Teacherbots: Tomorrow's Solution Today?

This piece is cross-posted from Students Last; an excellent new satirical blog.  Check it out!


Alaska - "How can we use technology so that we require fewer human teachers?" This was the question posed by Miles Katzman, founder and CEO of Teacherbots Inc,. as he stood before a roomful of attentive school district representatives from around the country. With budgets being cut, lots of districts are looking for ways to reduce personnel costs while still maintaining high educational standards. Katzman believes he has the solution: Teacherbots or TBs.

Teacherbots are being used at Sara
Palin Elementary School in Alaska
"TBs are tomorrow's solution today," quips Katzman.  What exactly are Teacherbots?  "They're state of the art approximations of human educators.  A happy marriage between manequins and intelligent robotic technology."

At Sara Palin Elementary School in Alaska, where robotic teachers have taught for more than two months, the experiment has been deemed a success. "We like them because they follow lesson plans exactly, don't take sick days and so far haven't tried to unionize," declares principal Tripp Glarick. The school still employs human teachers, known as "HBs" which is short for human beings. "Contractually we have to keep the HBs around for a few more years," explains principal Glarick.  "Otherwise they'd be gone already."

Some HB teachers seem to approve of their robotic colleagues. Michelle Luddite, a fourth grade teacher, explains, "When the number of students in my room hit 54, I was glad to get the bot. She processes student data, analyzes which computer programs will best address student weaknesses and programs assignments proven to improve test scores. My role is different. I attend IEP meetings, call parents and try to keep the 'needy kids' on task." What exactly is a 'needy kid'? Ms. Ludite explains, "Needy kids are those students who want to talk. They learn best by bouncing ideas off other people. You know, the ones who want to interact." Asked if she misses her role as a traditional classroom teacher Mrs. Luddite pauses to reflect. "I guess what I miss most is sharing the joy of the learning experience, exploring each individual child's gifts..." She trails off as Mr. Glarick approaches. "Well now don't go getting me all sentimental. You have to change with the times or else."

This brave new educational world has drawn significant interest from investors.  Venture capital firms have bet more than $9 million on Teacherbots Inc. whose corporate motto is, "Education should run like a well-oiled machine." CEO Katzman credits the adoption of common standards and shared assessments for making his brainchild financially viable. He explains, "Standardizing the standards has led to a standardized education and that translates to money for us. Now that there's a common definition of what 'good' looks like, education entrepreneurs can enjoy national markets where the best products can be taken to scale."

Whether or not robotic teachers are "the best products" for our nation's children has yet to be determined. Critics say Teacherbots lack flexibility and are impersonal. Leonie Haimson, one of the founders of Parents Across America has been vocal in her disapproval of TBs.  "They're just plain creepy."

"So was my seventh grade gym teacher," counters Glarick with a chuckle.  Becoming more serious, he continues, "Are there some kinks? Sure, but you know with every new gadget you have to work out the bugs. With time, I'm sure the bots will become more human-like but with none of the outrageous demands of humans like needing bathroom breaks or wanting a duty-free lunch."

Some of the most vocal critics of TBs have been students. Fifth grader Johanna Stephens, who has organized several protests against the bots, refused to go to school after spending just one day with her classroom TB. "I hated her. She didn't look at me, just kind of at my forehead. She never asked me for my opinion or about my feelings. All she knew was my data," claims Johanna.

Principal Glarick tries to explain away Johanna's response, "Some students find it difficult at first but then they adjust. Students are used to having teachers that respect their opinions but if I can paraphrase David Coleman (one of the architects of the Common Core standards), our TBs really don't give a crap about what students feel or think. The bots are programmed to only accept correct answers and cited evidence. The kids will catch on eventually."

And maybe so will the bots.

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