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Grabill Keynote on Robots and Learning Technologies

Jeff Grabill delivered a keynote address to Zeeland Education and Teacher’s Academy on August 13, 2015. In his talk, Jeff described the role of automation in writing instruction, focused particularly on how technologies that don’t enhance instruction threaten to instead replace teachers altogether.

The entire keynote address is included below, but highlights include:

  • 00:40, networked computing is the “greatest collaborative writing project in human history”
  • 01:47, “We write more today at this moment in the rich world more than any generation of humans ever.”
  • 02:34, “I’m gonna talk a little bit about educational technologies and the contrast between what I might think about as educational technologies and learning technologies”
  • 08:28, “For the last ten years of years of my life, I have spent plenty of time, plenty of time, at edtech investor meetings. Trust me, if you don’t know this already, they are looking to replace you.”
  • 09:58, “A learning technology demands that you invest: your heart, your mind, your time, your energy, and your expertise.”
  • 14:05, “With Eli, what we’ve tried to do is create a learning technology that is fundamentally a pedagogy. Eli is pedagogy.”

Here is the full video, with the transcript below.

0:13 I’m a writing teacher and a researcher focused on digital communication. I just happen to be a writing teacher interested in writing and the digital at the greatest moment in human history to be interested in both writing and the digital because what we’ve seen over the last twenty to twenty-five years with regard to writing in particular are truly Gutenberg-like revolutionary changes.
0:40 Those changes are driven in most people’s minds by computing, but the really dramatic and revolutionary transformation in our lives is the network. It’s the combination of computing and networking that allow us to write in radically new ways. We can easily combine sound and video and still image along with alphabetic text. But more importantly, and this is the power of the network, we can instantaneously connect with other human beings. So, we can publish books without a publisher because we can become a publisher. We can connect via those networks to human beings all over the world. It’s possible to talk about a networking technology like Twitter as causing if not facilitating things like revolutions. It’s possible to be truly revolutionary given these remarkable technologies. It is possible to imagine something like Facebook not as a playground for ridiculous things or as a business platform–it’s all of those things–but as maybe the greatest collaborative writing project in human history. This is a function of dramatic, amazing changes in computing and networking.
1:47 Those of us sitting in this room, those of us in the rich world can easily claim to be the most literate generation of humans in human history. We write more today at this moment in the rich world more than any generation of humans ever.
2:07 Often times–I didn’t bring my handheld computer up–those little devices you have in your pockets of things you quaintly call phones–or I call phones and my kids laugh at me–that is a handheld writing technology. It has been primarily hand-held writing technology for a long time, and it will continue to be a hand-held writing technology because the Internet is mostly writing, and that thing you have in your pocket is your new pencil.
2:34 What a remarkable time to be a writing teacher and what a remarkable time to be interested in the digital. Now given an opening like that I could go in one of two directions with the rest of my remarks: I could talk about the fact that, despite these amazing changes in how we write and think about writing and how writing is used in the world, we don’t frankly teach writing in schools in such a way that might prepare our students to do the work that they need to do in the world. There is a huge contrast between how writing means in the world and how we teach writing in schools, and I mean that as much as in my school as I do in your school. That would be true, and I could talk about that, but I’m not going to. Instead I’m gonna talk a little bit about educational technologies and the contrast between what I might think about as educational technologies and learning technologies, which allows me to talk about robots.
3:21 Robots are awesome, and robots are cool, except when they aren’t. The first question I want to pose to you today–I want you to think about this question all day long–is this: can you be replaced by a robot?
3:36 I think writing matters, so I’m going to contextualize my remarks today in the domain of writing instruction. Part of my insidiousness is to convince you that writing is like the coolest thing in the world to teach and even if you’re in biology you really ought to be helping your ELA people teach writing; you ought to be concerned with it. The National Commission on Writing in American schools can say something quite recently like: “writing today is not a frill for the few, but an essential skill for the many.”  It’s something that’s fundamental and required for everyone. This is true, but it hasn’t always been true. So writing is something that has to be learned, something that is practiced has historically been something for the few and is now for the many. So the National Commission is saying writing really, really, really matters, except when it doesn’t.
4:23 So that same national commission report can say that writing is the “neglected R” in education. And, they would also be true in saying that because, if we look at the pattern in the way of writing is taught in schools, we can just as easily say that it’s often not taught. And often it is not taught in the way that we needed to be taught. We have this tension between writing as a new fundamental and writing as stunningly absent from the way in which we teach students today. This is just a true of Michigan State University as it is maybe of your schools. At Michigan State University, we provide our students with an entire 15 weeks of writing instruction: 15 whole weeks. Not enough. Not acceptable. My responsibility, right?
5:07 This is the tension that I want to deal with in my talk today. That’s the tension between change and not change. On the one hand, we have dramatic remarkable changes in computing and networking that are driving dramatic changes in how writing is practiced and potentially and in how writing taught. But, if we look at the way in which we teach writing in schools, we see things that are pretty much as they always have been, which brings me to this amazing photograph.
5:37 Now this photograph is amazing for lots of reasons. My particular are these two boys in the front who are not having anything that’s going on that day; you have those boys in your classroom; you know it; you’ve seen that look at look; that look has been with us forever; it’s a look of permanence. But the thing that I want to call your attention to may be obvious. This is a very old picture, but it’s not. I look at Michigan State University in relationship to this classroom we have an awful lot of classrooms that look just like this. Especially physically, they are arranged in this way. The students’ bodies are arranged in that way. The new faces are arrayed in that way. They are prepared to be talked to. The mode of instruction is just like what I’m doing now: talking at you, as you sit there, more or less paying attention to me right now. Teaching matters, which brings me to robots–believe it or not–it brings me to robots.
6:42 “What do I mean by a robot?” This is a very important question, I think. Do I mean a robot that looks like this? This robot is fun and friendly. Cute. We want this robot. This robot is almost cuddly. That is not what I mean by robots. When you think of a robot, this is the image I want you to have in your head of robots. Nobody’s afraid of the first robot. I want you to be concerned about this robot. Here’s your visual cue when I talk about robots. We are in the world of dystopia, not utopia.
7:18 This table is my robot table. I want to understand this table in a couple of ways. As advertised, it is “technologies for” against “technologies with.” That’s not a bad way to think about it. Another way to think about this table is the contrast between what I understand to be educational technologies and learning technologies. Or, we can think about this as a contrast between robots and humans or robots and learning technologies. So, on the left side, we have the “for” column; this is the robot column. This is the place I do not want you to be, and this is the place I do not want my university to be. So, we can contrast technologies that we use for teaching–that automate our work, that automate your work, that turn your work into a routine–vs learning technologies that informate your work, that add value to your life as teachers but also that require you to add value to the experience. They require you to be the professionals that you are. We can contrast technologies designed to replace the teacher vs technologies designed to enhance teacher work.
8:28 For the last ten years of years of my life, I have spent plenty of time, plenty of time, at edtech investor meetings. Trust me, if you don’t know this already, they are looking to replace you. You guys are messy. You get in the way. Robots are clean. Technologies that focus on testing as distinct from teaching. Technologies that focus on summative data and summative evaluation–the outcomes, the end points, the grades–vs technologies that are gonna provide you with the formative data, the assessment data that you need at that formative moment to make learning interventions with your students. Technologies that deprofessionalize teacher work versus technologies that professionalize your work, that require you–and this goes to the last column–to invest your time and energy.
9:19 One of the things that’s true about technologies in education is educators love free. Educators are one of the last groups of human beings on the planet who still believe in something called “free.” There is no such thing as “free,” ladies and gentlemen. If you have a vendor or a technology coming to you and saying, “This is free. This costs you nothing.” And it’s not clear how you and your students are paying the bill, you may be in the presence of a robot, and you should be very afraid.
9:58 A learning technology demands that you invest: your heart, your mind, your time, your energy, and your expertise.
10:03 Now, I wear two hats at Michigan State University. My Spartanhat is that I’m a teacher and a department chair. Next year, I have a new job in which I have responsibility for learning and technology innovations for the entire campus. I’m going to run a little innovation hub; we’re going to try and help Michigan State University continuously reinvent its learning mission. It’s a big job–50,000 students. That’s one job that I have. You should feel sorry for me. The second job that I’ve had for six to eight years is as the founder of an educational technology company–no, a learning technology company. We invented Eli, which is a technology that supports peer learning in our own writingclassrooms. We spun it out of the research group that I help found at Michigan State about thirteen years ago, and for the last six years I’ve been helping that technology grow and develop and try to impact learning K-12 through higher education. It doesn’t matter in this case which hat that I wear: the fundamental focus of my work is not on technologies. I get known as a tech guy. [My focus] is on teaching. Teaching is what matters and always matters absolutely.
11:27 This is why if we pay attention to our educational historians, in particular educational technologies historians, they will wonder out loud why is it the case that, given the dramatic changes in society in the last half of the 20th and 21st century, our classrooms look remarkably like the classrooms that we inhabited as students. They look remarkably like the classrooms our parents inhabited as students. At a distance, they look remarkably like the classrooms that I showed you in that picture. This isn’t to say that there has been no change, there has been no innovation. In some sense, I am preaching to the choir. But, it is to say that education looks remarkably like it’s always looked. This is even more acute a problem if we take a look at the digital technologies that we have available to us. That is, in the last 20 years in particular, we are experiencing something that in human history is truly remarkable as a function of computers and networks, so why have these technologies not dramatically altered how we learn and how we teach? They have not. The reason is, as the educational historians will tell you, we haven’t changed how we teach.
12:44 One of the things that was supposed to disrupt higher education over the last few years was the MOOC, the massively online open course. This is supposed to destroy universities. Universities were supposed to go out of business. It was supposed to be possible to teach 50,000 students in a really interactive way. It was supposed to be awesome and amazing. It has had no impact whatsoever on higher education. Higher education has absorbed that blow. Why? They were using the most cutting-edge and the most amazing technologies in the world. It was Stanford. It was Harvard. It was MIT. It was the best and the brightest. No impact whatsoever. Why? They never changed how they taught. There was no change in teaching.
13:26 So, one of the things that I want to pose to you to follow up on my robot question–this is the question that I pose to the teachers I mentor every year–I say to them: Can you be replaced by a robot? If you can be replaced by a robot, you should be replaced by a robot. You deserve it. Tough love. They don’t like it when I say it. But, the question that I want to pose to you as you enter your year and as you think about how you’re engaging with your students and as you think about how you’re making technology changes in your lives and in your teaching work, I want you to think very carefully about robots because we can do better.
14:05 With Eli, what we’ve tried to do is create a learning technology that is fundamentally a pedagogy. Eli is pedagogy. What we do is we take students, and we get them to write, to put their ideas down on paper. We engage them in high quality peer feedback moments. We teach them how to provide feedback to each other. Students, by the way, can learn as much from providing feedback as receiving it. You gotta teach it. You gotta model it. Then, we teach them to process that feedback, plan revisions–change moments, changes in thinking, changes in performance–and execute those changes. There is nothing revolutionary about that. What’s revolutionary is that we’ve taken really sound interactive, engaged pedagogy and really sound learning theory and we’ve turned it into a technology scaffold. We’ve made it easier and faster to do that. We’re trying to teach differently.
15:02 So think about that as you enter this new year. Get excited about this new year. Start to make decisions about how you’re going to use these technologies in your life if you want to make a difference. If you want to avoid robots, teach differently. Find those technologies that are going to allow you to be the professionals that you are. Thanks for your time.

Grabill Keynote on Robots and Learning Technologies was published to the Eli Review Blog in the categories Pedagogy, Presentations, Professional Development.

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