It's us versus the computers

8th December 2006 at 00:00
Technology is triggering teachers' survival instincts, warn US academics

Teachers are a selfish species who fight changes such as new technology to ensure their own survival, according to research.

There is much evidence reported in the press and anecdotally of heads banning mobile phones, teachers resisting the arrival of new hardware such as PDAs (personal digital assistants, to the uninitiated) and grumpy ICT directors barring access to school networks.

And last week, we found out why.

"Computers are wiping out teachers," Professor Yong Zhao, of Michigan State University, told a workshop at the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust conference in London??. "It's happening. Virtual high schools run as commercial ventures from different countries are rendering local teachers obsolete."

Professor Zhao and his team of US academics identify schools as showing all the characteristics of a natural ecosystem.

"We have to accept the fact that schools are ecosystems, not communities,"

he said. "Teachers are a selfish species - they look out for their own interests."

His researchers believe computers are like an invading species in schools.

Survival of the fittest will dictate whether they are ousted, establish an uncomfortable equilibrium with the existing species, or replace them.

But his theories did not exactly receive acclaim from teachers here. His lecture was received in chilly silence accompanied by much shaking of heads. After all, nobody likes being called a dinosaur, which is his sub-text.

In the school ecosystem, the professor said, teachers and ICT directors co-exist and compete with other species such as pupils, librarians, books, projectors and desks: "Although technologies are not exactly the same as living creatures, they seem to follow a similar process of evolution," he said.

Professor Zhao told The TES this week that computers are already replacing teachers in areas such as home schooling, workplace training, and language teaching.

He has developed an English language computer training framework, being used by more than 100 Chinese universities, that he said provided more authentic language and pronunciation exposure than that provided by human teachers.

Perhaps at risk of straining the metaphor, Professor Zhao and his team compare computers to invading zebra mussels in the Great Lakes of North America; teachers are the native mussels the zebra mussels are wiping out.

But he and his fellow authors do qualify this comparision with a warning:

"We hope that our readers will not attempt to impose all theories and practices related to biological ecology on the human social system."

In other words, do not try to combat the invading species, Genus computatrum, by eating its members. You will break your teeth.

The Social Life of Technology, Pedagogies journal, 1(2), Yong Zhao, Jing Lei and Kenneth Frank

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