A teacher that can be replaced by a machine, should be

I recently watched a video where the presenter talked about some experiments carried out in rural areas of North India titled “Hole in the Wall”. The hypothesis of the experiment was, under certain circumstances technology could replace teachers; and language is not a barrier to learning for children. During the course of the experiment, rural children – ranging from school dropouts to rural school-goers – taught themselves, individually and as part of a group, basic computer functions including the use of keyboard and mouse. The experiment led the scientific team to conclude, “A teacher that can be replaced by a machine, should be”.

Restraining my defensive instincts as a teacher, I thought long and hard on whether the conclusions of the scientific team were accurate and more importantly, complete. Keeping in mind the results of this experiment, I keenly started observing my three year old son play with his interactive toy laptop, which he ritualistically likes to play with just prior to his bedtime. His indulgence with his laptop is probably his way of copying his parents, whom he see’s spending quite a bit of time on their own similar gadget, and may probably be linked to his sense of self-worth while at the same time having some fun. 

Our son’s initial response to undirected and freehand working (read “use”) of the laptop was random punching of keys which made me cringe, but I held back my reaction. After a week of limited headway, I decided to guide his key punches while having some fun with sounds, words and numbers. I capitalized on his love for music to show him how fun with the laptop could be enhanced with organised and coordinated action. Within a very short span of two week, he began choosing programs and functions using the keyboard and slide-bar with the dexterity of a concert pianist. Left to his own devices, he probably would have discovered other ways of “working” the laptop, by trial and error, but would have taken longer. Positive intervention perhaps accelerated the process and since he was ready to learn, he excelled at it. 

In a classroom environment, every minute is a teaching opportunity, especially for younger students (that a teacher taps into to create incidental learning), which would be wasted if the teacher were to be replaced by a machine. And which machine can combine knowledge, humaneness and accountability that come with a teacher? How would these machines cater to the diverse learning styles among the students? To what extent will these machines address the checks and balances that are peculiar to classrooms, which a teacher handles with her classroom management skills? How pragmatic and feasible would it be in countries like India, which struggle with the availability of electricity to replace their teachers with machines? 

The age old adage of technology being a good slave but a poor master is still true. We can however expect, that some day, technology will become advanced enough to replace their old masters in almost all walks of life.

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