Watson, Please Replace Me!

Seeking help to transform teaching and learning.


November 19, 2016

I’m tired. Much of my job is repetitive. I’ve used the same readings, the same examples, the same jokes, for years in my introductory class. Maybe, just maybe, it might not be so bad to be replaced by a computer.

Yes, dear reader, I jest. But not fully. I want to make a point. A point that it is time to figure out how to take those “high impact” pedagogical practices we keep talking about – service-learning, project-based learning, capstone experiences – and move them from the margins of higher education to the center. A point that we may be spinning our wheels by incrementally enhancing our current typical practices rather than searching for “moon shots” where digital learning technologies allow us to transform our focus on deep learning.

The context is this: IBM is introducing Watson and its underlying machine learning technology to higher education. And they’re being very careful about the language they use. “This is about augmenting human intelligence,” Chalapathy Neti, the vice president of educational innovation at IBM Watson told Inside Higher Ed, “We never want to see these data-based systems as primary decision makers, but we want to provide them as decision assistance for a human decision maker that is an expert in conducting that process.”

They have learned the lesson that it is of no help to create unnecessary “us versus them” storylines that make faculty defensive. A few years ago faculty started a rallying cry of sorts, arguing that if we could be replaced by a computer, well then, we should be. The idea was to highlight the fact that no computer could ever mimic the personalized and high-quality nature of student-faculty engagement. And thankfully we have begun to realize that digital learning technologies can supplement and complement our day-to-day practices, serving ideally as a catalyst for deep learning rather than a repetition of the transfer of information. The interplay of human capacity for judgement of complex and chaotic situations with the computational power of learning and data analytics offers real opportunities for a new vision and practice in higher education. 

But what if we try a different approach. To hell with augmenting my intelligence! Who cares about my expertise! Could Watson really do my day-to-day job? Maybe, just maybe. So for the sake of argument, and with a smidgeon of simplification, here is what one of my typical hour-long introductory classes might look like.

The first few minutes is spent on small-talk and organizational logistics. Did everyone find the reading? Hand in the assignment? Understand next week’s quiz? Continue to make progress on their final projects? I then spend a little time reviewing some key facts and issues from our previous class to insure that students still remember the key issues. I then transition into a “mini-lecture” about the day’s reading. This is usually a semi-prepared talk, perhaps with a handout and/or PowerPoint slides. I intersperse anecdotes, make connections to previous readings or current events, and circle back to the main theme in the unit we are studying. I then allow some time for questions and some general discussions. Finally, I create opportunities for peer discussions – one-on-one or small group – on the topic we read and that I highlighted in my mini-lecture. These discussions conclude with either formal group report-outs or individual thoughts. Sometimes I surprise my students with a “one-minute quiz” about the material; sometimes I just do a “dipstick” of what they feel they best and least understood. And, then, bam, they’re out the door and I head back to my office.

It seems to me that much of these tasks could be unbundled and repackaged into a coherent and cohesive student experience. While I will leave it to more tech-savvy readers to provide the nitty-gritty details, my sense is that lots and lots of already-existing products, materials, and resources would allow someone to mimic, replicate, and automate most of the typical components of an introductory class such as mine.

But my point is not that I want to be replaced. So, um, just ignore the title.

Rather, I want to be anything but typical. I want to (and do) engage my students through in-class and out-of-class experiential activities, role plays and simulations, service-learning projects, mentorship opportunities and shadow-a-teacher experiences. I bring in guest speakers and structure semester-long partnerships with local schools. I make them revisit their elementary classrooms and create a vision for a “perfect” school (and ask them, of course, to define what they think is “perfect”). Ultimately, I help them to realize that they have all been shaped by an “apprenticeship of observation”that normalizes and routinizes a passivity of teaching and learning that privileges shallow learning and undermines our attempts to create exactly the kind of engaged and thoughtful students we all claim to want to educate.

The problem is that all of these atypical pedagogical practices take oodles and oodles of time to develop and implement. There’s no guarantee that they will succeed. And they most certainly won’t help my case if I want to go up for promotion.

So this is where, it seems to me, things stand. Watson (and the massive R&D team behind it) could probably replicate a decent and “good enough” version of my class. And they most certainly could “augment” it at a very high level.

But in the end, this is a more-of-the-same kind of approach. It does nothing to help transform my teaching and my students’ learning. It avoids and ignores the frustrating reality that most faculty have neither the expertise, experience, nor incentive to rethink and revise their daily teaching in substantial ways. It misses entirely the point that higher education is about far more than just the transfer of information.

So, Watson, if the transformation of teaching and learning is the answer, what’s the question?

Dan Butin, PhD, is a Full Professor and Founding Dean of the School of Education & Social Policy at Merrimack College and the Executive Director of the Center for Engaged Democracy.


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