By Jim Shimabukuro
Bonnie Bracey Sutton‘s coverage of the 2011 Supercomputing Conference (More on SC11 – “Broadening Engagement” and Conferences Are About People – “Broadening Engagement”) brings one of the most critical developments in technology to the rest of the world. With supercomputing, we may begin to see change as a line that curves upward, beginning slowly but gradually accelerating at an exponential rate. As the curve grows increasingly steep, we approach the singularity.
Frank Withrow has mentioned Ray Kurzweil in a number of articles in regard to the latter’s work as an inventor. I’ve been intrigued by Kurzweil’s ideas about the singularity, a point in time when computers become not only faster but smarter than humans. At this stage, human history is transcended by AI systems that are capable of improving themselves at exponential rates. (See Kurzweil’s The Law of Accelerating Returns*; it was published over a decade ago, but it clarifies some of his basic ideas.)
Supercomputing is a step toward not only faster and bigger but to “wider” as well for increased accessibility. The speed, size, and breadth will make it possible for computers to become increasingly intelligent and, eventually, reach a point where they can begin to recursively learn and reproduce on their own.
The notion of intelligent computers creating even more intelligent offspring, exponentially and ad infinitum, is the stuff of sci-fi for most people, but the possibility is more than fantasy. The coming years — Kurzweil suggests by mid-21st century — will no doubt bring us closer to the singularity, but I don’t think the outcome or process will pit computers against humans. We’ll still be in control, using computers that may be thousands if not millions of times smarter than we are. Despite their power, they’ll continue to be under our control as extensions of ourselves, tools that allow us to transcend the limits of our biological intelligence.
This projection of humans augmented by computer systems with unimaginable intelligence has tremendous implications for college and perhaps even secondary school educators. One of the most critical is the teacher’s evolving role. One way to gain a perspective of this change is to unbundle the role into essential components. For example, these are some of the general functions assigned to teachers:
- Course designer (content and pedagogy)
- Technology designer (learning environment)
- Evaluator (learning monitor)
- Research facilitator
- Skills facilitator (basic learning skills)
- Course facilitator (learning process)
- Advisor (guidance toward course completion)
Given today’s technology, all of these are the teacher’s responsibility. However, we’re seeing a gradual unbundling and reassignment of some of these functions. For example, the technology in a course is often designed and developed by instructional technology (IT) specialists; research, technology, and study skills are usually managed by support services such as the library, IT help desks, and tutoring labs. Thus, the teacher’s task is converging on course design, learning evaluation, advising, and course facilitation.
With the nearly limitless data mining, analytics, and interaction potential of powerful and intelligent computers, most or all of the functions outsourced to IT and support services can be and are being automated. In time, most if not all of the teachers’ remaining functions could also be handed over to smart computers:
- They design and develop courses based on parameters dictated by humans and on best content and approaches used in similar courses.
- They select and set up the best technology that’s available to accomplish course objectives.
- They monitor each student’s progress in learning.
- They provide training and assistance in conducting and using research.
- They provide training and assistance in course-specific learning skills.
- They guide students, individually and in groups, through the learning activities that make up the course.
- They continually advise students, individually, on what they need to do to stay on track to successfully complete the course.
In all functions, the computers monitor, gather, and analyze input and performance output data, 24-7, to recursively and formatively revise and change the environment or to individually advise students to improve learning. Humans will be there, too, to respond to needs that aren’t met by computers. However, even these functions could be eliminated as computers continually learn and adjust, adding to their repertoire of features and services.
In all of this, the one constant human element is the student. In this scenario, instruction is genuinely student centered. The student’s performance is constantly measured against formative and evaluative course objectives, and interventions are suggested as needed.
Student discussions in synchronous and asynchronous forums will, at first, continue to be guided by humans. However, as computers learn to assess and discriminate among posts and encourage meaningful comments, discussions, too, will gradually shift over to them.
Human teachers, even in this computer-mediated scenario, will not be eliminated. However, their roles will change. Freed from repetitive, lower-order tasks, they’ll be able to focus their attention on higher-order challenges that computers may not be able to manage. For example, they’ll respond to discussion posts that fall outside the range of the computer’s knowledge. In advising, they’ll intervene when student needs exceed the computer’s database of information. However, in each case, the new information is added to the base, expanding the computer’s knowledge and ability to respond effectively.
Perhaps the one area that human input will continue to be needed is in the creation of multimedia learning modules. The modules would be used by computers as resources for learning environments. In any case, most of the roles of human educators won’t be defined until the singularity arrives. Thus, we’re left to prepare as far as our imaginations will take us.
Students will interact with intelligent computers in nearly all phases of a course, and the computers will serve as their private guides and tutors. However, access to human staff will always be available when computers come up empty, but this need will gradually diminish as computers build their knowledge bases.
The real winners in this future scenario are the students. They’ll have 24-7 access to all phases of their courses and instant feedback and advice on all performances. They’ll be guided, individually, through each course and provided on the spot intervention services when they run into problems. Computers will be able to provide them with an unprecedented degree of individualization, feedback, and quality instruction instantly, 24-7.
* Click here for the Webcite version.
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