May 22, 2012

"[S]tudents assigned randomly to statistics courses that relied heavily on 'machine-guided learning' software -- with reduced face time with instructors -- did just as well, in less time..."

"... as their counterparts in traditional, instructor-centric versions of the courses. This largely held true regardless of the race, gender, age, enrollment status and family background of the students."

Why are you better than a robot?
The robotic software did have disadvantages, the researchers found. For one, students found it duller than listening to a live instructor. 
Duller than a live instructor! Good lord, we teachers provide some mild amusement. But the students are fooling with the internet or at least daydreaming, so it may only be the illusion of relatively less dullness.
Some felt as though they had learned less, even if they scored just as well on tests. 
We make you feel you've learned, even when we haven't. It's the empathy, I bet. Robots don't care. But I'm sure they could pretty easily tweak the robotics to give comparable cues to the student and stimulate the same feeling of having learned.
Engaging students, such as professors might by sprinkling their lectures with personal anecdotes and entertaining asides, remains one area where humans have the upper hand.
Oh, come on, you could program the robots with much better jokes-n-anecdotes than the professors. I mean, the one thing we professors have is that we might say anything — the spontaneity. If that's a human being up there, then she might be saying what she's saying now not because she's programmed, but because she just thought that. She responded to something that a student said. But I think you could program a computer to have lots of material and to put things together spontaneously. What's different is that the student knows it's just built into the program, but the human-being teacher actually had a human experience with the student.

How precious is that?

Why are you better than a robot?


Eric the Fruit Bat said...

Nobody wants to please a robot.

ndspinelli said...

Mitchell, That's interesting. We have personalities and emotions, that's what makes us better. You know one robot, you know them all.

William said...

The challenge of modern living is to make enough money to retire before you're obsolete.

traditionalguy said...

Meet my new friend, HAL-9000.

He has had a hard time with trusting humans. But don't we all?

He just needs someone to take him on a long weekend and defrag his hard drive.

But he hates people who say that he has registry errors...that's just him.

MadisonMan said...
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MadisonMan said...

I've just finished teaching a class -- all online -- that was simultaneously taught by someone else in a hybrid format (with one meeting per week for discussion) and my opinion is that the hybrid class led to better 'learner outcomes', if I may be permitted to lapse into edu-speak *(shudder)*. This study on robots shows that those with less facetime do better.

But I suspect if they broadened this study to online classes, vs. face-to-face/hybrid, that those with less facetime do not do well. In my experience, a significant number of students really need the scheduling of a meeting to keep them on task.

Donna B. said...

An advantage in having a human instructor is knowledge passed on unintentionally that won't be on the test.

An advantage of using a machine is that it doesn't forget to mention everything that is on the test.

ErnieG said...

It's been about 40 years and I still remember Professor Deuel, at USF, cautioning us about misusing averages:

"The average American has one breast and one testicle."

And insufficient sample size:

"Indians always walk single file. I saw one once and he was."

edutcher said...

The Blonde had to take a statistics course to finish her BSN, but had no calc background (only algebra*) and had a tough time making the requisite C+.

It took several tries, mostly with more or less robotic instructors who found stats not only easy but fun (The Blonde on statistics, "It's not normal thinking").

Only on try #4 did she make the grade with the help of (are you ready?) a truly wise Latina who understood, "I just don't get this". She ended up with a B-.

* She was passed out of Algebra by a teacher who wanted to be rid of her because he only was interested in teaching students who had no problems with math.

Given half a chance she's quite good at math, but she was always told, "Girls don't have top worry about that".

yoobee said...

I imagine a computer instructor could work pretty well on a basic course, but not in higher-level courses. In advanced courses learning mostly occurs through interaction, such as being challenged by a teacher or confronted with a new problem and applying familiar principles. I suspect that the computer-driven learning is mostly memory-based, while human instructors are more capable of presenting reasoning-based lessons that drive critical thinking.

Hagar said...

Not to mention challenging the professor to substantiate his/her ptopositions.

How do you challenge a computer to prove its case?

Jeff Crump said...

As a software developer I used to be concerned that automated code generation might replace me. I later came to realize that although automation could create solid software, it is the creativity of the non-obvious solution that makes my software better.

The best analogy that I've heard relates to chess; while a poor chess player and a great chess player both know the moves, the great chess player picks better ones.

Bruce Hayden said...

An advantage of using a machine is that it doesn't forget to mention everything that is on the test.

Another advantage of using a machine, at least in part, is that the best human teachers can be harnessed.

Not quite the same, but John Stossel had a segment on his program on education (that I have seen at least twice on FNC) on a guy who has some math videos out, and he manages to do what most teachers cannot - make math interesting and understandable. So, interesting that kids go home and watch hours of it after school, and progress far faster than without or with normal teachers.

The thing is that throughout most of society, we have moved from the small community model to the national or international model in most things. Instead of supporting the best singer in the community a little bit, we can probably spend less, per capita, and support the best singers nationally much, much better, because we support far fewer of them.

But, in education, we are still using the 19th Century model, where the best local teacher (or maybe even just a somewhat competent teacher) tries to educate kids, in a way that hasn't changed much in the last century or so. Instead of having the best teachers nationally doing so, and then paying them accordingly.

Alexander said...

Well, here are two thoughts. The teaching relationship is an important part of human civilization; but you can't have a relationship with a computer. (Can you have a relationship with a robot? Ask me that when we have self-aware robots.) That's the first thought. The second is that computers, as currently existing, can't be "deeply" interactive. They can interact, but you can't challenge a computer to change it's mind, or to sharpen its distinctions, or to provide a more fundamental picture to explain itself --- this is perhaps not much of a problem in statistics, but I suppose that even if we step into mathematics we see an increased shallowness here, one that has probably small advantage to mediocre students, but increasingly relevance to excellent ones, and which also has increasing relevance as we move beyond disciplines focused upon facts to those focused upon understanding.

Original Mike said...

"Oh, come on, you could program the robots with much better jokes-n-anecdotes than the professors."

Would a joke told by a robot be funny?

traditionalguy said...
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rhhardin said...

I cut all my math classes.

It's all in the book.

carrie said...

I think the key issue is that the class was statistics. It's been over 30 years since I took statistics, but statistics (at least introductory statistics) is pretty cut and dried and there isn't much real life experience or insight that a live teacher can add to that class. It definitely was for me a get it over with as quickly and painlessly as possible class.

Peter said...

Perhaps the point isn't replacing live instructors with machiens, but using machines to improve teaching productivity?

OK, so that means replacing some live instructors. But it doesn't mean zero live instructors (or zero live instruction).

Crunchy Frog said...

Why are you better than a robot?

Because I can decypher the letters in the captcha box.

Humans rule!

Ann Althouse said...

"I cut all my math classes. It's all in the book."

Almost everything I teach, I got from reading and thinking about what I read. So if you go to my class and get something out of it, I'm just passing that along. There's some additional processing of the reading that occurs in real time, which is what I find especially interesting about teaching and what I would find interesting about listening to someone else teach my subject. Unlike math, law is open to different ways of thinking about it, so you learn from hearing someone else talk about how they see it. This is especially valuable to law students who are less experienced processing the text and want to build up their skills. Also, they can speak (and thus think) in real time with the teacher, building skill. Law students are also concerned about the teacher's way of talking about the text because the teacher will personally read and grade all the exams.

Charles said...

My Stat prof was an Indian (with a dot) and couldn't speak English that was comprehensible.

I would have gladly taken a class from the computer.

Roger Sweeny said...

A computer may well be as good as a researcher who pretends to be a teacher. Especially if the "teacher's" primary language isn't English. For some, the primary language is math.

Michael said...

Imagine for a moment if you could assign homework to your students, and require them to take a computerized multiple-choice test the night before each class, on their own computers. The point of the test would not be to teach difficult concepts (that's your job, Althouse!) but to force them to do the reading. So it would test on names, facts, and procedure from the cases. If they didn't read, they would get answers wrong, which would be reported to you, and they would be required to re-take the test until they got the answers right.

Every day when you started a lecture, you would have a classroom full of students who read, or who at least got an outline view of the case. You might be surprised how few students actually read. You might be surprised how much better class is.

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