For everyone Are you replaceable?

We are often told that digital technologies will make teaching better, easier and, crucially, more meaningful for students. We are told that school systems and processes mediated by digital technologies are more efficient and adaptive, and best able to help us and the institution of public education function.

And in many respects this story is correct. We have much evidence that digital technology helps teaching and learning, and makes the running of our schools, preschools and TAFEs better. But we often don’t consider the assumptions on which the story of the benefits of technology is built. Nor do we often consider how those assumptions may lead us to be overly optimistic about the benefits of digital technology and where it may lead.

We know that digital technologies impact on how we deliver learning programs to our students, how we assess them and communicate their progress. We also know that these technologies codify the ways in which we communicate – from email through to Compass and other learning management systems.

What we don’t often consider is the position of the teacher in and through these technologies. With the rise of autonomous artificial intelligence, we must confront a profound question: what is it to be a teacher when digital technologies may (and in some cases already do) perform the tasks of teachers at least as well, if not better, than we can?

We may be a fair way from this issue hitting us directly between the eyes, but we should not ignore the issue or assume that someone else is looking after our interests or those of our students.

Governments and privately owned companies are already playing in the ‘teacher replacement’ space. Online, scripted instruction manuals tailor the next moment of learning based on the student’s last digital input sideline the teacher. They reduce the teacher’s role to simply keeping students on task.

At risk is the teaching part of being a teacher.

Ultimately, teachers can only be replaced by AI if we let ourselves be. Education is a fundamental human activity, and the provision of public education is the basis of our democracy. We must ensure entirely digital forms of instruction, unmediated by a qualified teacher, never become a substitute for genuinely interactive teaching and learning.

And at the other end of the spectrum, the personalisation of learning, which is often the manifest promise of digital technology and education, is equally problematic. As Monash University academic Neil Selwyn has suggested, we should not confuse personalisation with what is often happening: mass customisation.

And there is little that is personal or human about that.

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