Robot Tasks & Creative Brains

When I first started teaching online, I kept an on-going document of my most common responses to students. At the time, I felt like the worst teacher ever. My inner writer wanted to personalize every single message to students to prove that I cared. Your audience, I’d teach my students, means everything to writers.

Yet. There I was plagiarizing myself over and over again to maximize my professional and personal time. To maximize my time to learn new ways of teaching. To maximize my time in the woods with friends. To maximize my time with a young student trying to sort out her life. To maximize my time helping a new colleague learn the ropes of teaching at a community college. To maximize my time.

My guilt spirals were laced with the velvety feeling of finally making enough money to pay my bills without my credit card. All the while, my course evaluations were sprinkled with criticisms from students who either loved or hated my class–which by extension meant they either loved or hated me. Sometimes I didn’t open my course evaluations for months because I couldn’t stand the hot and cold of student responses. How I would have loved a simple, “Meh. Your class was okay.”

Back then, I thought, if only there was a way to organize my interactions with students better. The Command+C and V keys were worn on my laptop from overuse. Copy. Paste. Name. Individual comment. Copy. Paste. Individual comment. Rinse. Repeat.

As an online teacher, I began to feel like robot. Less than perfect. Worse than effective. Truth be told, I got really bored. That feeling along with the dead end reality of being an adjunct forced my interests to roam elsewhere.

Finding instructional design and educational technology by way of open education saved me. My bored brain started building synapses again. My self-inflicted feelings of mediocrity started to create something new. Something interesting. Something open to possibilities.

Lately people I care about send me articles to read because they know I’m “into technology.” Sometimes it’s people in the field asking, “have you read_______?” Sometimes it’s friends who really don’t know what I do for a living but they think I might be interested. At the same time, I might see that very same article rolling by on the Twitter machine with reactions or favorites. Sometimes, especially lately, it takes me longer to read said articles than I’d like to admit. It takes me even longer to blog about it.

Learn Different: Silicon Valley Disrupts Education by Rebecca Mead is one of those articles. Ho hum, I thought. Sigh. Disrupts. Ick. Okay. Welp. Bookmark. Save for later. Then I read it, and I have to admit that I can’t stop thinking about this article.

Here are few quotes in italics (copy, paste) and my reactions below. Nothing’s in stone. Thinking out loud. Copy, paste. Copy. Paste.

Tuition is about thirty thousand dollars a year.

Well, must be nice. Not my people. I almost stopped reading there.

If the reason you are having your child learn a foreign language is so that they can communicate with someone in a different language twenty years from now—well, the relative value of that is changed, surely, by the fact that everyone is going to be walking around with live-translation apps, [Max Ventilla] said.

Kinda like how everyone has access to the Internet and democracy is actualized! Hooray, Silicon Valley. Wait. What smells like crap? I almost stopped reading there.

Most of the people who end up doing well in Silicon Valley did very well academically, but they often have a very strong viewpoint about how it could have been better.

Hmmm. I bet you are really really male. Bravo. I’d rather watch ice form then hear more about this we’re-so-successful-now-let’s-do-better-now-that-we’re-rich. I almost stopped reading there.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has poured billions of dollars into education grants, including for research on digital tools and personalized learning.

Well, yes. And I know that’s problematic for some. Acceptable for others. Worrisome. But here’s what I know for sure. Some of those dollars are allowing me to work really hard with a group of very smart people that I’m growing to love. We’re helping create real change for students and teachers at community colleges. That investment is tied to the work I’m doing and it is helping redefine the narrative of the really poor at community colleges. Just you wait and see.

If you know anything about me, then you know I believe in the open door policy of community colleges. Digital tools and personalized learning are part of the puzzle. I can’t let the mystery be. There are many problems to solve for this demographic. I read on.

Educators are stakeholders in AltSchool’s eventual success: equity has been offered to all full-time teachers.

Huh. Wait. What? You mean to tell me that a teacher who is being recorded by videotape in her classroom feels like a stakeholder in the school?! Wow. I have some snake oil to sell you. Still I read on.

The point of the hackathon was to sketch out in code potential solutions to “robot tasks”—routine aspects of a teacher’s job that don’t require teaching skills. Kimberly Johnson, the head of product success and training, addressed the team. “Basically, what we have told teachers is we have hired you for your creative teacher brains, and anytime you are doing something that doesn’t require your creative teacher brain that a computer could be doing as well as or better than you, then a computer should do it,” Johnson said.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about my “creative teacher brain” of the past as a result of this article. Perhaps I’m making a bigger deal out of these claims than it’s worth. In a world of the quick moving stream of information, this article made me pause. Think.

“Robot tasks” are part of teaching sometimes, and we can build effective tools to make better use of teachers’ time. What’s the potential of the creative teacher brain with effective courseware? What’s the potential of having students understand their own learning with effective courseware?

The article goes on describe creative spaces for learning, and well, that’s nothing new either, yet it’s oh so so Silicon Valley to claim it’s something new and innovative. Dare I say it? Disruptive! (Buzzword Bingo. Drink!)

In fact, if you read up on the Open Classroom  you’ll find an interesting story about learning spaces. Perhaps iPads have replaced the aluminum book turnstiles of the 1970s and the bean bags are now Disney-themed BB8s and not corduroy. Unlike this new fangled 30k a year model, the open classroom had legs, so to speak, in public education.

Mead’s observations leave me thinking that some “new” classrooms solve the problems of a very select few. The privileged. The wealthy. The Oh-So-Silicon-Valley. The mostly white folk. The anecdotes about surveillance made me cringe. You need to read this article yourself.

To a computer measuring keystrokes, a student zoning out because he’s bored is indistinguishable from one who is moved by her book to imagine a world of her own.

Yes. I don’t think watching a video of a student having a private moment of dreaming is something to assess. Or record. It’s a private moment. Those children in the 70s open classrooms were just left the hell alone. Their private play narratives were magical kingdoms in their minds not some keen insight to their future levels of “persistence” or “grit.” Hey teachers, leave those kids alone (attribution needed).

Technologists have been trying to transform the classroom for decades. In the late seventies, Seymour Papert, a pioneer of artificial intelligence at M.I.T., contended that children’s minds might be profoundly enriched by coding. A child who learns to program “both acquires a sense of mastery over a piece of the most modern and powerful technology and establishes an intimate contact with some of the deepest ideas from science, from mathematics, and from the art of intellectual model building,” Papert wrote in his book, “Mindstorms,” which was published in 1980.

How Audrey Watters is not cited in this article is beyond me. She’s one the best journalists on this topic and it’s a damn shame for us when she’s not brought into the conversation. Watters has been citing/celebrating Papert for quite some time. She makes us all ask hard questions about these turn-key solutions.

From the back of the room, a woman spoke up: “Did you test it with a female?”

Many participants laughed. “I’m serious,” the questioner went on. “A lot of our teachers are females, and they carry phones in different places.”

The members of the bookmark team, all of whom were male, looked deflated. In coming up with their apparently elegant solution, they had not visualized a female teacher slapping her bottom to activate a phone tucked into her back pocket.

At this point, I spent quite a bit of time gazing out the window thanks to this article.

I am convinced that the best learning takes place when the learner takes charge.

About Alyson Indrunas

Always learning about instructional design, educational technology, professional development, adult education, and writing.
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1 Response to Robot Tasks & Creative Brains

  1. Pingback: The Week in Robots

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