Teachers should enrich life, not worship the machine

John Thornhill:

We are already in danger of creating “industrial” school systems, the authors note, in which teachers are reduced to near-automatons, implementing a prescriptive model of education and ticking boxes. “Those trained only to reheat pre-cooked hamburgers are unlikely to become master chefs,” in the words of Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s director for education and skills. The solution, if there is one, is to devolve more autonomy to motivated teachers working in collaborative schools.

Instead, there is a danger that educational technology, or edtech, may only worsen the industrialisation of the system as governments resort to new ways of measuring student output and teacher productivity. Big claims have long been made for technological tools, such as massive open online courses, or Moocs, as a more efficient way of bringing education to the masses — even if their completion rates are poor.

The demands on our education systems are certain to explode in the coming decade, particularly in the developing world. A recent Citi GPS report forecasts the number of secondary and tertiary students in China, India and Brazil will grow by 56m over the next 15 years (about 2.5 times the current US student population). Total global spending on education will double from $5.1tn in 2015 to $10tn by 2030.

Education goes well beyond the classroom as employers demand more technical skills and workers retrain throughout their careers. In this context, it makes little sense to cram all formal education into the first 21 years of life.

Joseph Aoun, president of Northeastern University and author of Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, says that universities will increasingly have to offer their students life-long learning plans: “At present, our education system is not affordable, adaptable or scalable,” he says. “Education needs to be continuous, which means we have to rethink how we dispense access to it.”

Technology is surely part of the answer. It can increase the productivity of existing institutions by personalising learning. It can also broaden access. Some of the most interesting new models of education are being pioneered in India and China, where a lack of traditional institutions has encouraged innovation.