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What if... teachers were replaced by computers?

Do you shudder to think?
Written by silicon.com staff, Contributor

Do you shudder to think?

We have a shortage of teachers in the UK but in what way is technology the answer? Our very own Mr Hypothetical, Dale Vile, has been doing some fieldwork... Every now and again I read something in relation to IT that strikes me, not in my role as an analyst, but on a personal level. And it happened just the other week while I was leafing through The Telegraph. A headline read 'Computers to replace teachers' and the article spoke about pupils watching lessons on their screens, going on virtual reality field trips, submitting their work electronically for auto-marking and more. What a way of dealing with the teacher shortage! There is a serious debate here about whether teachers could actually be replaced by technology but I couldn't help thinking back to the huge run-down comprehensive school I attended in the seventies. It was more like a war zone than a school. The only viable kind of IT in that setting would have been armour plated Warrior Droids equipped with stun guns. A PC would have lasted about five minutes. "If you don't put that crowbar down right now, Johnny, I'll beep very loudly and display a very threatening message." Imagine it. Of course, you could implement a network of PCs, each equipped with a webcam and internet access. If Johnny then misbehaves, the classroom system sends a video clip in real time to his dad's 3G device - then he's in real trouble. Unfortunately, in my old school, this approach would have just encouraged creative ways of disabling the PC using diversion techniques to avoid the perpetrator being detected on camera. I still think you would have needed the Warrior Droid for first line backup. The ultimate backup, however, would have remained a live flesh and blood teacher standing in front of the class with that 'make my day' look on their face saying: "If the Droid's head is not back here on my desk in two minutes..." Yet thinking back, even in that kind of environment, many classes ran like clockwork with well behaved kids participating actively in even quite boring lessons such as trigonometry. This underlines the role of the teacher in leading, motivating and guiding pupils. This point is echoed by Michael Newstead, who heads up 3Com's UK business development activity in the education sector. I met him recently at BETT, the huge IT in education exhibition at Olympia, London. His view is that "the role of the teacher is going to change but they will remain the most critical part of education process". He reckons the message we should be giving teachers is "You are the professional. You are the expert. We should be putting the best possible tools in your hands." The issue is not so much replacing teachers with IT but encouraging them to embrace it. People like Newstead make a big difference. He speaks with insight and understanding of the issues faced by schools, colleges and universities. He also speaks passionately about the opportunity. "It's not just about helping teachers with the admin burden. IT can bring subjects to life in the classroom. Imagine a physics lesson that uses an interactive video of a David Beckham goal to illustrate Newton's Laws. The principles are much more likely to stick," he said. 3Com's commitment to the education sector is reflected in some of its recent activities. Its development of the NetPrep programme is a good example. This is all about working with further education colleges in the delivery of vendor neutral foundation training. I took the opportunity while at BETT to drop by the City & Guilds stand where a representative enthused about the value of such initiatives and confirmed they had endorsed NetPrep as a recognised standard. It's nice to see IT vendors giving something back in this way. It's not bad for business either. Newstead claims education related sales account for 30 per cent of 3Com's worldwide revenues. I would imagine that some creative rolling up of numbers was necessary to derive this figure, but whatever the absolute value is it's clearly pretty significant. This underlines what can be achieved when a vendor takes the trouble to tune in properly to the needs of a specific vertical market. I followed up my trip to BETT with a visit to the local school attended by my 7-year-old son. I wanted to form a view of what is happening at the sharp end so I sat at the back while the teachers were receiving instruction on how to exploit IT in the classroom. This took place in the school's new computer lab and was one session of many, illustrating the commitment schools and authorities are making to providing teachers with the equipment and training necessary to make a difference. I heard about the many creative ways (too many to mention here) in which computers are being used to enhance mainstream teaching and to deal with 'special needs' kids in a much more effective way. It is now even clearer to me that the teacher definitely has to stay. Kids still need leading and motivating and lessons still need planning, tailoring and delivering at an individual or class level. It is absurd to expect this to be automated. Above all, kids need to learn about life and how to live together and we should not underestimate the part played by the teacher in this respect. There is a lot of great work being done out there. Let's continue to support it. What are your thoughts? If you want to respond to this article post a Reader Comment below, or email editorial@silicon.com to let us know what you'd like to see Dale cover in future 'What if...' columns. **Dale Vile is service director at analyst house Quocirca. His C.V. boasts years at Nortel Networks, Bloor Research, SAP and Sybase and his job now involves working with vendors and users wanting to tap the business benefits of technology. For more information see: http://www.quocirca.com Past columns:
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