Robot teachers are on the way

There’s an interesting article in the New York Times today about robotic teachers. An excerpt:

Researchers say the pace of innovation is such that these machines should begin to learn as they teach, becoming the sort of infinitely patient, highly informed instructors that would be effective in subjects like foreign language or in repetitive therapies used to treat developmental problems like autism.

Several countries have been testing teaching machines in classrooms. South Korea, known for its enthusiasm for technology, is “hiring” hundreds of robots as teacher aides and classroom playmates and is experimenting with robots that would teach English.

Already, these advances have stirred dystopian visions, along with the sort of ethical debate usually confined to science fiction. “I worry that if kids grow up being taught by robots and viewing technology as the instructor,” said Mitchel Resnick, head of the Lifelong Kindergarten group at the Media Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “they will see it as the master.”

Most computer scientists reply that they have neither the intention, nor the ability, to replace human teachers. The great hope for robots, said Patricia Kuhl, co-director of the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington, “is that with the right kind of technology at a critical period in a child’s development, they could supplement learning in the classroom.”

Link: Students, Meet Your New Teacher, Mr. Robot.

I don’t think you can fault the individual computer scientists’ intentions here, and it may well be that robots offer unique value in certain special situations like working with autistic children. But I have to agree with those who find this trend disturbing. I don’t think Resnick’s worry about seeing robots “as the master” is the worst problem. Our society values technology more than it values teachers. These robots aren’t solving a problem that couldn’t be solved better with people. And down the road it’s not hard to see the day when cheap robots become much more than just a supplement.

To repeat a quote I posted 5 years ago:

“In the end, it is the poor who will be chained to the computer; the rich will get teachers.”

Stephen Kindel, quoted by Todd Oppenheimer in The Flickering Mind: Saving Education From the False Promise of Technology.

What’s troubling about WolframAlpha

From an AP review (dated May 13) of WolframAlpha by Brian Bergstein:

In the interest of full
disclosure, I'll admit that I'm troubled by the potential for
WolframAlpha. I fear the implications of an information butler that is
considered so smart and so widely applicable that people turn to
it without question, by default, whenever they want to know something.

What's that, you say? We already have such a service?

for all the fears that Google is making us stupid by making it too easy
to look up information, at least Google and its rivals enable the
critical thinking that comes from scoping out multiple sources.

search engines that deliver links that match keywords in your query,
WolframAlpha is more of a black box. If you have it perform a
calculation, it gives you an answer, along with a small link for
"source information." Open that and you'll generally be told the data
was "curated"—found and verified—by the company behind WolframAlpha. In
other words, "trust us."

The site does suggest ways to
track down similar information from other sources, including government
statistics, proprietary databases, almanacs and the collaborative
encyclopedia Wikipedia. To confirm WolframAlpha's data I went a
suddenly old-fashioned route—through Web searches on Google and Yahoo.
I didn't find any errors, but taking that step made me wonder why I
didn't just use Google or Yahoo to begin with.

Link: Review: Flaws in Web's much-touted WolframAlpha.

Rory Litwin has posted similar comments at Library Juice: Wolfram Alpha: Bad Idea!

Dave Eggers Defends Print and Reading

Novelist Dave Eggers, in a speech excerpted in the New Yorker:

To any of you who are feeling down, and saying, “Oh, no one’s reading
anymore”: Walk into 826 on any afternoon. There are no screens there,
it’s all paper, it’s all students working shoulder to shoulder invested
in their work, writing down something, thinking their work might get
published. They put it all on the page, and they think, “Well, if this
person who works next to me cares so much about what I’m writing, and
they’re going to publish it in their next anthology or newspaper or
whatever, then I’m going to invest so much more in it.” And then
meanwhile, they’re reading more than I did at their age. …

Nothing has changed! The written word—the love of it and the power
of the written word—it hasn’t changed. It’s a matter of fostering it,
fertilizing it, not giving up on it, and having faith. Don’t get down.
I actually have established an e-mail address,—if
you want to take it down—if you are ever feeling down, if you are ever
despairing, if you ever think publishing is dying or print is dying or
books are dying or newspapers are dying (the next issue of McSweeney’s
will be a newspaper—we’re going to prove that it can make it. It comes
out in September). If you ever have any doubt, e-mail me, and I will buck you up and prove to you that you’re wrong.

Link: Dave Eggers will prove you wrong (The New Yorker via MobyLives).

"826" is 826 National, a fantastic nonprofit that runs writing and tutoring centers for kids. Eggers was being honored for the project at this event.

Twitter on the primary school curriculum

From the you've-gotta-be-kidding department (aka is it April Fools already?): The Guardian reports that a new plan for the UK school curriculum will add twitter and Wikipedia and drop the requirement to study Victorian history and WWII. Excerpt:

Children will no longer have to study the Victorians or the second
world war under proposals to overhaul the primary school curriculum,
the Guardian has learned.

However, the draft plans will require children to master Twitter and Wikipedia and give teachers far more freedom to decide what youngsters should be concentrating on in classes.

proposed curriculum, which would mark the biggest change to primary
schooling in a decade, strips away hundreds of specifications about the
scientific, geographical and historical knowledge pupils must
accumulate before they are 11 to allow schools greater flexibility in what they teach.

emphasises traditional areas of learning – including phonics, the
chronology of history and mental arithmetic – but includes more modern
media and web-based skills as well as a greater focus on environmental

The plans have been drawn up by Sir Jim Rose, the
former Ofsted chief who was appointed by ministers to overhaul the
primary school curriculum, and are due to be published next month.

Link: Pupils to study Twitter and blogs in primary shake-up.

See also BBC: Pupils "should study Twitter".

Is twitter really that hard to learn? From personal experience, I'd say: Hard to learn? no. Hard to understand the point of? maybe.

I signed up recently (karthur), mostly because it seems like a lot of interesting people whose blogs I read are now posting there instead (particularly in the design/UX world I follow for work-related stuff). I don't know if I'll start tweeting much myself.

The experience has been interesting so far, and slightly useful. It's a quicker way to keep up with the buzz in the webosphere than by trying to follow the 300+ blogs I've subscribed to in Google Reader. I feel like I'd have to be constantly connected to really get it, though, instead of just reading it once or twice a day like I'm doing. The format is a little unfriendly — so many blind tiny-urls!