Between the rapid adoption of MOOCs and ever-evolving advancements in educational technology, there has been a lot of buzz around the potential replacement of classroom teachers by, well, computers. Although it may seem unfathomable, the transition from teacher to technology has already begun in some pockets of the world.
It was just earlier this year that one Colorado school faced quite a backlash after replacing three foreign language teaching positions with online instruction. Meanwhile, following a 2009 experiment where robots were brought into classrooms in Masan, South Korea to teach English, educators in New York City and Los Angeles have plans to use robots to teach subjects from math to nutrition.
As with many industries, from publishers to newspapers to the music industry, it seems that education is in for a spate of creative destruction.
And although we seriously doubt that robots will ever replace teachers, there is ample room for some tweaking in the broad field of education—and more often than not teachers welcome the change. One area ripe for creative destruction is assessment—measuring what kids have learned. Currently, the focus on No. 2 pencils and end-of-the-semester testing leaves many teachers cold. Teaching to the test is hardly inspiring, and for many, a one-shot test misses a wide range of progress—and human qualities—over the course of learning.
Enter digital media. Sure, technology can speed the process of assessment (think automated tallying of answers), but that only scratches the surface. What is more interesting is the potential of digital media to introduce more nuanced and comprehensive forms of assessments.
Some innovators, for example, are using the ideas behind video game design to introduce “stealth” assessments as kids play (and learn). As Brookings Institution’s Darrell West writes, “Psychologists have long understood that studying how children play allows for insight into the learning processes.” If a kid gets stuck on a certain level of the game, teachers can quickly identify why, and better understand what that student needs to progress. Games also have a knack for motivating students to push further even when they hit an obstacle, and seeing how they grapple with those challenges is immensely helpful to teachers.
These assessments can also get at higher level thinking, like problem-solving skills. Valerie Shute, a professor at Florida State, and her colleagues are breaking new ground with these tools. They used, for example, an off-the-shelf game and added some built-in analytic tools to measure how kids solved problems.
As West explains:
In “Oblivion” players had to cross a river with dangerous fish. Players had several options including using magic, finding a bridge, or swimming across. Using game data, their model can evaluate the novelty and efficiency of how players responded. Such data may appear irrelevant but in fact it allows educators a view of students’ competencies.
This form of assessment, as its name implies, has the double advantage of not eating up precious classroom time while still gaining a more formative assessment of the student’s learning.
Another novel learning and assessment tool is cognitive tutors, developed originally at Carnegie Mellon University. Cognitive tutors combine artificial intelligence with cognitive psychology to create a system that provides feedback to students as they work. The tutors can alert them when they go off track or provide hints to help them get back on track. The system can peer behind the curtain of how individual students are learning.
And lest we think it’s only students who are being assessed, there’s a movement underfoot to redo assessment of teachers as well.
Bill Gates recently argued an op-ed in the Washington Post for a well-balanced teacher assessment method that does not rely olely on standardized test results.
“In much the same way that sports teams identify and nurture talent, there is a window of opportunity in public education to create systems that encourage and develop fantastic teachers, leading to better results for students,” said Gates.
“Even in subjects where the assessments have been validated, such as literacy and math, test scores don’t show a teacher areas in which they need to improve…. The fact is, teachers want to be accountable to their students. What the country needs are thoughtfully developed teacher evaluation systems that include multiple measures of performance, such as student surveys, classroom observations by experienced colleagues and student test results.
In the end, maybe it’s a case of reframing the problem: Rather than replacing teachers, new assessment tools might free them up to focus more on actual teaching.