Teaching in the Era of Bots: Students Need Humans Now More Than Ever

column | Digital Learning

Teaching in the Era of Bots: Students Need Humans Now More Than Ever

By Michelle Pacansky-Brock (Columnist)     Apr 25, 2018

Teaching in the Era of Bots: Students Need Humans Now More Than Ever

In recent years, technology has played a significant role in reshaping the landscape of college teaching, and it will surely continue to do so. But the groundswell of artificial intelligence (AI) that surrounds us marks a particularly fragile moment for teaching. In this context, educators must be especially mindful that our uses of technology do not undermine meaningful learning. And doing this requires knowledge about technology and teaching.

That’s because for many students, college is a pathway to prepare for the workforce or improve one’s existing skills to advance a career. But regardless of the reason for attending college, relationships are what make college meaningful to a student, not chatbots.

Findings from the Gallup-Purdue Index, compiled from interviews with 70,000 college graduates, underline this importance of human relationships to students. The Index found six collegiate experiences that are most likely to lead to long-term wellbeing after graduation. Relationships underpin all of the “Big Six” experiences, which include “a professor who made me excited about learning” and “professors who cared about me as a person.”

Meanwhile, research is also being conducted today to understand how chatbots can be used as teaching assistants. In one study, students were not told which of their teaching assistants were humans and which were robots—and findings suggested students struggled to differentiate the two. (I hope I’m not the only one who feels the hair on the back of my neck stand up when I imagine students struggling to tell the difference between a teacher and a chatbot.)

AI will have its place in teaching and learning, but transparency will be one of the key attributes of its effective application. For example, some students could benefit from a personal assistant who reminds them of upcoming due dates, asks if they need help using a particular tool or feature in an online class, and provides study tips. But students need to know, from the beginning, that this personal assistant is a robot and that their instructor is a human. When we start masquerading machines as humans, we undermine trust, which is the foundation of student-instructor relationships.

We must ensure that teaching remains a human endeavor, especially as technology and AI play a more central role in student learning in higher education. Many educators, however, use the importance of personal interactions as an argument to disqualify the role of technology in teaching. This is a major barrier that prevents faculty from accepting the legitimacy and potential benefits of online learning.

Often, professors assume that students need to be physically in front of them for meaningful interactions to occur. However, other faculty have found that online classes open more opportunities to build relationships with students, as communications are not confined to a time and place.

For example, Denise Maduli-Williams, a faculty member at San Diego Miramar College, sends mobile, motivational video messages to her students via Twitter and Instagram. Tracy Schaelen, of Southwestern College, uses micro-videos to greet students and help them navigate an online course. Laura Gibbs, of University of Oklahoma, engages with her students through creative writing assignments, actively blogging along with her students in the public web. Faculty record voice and video feedback for students and share it securely through an LMS gradebook. Easy-to-use, video communication tools, like Zoom, Flipgrid, and VoiceThread enable one-on-one and small group conversations, regardless of geographic location.

When students learn online, technology is the medium used to create content, assess learning, and foster interpersonal communications. So when leaders convene to imagine the future of learning and all the opportunities that online classes bring to the table, the stakes are high. We must ensure technology is used to extend the student-teacher connection, rather than ellipse it.

Keeping humans at the center of teaching will be increasingly important not only as AI expands, but also as our campuses reach to serve more nontraditional learners. First-generation college students, who are more likely to be minority and low-income, often feel marginalized in academic settings and this narrative of self-doubt can have negative effects on their success. A 2016 study linked interpersonal communications with higher grades in online community college classes. When students know you believe in them, they are more likely to overcome imposter syndrome and push themselves to reach their goals.

Students who are the first in their family to attend college are also more likely to succeed when they receive intentional and thoughtful support from their instructors and student services like counseling, as well as through horizontal, peer-to-peer support.

We know human connections between students and instructors are key to meaningful college experiences. And we also know relationships provide critical support to students from underserved populations—in the classroom and online—that AI and chatbots cannot replace.

The future will be ripe with educational innovation supported by various technologies. But when access-oriented institutions begin to imagine how online education may be used to scale higher education and reach new student populations, relationships must remain at the core. Competency-based learning, digital badges, and online education can create more flexible pathways to support the social mobility of those who do not have the privilege to come to a campus to learn, but the human touch will always be needed to move the needle.

Reimagining how we do things is crucial to ensuring higher education is relevant and purposeful for students. Technology will be key to educational innovations, but it will never take the place of human connections.

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