March 12, 2006

Automated Education?

My school district recently purchased software to help struggling students pass the CAHSEE. I am concerned about what this type of application means to the future of teachers and teaching. It is not my purpose to openly criticize the software application, it'’s designers, or the parent company, so I have not used the actual names.

Is HalBishop to 2006 what the Hal 9000 was to 2001? Or like Bishop from Aliens, does it prefer the term "Artificial teacher?" At a web site they claim:
With HalBishop you can:
* Reach struggling students and recover lost credits
* Increase graduation rates and reduce dropout rates
* Challenge advanced students who want to move ahead
* Prepare students for state and standardized tests
* Provide individualized learning at a distance
Wait a minute, isn't that what teachers do?

The truth is we teachers need all the help we can get, and if there are software solutions have some successful answers for helping students, then bring it on. My district recently purchased licenses to HalBishop and installed it in the computer lab adjacent to my computer classroom. I walk through this lab to get to our repair room, and my lunch refrigerator, a couple of times a day (well, only once for lunch). I have casually observed students working with the HalBishop software, appearing to be engaged in learning, while their teachers sit at another workstation monitoring the students' time using the application, and their areas of study. The students interact with the computers, not with the teacher, and that is what concerns me.

I interviewed one of the teachers who is currently using the HalBishop software. I asked her about her experience, and how she is using the software to help her kids (that have failed the CAHSEE at least once already) prepare to pass the CAHSEE. She explained that students are graded based on the amount of time they spend using the application. Sounds to me like kids are getting credit for seat time, kinda like the way our "alternative" education campus works.

However measuring the time spent in HalBishop can be challenging. Students have already figured out that since HalBishop works in a browser window that they can open a second browser window and surf the web while still recording seat time. The teacher's job is to keep an eye on all of the student's computer monitors as well as their own workstation monitor to make sure that everyone is on-task. Teaching not required.

To complicate the process, the HalBishop server is in another part of the country (far from here) and the service is relatively slow. Kids can't scroll their screens and the refresh rate is not in real time. So kids get bored, and begin to wander around the web. I'm sure that will soon be remedied, it's simply an annoyance at the moment.

I asked my colleague about the type of teacher student relationship that is formed with students working in this type of environment. It appears that there is more limited student/teacher interaction. She confirmed my suspicion. The teacher is there as a facilitator to answer questions, a "guide on the side." There are some opportunities for more meaningful one-on-one time, but fewer opportunities for direct instruction, group work, or peer tutoring. One of the (important) reasons kids come to school is for social interaction, experience, and therefore education. What type of social skills are students building while they are interacting with the computer, and not each other, or the teacher. Of course, this is only one hour during the day, they can always socialize at lunch, or during P.E.

Our school district purchased the HalBishop software and mandated its use without consulting classroom teachers, or our single site computer IT technician. I'm sure that Generals are not in the habit of consulting the troops before formulating a war plan. All soldiers need to do is carry out orders. That's sort of what it feels like to the teachers who use HalBishop. Right now there are only two, but if the software proves successful for our students, that number will grow. As the number grows there will be fewer and fewer teachers actually teaching students, and instead facilitating their on-line experience. Is this a good thing?

Instead of automating education, I feel technology is better used to facilitate the teacher, and not the other way around. A recent K-12 Linux article identified four areas where technology is being used effectively in the classroom. The author lists:
1) Communication
2) Collaboration
3) Analysis
4) Creativity

I strive to use technology like this in my computer-based multimedia courses with very successful results. Technology can and should be an incredibly useful tool when the teacher takes advantage of the opportunities provided by computers and the like. But to do so teachers need to dedicate themselves to not only embracing technology, but mastering technology. We must train ourselves to become iTeachers, as savvy about technology and more indispensable than the software and hardware itself.

People, not technology is what makes a difference in the lives of our pupils. No matter how efficient or effective technology becomes, it cannot, and will not replace the relationship between student and teacher. Think back to your scholastic experience, what motivated you to succeed? A computer application? I doubt it. Teachers provide the encouragement, support, and direction that all students need to become successful adults. The ASVAB may be a good indicator of what a child might be good at in their future, but it is the teacher who will truly guide the student towards that accomplishment.

The Hal 9000 computer might have been able to manage the Discovery One, but we all know how well that turned out, "Open the pod bay doors..." And Bishop may have been a helpful alien hunter, but neither of these computers could have ever touched the life of a student the way any teacher on any given day can change the lives of their students.

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