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What machines and humans can learn from one another

Technology is reshaping what it means to be education

By Anthony B. Maddox

Teaching children and youth in our public education systems is a mighty task. Imagine walking into a classroom, in whatever subject matter you are qualified to teach, and greeting two to three dozen learners that you probably do not know. Ready? Set. Go!

And after about 180 instructional days, let’s assess to what degree learners have met required content standards and determine if their academic performance meets expectations. If their performance has not met expectations, some will place responsibility on the teacher’s students, the teacher (i.e., you), the teacher’s teacher education program and the teacher’s teacher educators for failing the students, our society and the nation.

Teaching is one of those complex professional tasks that is appreciably difficult to accomplish well. Historically, we have tended to adopt technologies to ameliorate these difficulties, from filmstrip and overhead projectors, document viewers and interactive whiteboards to information and communication technologies, including computer hardware, software and networks.

Now imagine a teacher walking into a classroom and placing a tablet or smartphone on a desk, wireless Bluetooth earphones in her ears and proceeding to engage students in learning while the device listens and offers her insight. Will teachers (or students) really want some form of virtual assistant listening to the dialogue? Will students in South Africa welcome electromagnetism explained in Zulu, or will students in the Philippines appreciate organic chemistry expressed in Tagalog? Will learning be any better, however defined, and would any resulting data analytics offer teachers and learners opportunities to better know what they know and don’t know?

Technologies are reshaping what it means to be educated, and by whom, or by what. We’ve all come to recognize that families need 24/7 virtual agents analyzing and comparing data on health, housing, employment and safety, as well as education. Likewise, our classrooms will undergo transformations that may blur the distinctions between formal, informal and non-formal learning. Whereas some might believe that a laptop for every student is a reasonable end goal, my sense is the future in learning may actually require a wearable or implanted learning device with the power of a supercomputer that interprets real-time text, image, video, audio and animation data.

Scary? Maybe. In a society where we have yet to sufficiently address issues of inclusion, diversity, equity and access among people, we may soon be faced with similar issues between people and machines. I expect the learning sciences and autonomous technologies to help promote learning and create educational opportunities for marginalized people in previously unthinkable ways. And I hope that we discover ways to build our learning machines to recognize and address their own biases and prejudices to better facilitate the learning of people, and themselves

Anthony Maddox is Professor of Clinical Education and Engineering at USC Rossier and USC Viterbi. He is Co-Director of the Center for Engineering in Education, as well as a licensed professional engineer.