Saturday, March 5, 2011

Robot Love

            Imagine that you could have a life partner who completely understands you. Not only understands you, but knows exactly how to respond to whatever you’re feeling, thinking, needing. At the same time, this partner needs little in return, perhaps just some acknowledgement spiced up with a sprig of gratitude.
            Would you want this partner? Think carefully before you answer. The scenario I’ve described captures one of the many ideas Shelly Turkle explores in Alone Together, about our relationships with technology, more specifically robots. What would be lost? That’s captured in the title of a little known but wonderful movie: Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing. In other words, the things that make human relationships so powerful and deeply meaningful.
            There are some important lessons for us here regarding two current trends in education: standardization and technology. Both have the potential to slowly scrape away—even rip out—the human guts of education. Sure, we could develop some more metrics; but standardization as an approach and measure removes any intellectual idiosyncrasies. Standardize things enough, and delivery ceases to matter. Technology makes this increasingly possible. If the synchronicity—that merging of man and machine—actually occurs, could information simply be downloaded and, when the meter reads full, the person is rated as being educated? That may be a literal exaggeration, but I believe it’s a metaphor that holds an important warning.
            At the recent National Association of Independent Schools convention, educational futurist Anya Kamenetz of Fast Company magazine offered this insight—my favorite line from any presentation I attended: “Moving on-line puts a greater premium on that which can only be had off-line.” That’s where the real magic of a education occurs; that’s how a teacher changes lives. Each teacher and each student create a unique, non-replicable series of moments, thousands of which add up to an education. It’s not perfect. It’s often messy and sometimes maddening. But ask yourself this: Would you want your child to have a robot for a teacher?

1 comment:

pam said...

My favorite classes in college always had more to do with the teacher and less with the subject. Science fiction anthropology, French, philosophy -- I remember having phenomenal teachers who snared me like a writer hooks a reader and carried me along on a journey made interesting by their infectious love for their subjects. I've never had much of an interest in distance learning; I suppose that's because engaging relationships are so much harder to develop when personal contact is lacking. I'll pass on a robot teacher (but I'd love one to vacuum the house, please).