scientists has adapted the addictiveness of first-person shooting video games into a biology curriculum. "Immune Attack" is an immersive 3-D anatomy course where high-schoolers play the part of a heroic super-nanobot, blasting viruses from within a human host. Students are not able to ask questions during the game because all instruction is provided within the game with a video attached to the website.

"The amount of detail about proteins, chemical signals and gene regulation that these 15-year-olds were devouring was amazing," said "Immune Attack" creator Melanie Stegman. Commenting on her post-game discussions with the participants, she said: "Their questions were insightful. I felt like I was having a discussion with scientist colleagues."

Virtual education results fluctuate from slightly worse to slightly better than human teachers. In another 10 or 30 years, the technology will certainly evolve from its current infancy with revolutionary power, just as it has done since the 1980s. Artificial intelligence that can respond to multiple learning styles and virtual reality that re-creates exciting worlds will be able to teach facts in a more compelling way than most, if not all, teachers.

The argument that teachers cannot be replaced by computers is strengthened if you believe teachers are much more than lectures. A good teacher can inspire creativity, serving as caregiver and mentor. There are countless schools where the Internet is only instrumental in the teaching of critical thinking, and are therefore immune to the technology onslaught. Ken Robinson says schools kill creativity

Google's coveted day care is founded on the Reggio Emilia method, where students collectively determine which unexplained phenomena about the world fascinate them most, such as how rainbows work, and then cooperate with teachers in the online and scientific investigation. In the process, students learn teamwork and research skills. And, most importantly, they get a glimpse of how fun learning is when they're unchained from a desk.

At Illinois' famous public New Trier High School, many of the brightest students participate in their well-funded debate program, where coaches and students scour the Internet researching contentious political issues, such as immigration and foreign policy, and defend their positions to an audience of judges. Since debate deals with ever-changing news issues and prioritizes critical thinking over memorization, most state exams would be blind to the valuable skills it teaches.

Carthay Center Elementary in Southern California teaches biology through the age-old tradition of gardening. Complex ecosystems, agriculture, photosynthesis and nutrition are all deftly interwoven into a semi-structured course in what appears to playful children as nothing more than a more intensive version of gardening with a grandparent. At the end of class, children eagerly experiment with salads of their own making, which wouldn't have happened without the gentle suggestions of their teachers. No computer can teach this course.

Viewed through a multiple-choice testing lens, these extraordinary classrooms are mere electives. But for too long, teachers' protests for needed curriculum changes have been eclipsed by calls for higher pay and better negotiating rights.

An anti-union Republican governor is not the biggest existential threat to teachers -- computers are. Unless schools drop the emphasis on memorization, more teachers will find themselves replaced. An expert spouting facts as the head of the classroom is just old technology.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gregory Ferenstein.

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