By Lynn Zimmerman
Editor, Teacher Education
Science fiction has often used human interaction with the all-knowing computer as a plot device. Generally, computers have been portrayed in the genre as either evil masters of the world or the benevolent caretakers of the human race. These stories immediately came to mind when I read the NY Times story that Academic Earth linked to on its Facebook page. It examines the notion of the thinking computer that completely takes the place of the human teacher.
The article, “Online Courses, Still Lacking That Third Dimension,”* written by Randall Stross, was published on February 5, 2011. He states, “WHEN colleges and universities finally decide to make full use of the Internet, most professors will lose their jobs… A genuine online course would be nothing but the software and would handle all the grading, too. No living, breathing instructor would be needed for oversight.” He then goes on to explain how at this point in time this type of totally computer-run course is not generally feasible in most programs. He also goes on to explain how certain types of courses may lend themselves to such a model, while others do not.
Stross first discusses the financial difficulties of designing and then implementing such programs. Then he wrote that even programs and courses, such as those developed by Carnegie Mellon at great expense, are not totally computer-led. He says that they do not dare “to use them without having a human instructor, too.” The director of Carnegie Mellon’s program asserts that student persistence in a course often requires human interaction between instructor and students and between students and students.
I think this article raises several interesting questions about course design, in general, and student-teacher expectations. In my earlier article, Critical Importance of Social Interaction in Online Courses, I addressed some of the issues related to group dynamics and learning. If we want to design courses that do not have human teachers, does a relationship still need to develop between the students and their computer-teacher? What form should/will this relationship take? As we move toward increased technology use, will students automatically begin to expect less interaction? What form will the interaction take? How will students develop the necessary self-motivation and self-direction skills that Tom Preskett wrote about in The Issue of Self-Motivation in F2F and Online Learning?
I agree with Stross; I don’t think my job is in immediate jeopardy. However, we cannot ignore these trends. I for one would like to see students have a choice among a variety of delivery methods. I would also like to know that each choice, whether face-to-face, hybrid, online taught by a computer-teacher or a human teacher, is equally pedagogically sound and an equally rich learning experience for the students.
* WebCite alternative.
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