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Can Technology Make Learning More Human?

Joi Ito, Director of the MIT Media Lab, makes an important point in the debate about machines taking over “thinking” work for humans. However uneasy it makes us feel to imagine artificial intelligence systems taking over someday, in the near term having technology that works with us to do knowledge work may just make us more human. Here’s Ito:

The paradox is that at the same time we’ve developed machines that behave more and more like humans, we’ve developed educational systems that push children to think like computers and behave like robots. It turns out that for our society to scale and grow at the speed we now require, we need reliable, obedient, hardworking, physical and computational units. So we spend years converting sloppy, emotional, random, disobedient human beings into meat-based versions of robots. Luckily, mechanical and digital robots and computers will soon help reduce if not eliminate the need for people taught to behave like them.

Learning in writing is one of those areas that raises the problem Ito writes about. Today in school, we tend to teach students to write for the machines who evaluate their work, or else for an army of human raters calibrated to read like machines do. Professor Les Perelman at MIT has shown in a number of studies how this approach serves students poorly.

The problem, for both Ito and Perelman doesn’t resolve to “all intelligent technologies are bad.” Rather, it is a matter of understanding that intelligent technologies should augment human intelligence rather than replacing it.

Of course, this idea applies to educational technology and teachers too. Designed well, technology in the classroom should help teachers by freeing them up to do what teachers do best: inspire, motivate, communicate, and yes, learn alongside their students to best address their learning needs. Here’s Ito’s vision:

Ideally, our educational system will evolve to more fully embrace our uniquely human strengths, rather than trying to shape us into second-rate machines. Human beings—though not necessarily our current form of consciousness and the linear philosophy around it—are quite good at transforming messiness and complexity into art, culture, and meaning. If we focus on what each of us is best at, I think that humans and machines will develop a wonderful yin-yang sort of relationship…

A yin-yang relationship is our goal too, with Eli Review. We provide a resource for teachers that does what computers can do well so that teachers can spend their time doing more of what they do well. Eli doesn’t give students grades, it provides teachers and learners with the formative feedback proven to be the most powerful resource for learning in writing.

As Perelman and others remind us, too many changes in educational policy and technology make it harder for teachers to connect in meaningful ways with their students; they make teachers more like robots. Eli is not part of that trend. It is a response to it. We aim to make teaching and learning more human, not less.


What Do You Think About Machines That Think? – Joichi Ito Director, MIT Media Lab

Can Technology Make Learning More Human? was published to the Eli Review Blog in the category Around the Web.

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