Let’s welcome our robot overlords with open arms

25th May 2018 at 00:00
Teachers may have reservations about being replaced by tech, but the retention crisis means we’re running out of options, writes Jo Brighouse

One of my standout memories from primary school was the day the first computer arrived. The excitement of having the big grey BBC box wheeled into your classroom twice a week soon sparked questions about what wonders might be next.

Our teacher responded with a lesson on how technology would change the world and invited us to share our predictions.

We agreed that ovens would soon be a thing of the past (at Sandra’s birthday party, we’d all seen her mum’s new microwave in action) and that non-carbonated drinks would slowly die out now that the SodaStream had rendered such boring beverages redundant.

Then we got the chance to design our own technology for the future. I remember drawing triple-decker buses; a button that could transform a normal staircase into an escalator; and a machine that dried your hair in seconds.

Sadly, like virtually every episode of Tomorrow’s World, my grand designs were not to be. Back then, we never dreamed how fast the computing world would move. My new iPhone is about 1,000 times smaller than that old school computer but has a gazillion times more power.

AI threatens jobs

But the real change has come in application, not power. Cutting-edge technology these days is less about labour saving and more about human replacement. While the SodaStream was fun, you never really worried that it was going to steal your identity and outperform you at work.

Of course, technology in the classroom is nothing new. But even in the time I’ve been teaching, it’s seriously stepped up a gear. Now there’s talk of artificial intelligence taking an even greater role in education, with teachers relegated while the robots take the helm.

I imagine some teachers might have reservations at the idea of their profession being put into robot hands, but at this point in the school year I’m all in favour of it. I warmly invite any robot to come into my classroom and have a go (if you think you’re hardwired enough).

There are some obvious advantages to the teacher robot. They don’t need coffee and toilet breaks. They can mark and plan well into the night without having to stop to put the bins out or the kids in bed. They can explain the need to draw a straight margin and tuck your shirt in endless times without even a minor surge in blood pressure. In short, they are everything that is desirable. A robot won’t show cognitive bias when marking writing or evaluating a poem. The phrases “learning walk”, “data meeting” and “it’s Ofsted on the phone” will engender no visceral reaction in them.

And while they may appear a bit bland at parents’ evening, or struggle to resolve friendship malfunctions at the end of a wet playtime, their ability to process data at speed and create elegant progress reports (that they won’t accidentally delete or misfile under a heap of worksheets) surely overrides such minor flaws.

Of course, there might be some work to be done before they’re fully equipped to deal with nosebleeds, tears and failure to listen but these are surely only minor blips to be ironed out.

After all, if the teacher retention problem is really as bad as reported, robots might become our only option.

Jo Brighouse is a pseudonym of a primary school teacher in the West Midlands. She tweets @jo_brighouse

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