Conservative “Think Tank” Predicts And Welcomes A Future Where Teaching Machines Dominate Public Education

Last year, 2010, the Hoover Institution, a conservative “think tank,” challenged its members to think twenty years ahead, and to imagine public education in the year 2030. They responded with a number of videos. According to Hoover, “The changes outlined here (in the videos) would yield a more responsive, efficient, effective, nimble, and productive K-12 education system than we have today.” Hoover offers a thoughtful conservative POV. Interestingly, the institute was started in 1919 by Herbert Hoover, years before he became president.

It seems to me, what separates a liberal POV from a conservative POV is a basic disagreement over purpose. The big picture, the central questions — What is the purpose of government? What is the purpose of public education? — deserves thoughtful public discussion.

“Conservatives” have pushed the idea that the aim of education is academic mastery and that this aim can be accomplished via demanding mastery of a rigorous academic curriculum. Confusingly, although “liberals” and teacher unions have disagreed over how this aim for public education could be best accomplished, they largely have agreed with the conservative POV that the aim of public education is the mastery of an academic curriculum.

This failure of progressive educators to articulate a strong progressive POV concerning the aim of public education, as an alternative to the conservative POV, has big implications for the teaching and education profession. As I warn here: The Dumbing Down Of What It Means To Be A “Great Teacher” — Will Lead To Machines Replacing Teachers:

The inexcusable dumbing down of what is meant by “great teachers” and “excellent schools” is the foundation for the destruction of the current teaching profession, the foundation, in fact, for the destruction of meaningful public education.

It seems clear that in only a very few years, if the purpose of education is so shallow, the professionalism of its practitioners so diminished, sophisticated computer programs will replace teachers. Such programs will do what effective teachers now do — everything that works to get students to score high on objective tests.

The more narrow the aim / purpose of public education, the easier the accomplishment of this aim can be computerized. A progressive aim is one that defines teaching in human terms and the definition of educational purpose in terms of human terms and human purpose.  A progressive aim is one that goes beyond simply the delivery of curriculum.

To listen to Hoover speaker, Dr. Grover (Russ) Whitehurst, the rise of the increasing prominence of machines in education will cause good results. Whitehurst sees the aim of education in narrow terms — the delivery of curriculum. Whitehust says that in the near future, curriculum, “will be designed through cognitive science and delivered through powerful technologies.” The most interesting sentence in this conservative thinker’s prediction is that in 2030, “Unobtrusive brain imaging sensors monitor learning in real time and determine the curriculum sequence for individual students.” He says:

By 2030 … breakthroughs in curriculum that have fundamentally transformed the nature of schooling in U.S. public schools.

In 2030, technology has taken over. Most instruction is delivered in virtual learning environments. Students go to school only to have a safe and supervised environment in which to engage in interactions that require social interaction such as sports and music and to use new technology that is still too expensive to be deployed in homes. Curriculum is developed and continuously updated using software applications that determine the logical skill and knowledge prerequisites of any particular learning goal. Unobtrusive brain imaging sensors monitor learning in real time and determine the curriculum sequence for individual students. There are no more committees of experts, sitting in hotel rooms, deciding what math students need to know to learn Algebra. Curriculum is personalized. and students move at dramatically different paces and sequences through a curriculum until they demonstrate mastery of various way points and end point. Those way points and end points are themselves personalized and students can decide which topics they may wish to dive into deeply.

The curriculum makes extensive use of social agents — both real peers and adults — who interact with student on line as well as avatars who realistically mimic social experience …

Each student receives a unique curriculum. …

You only have to look at the dramatic advances in what students learn and are able to do to see that it is by far better today than it was in 2010. Curriculum designed through cognitive science and delivered through powerful technologies is a lever that has allowed the the U. S. to leapfrog its international competitors and regain its position as a world’s education leader.

Wow. Dr. Whitehurst believes that in just 20 years, students will be so connected to a computer teaching machine that the machine will make curricular decisions based on variation in the student’s brain image. This is an amazing prediction that suggests the aggressive use of a technology that has big possibilities for authoritarian mind control. This conservative thinker says such machine control will be a good thing, because it will allow dramatic academic accomplishments. He says such use of technology in education will provide, “a lever that will allow the U. S. to leapfrog its international competitors and regain its position as a world’s education leader.”

A conservative POV concerning the purpose of public education defends the funding of public education as necessary because preparing a workforce to make the nation more economically competitive is in the public good. Defenders of this POV, like Dr. Whitehurst, foresee and welcome a future where machines dominate education and where professionally paid teachers are much fewer and where they do exist, serve, when needed, as “coaches.”

Conservatives defend their POV concerning education in terms of economics, in terms of international competitiveness. They seem so one sided in their view of educational purpose that their thinking seems aligned with what the leaders of North Korea would want for their own system. After all, highly trained slaves are more valuable than poorly trained ones. The preparation for citizenship in a democracy, it seems, should be very different from the preparation for citizenship in a totalitarian state. Yet, conservative ideas about public education, so far as I can tell, make no distinction.

So far, one premise of my book, “Kettering Public Education In 2030,” is that, as it becomes apparent that machines will become billions of times more intelligent than humans, the whole point of human education will necessarily be transformed. In the future, the point of education will no longer be academic accomplishment, it will be human accomplishment — If humans, by that time, are still in charge, that is. By 2030, the general public will fear the approaching Singularity and will seek to develop an education that will respond to this fear. More on this later.

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One Response to Conservative “Think Tank” Predicts And Welcomes A Future Where Teaching Machines Dominate Public Education

  1. C. Hockenheimer says:

    It would seem that machine based teaching is already in place with the proliferation of online virtual (charter) schools. Why wait till 2030?

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