Robot as a Teacher

The Perils of Digitalized Progress in Education

Beware of digital education! COVID-19 may be used as a ruse to centralize power and control minds by technological elites.

Schools were created when books were not available, at least not at the mass scale as it is now. Nevertheless, they are still organized as if they responded to the conditions and circumstances from 200 years ago. The recent advancements in education seem to update the learning process to the technological capabilities of our times. However, they may bring a flattening of the old model using computers to enhance the intake of knowledge. This would imply a regress in understanding what education is for this. Potential digitalization of education also bears some dangers.

It is urgent to discuss the purpose and ethics of education in times of imposed pressure to turn to digital tools in organizing teaching. Naomi Klein warned about strengthening the economic power of digital giants as a result of bringing classroom to online realm, which she calls a Screen New Deal. Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Bill Gates have been appointed by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to advise on a scenario for post-pandemic reforms, including remote learning and telehealth. Bill Gates’ task was to help rethink public schools’ organization for the next fall. In 2014, Cuomo was criticized for including Schmidt in the advisory panel of Smart Schools Commission because of the potential conflict of interest. His Alt School failed in 2015 but coronavirus promises new opportunities.

Current crisis may be seized as an opening towards more control over minds of the younger generations. The Millennials are already being formed by digital media. All the hours spent on YouTube and online social media make them absorb information and shape their cognitive and interpersonal predispositions. Zeynep Tufekci warned that the algorithms aiming at maintaining people’ interest in YouTube content may bring more radicalization and polarization in the society. Television was influencing precedent generations but in a less intrusive way. Since the television did not have an algorithm hooking people into being exposed to the same topic or way of thinking as social media do by creating bubbles of like-minded “friends” and groups, learning process was less effective. YouTube further boosts learning effect by proposing to watch more and more extreme movies once the viewer showed interest in a topic. Furthermore, television did not engage people in interaction. So they may have wanted to discuss what they saw with others. In contrast, online media give a substitute of a debate. When we think about learning, we tend to associate effective learning with a desirable result. However, learning can also cause damage and it is important to think of the opportunities of unlearning and being exposed to opposite interpretations as part of education.

Introducing robotized education may impose similar disadvantages for the development of young people. Innovators familiar with neuroscience may propose gamification of learning process. Online games stimulating dopamine secretion may lead to addictive behavior, especially, amongst socially and emotionally neglected children. It would turn the old model of learning into memorization on steroids. The pleasurable experience may create an inner subconscious attachment to the knowledge absorbed this way. As a consequence, the activity of learning, which suggests engaging with the subjects, is obsolete in this model. It would be replaced by programming with subliminal messages. Such a model contrasts with contextual learning model of transacting knowledge. Research has demonstrated that being exposed to the same word or information through spaced repetition imprints it in long-term memory. These “truths” may be difficult to question because any opposite information may be dismissed by cognitive dissonance. This gives an enormous power to whomever holds it. And this may be engineers and technological giants that will grab it.

One could argue that this subliminal learning is already happening in schools. Professor Peter McLaren pointed to the reproduction of class stratification and the hidden curriculum in the way schooling is organized. The danger of the scenario I am predicting here lurks in the centralization of learning. Decentralized schooling, as we know it, gives more leeway to the teachers. They can organize in unions and subvert the system in their classrooms depending on their level of awareness and non-conformism. It would be more difficult to convince a high number of educators to perform repetitive teaching with well-calculated chunks and intervals, especially if it were serving narrow economic interests. It is easier to corrupt a couple of specialists instead.

Current shortage of over 100,000 teaching staff in the US and the reliance on migrant teachers (mainly from Philippines), who stay on short-term job contracts, may pave the way to digitalized and robotized education. Amidst the urgency to protect the health of families having school-age children, we need to be cautious about reforms that “Corona-crisis” may enable to be sneaked in.

Katarzyna Gajewska is an author and an educator. Read other articles by Katarzyna.