A.I. education neglects social needs

On the surface, the implementation of computer-based education systems in schools may seem like a good idea. In fact, textbook company McGraw-Hill has recently marketed a new program for learning mathematics, ALEKS (Assessment and Learning in Knowledge Spaces), to elementary classrooms. Teachers who adapt this new system do not teach; rather, they are available to help students when they have questions while working individually on computers to complete the lessons. McGraw-Hill cites studies showing ALEKS to improve test scores among the majority of students.

Already, one important issue arises from ALEKS. If the main point of the program is to raise test scores, what does that say about what we value in education? As a country, we have focused more and more on raising test scores; school funding is often determined by test performance. “Teaching to the test” has proved widely unsuccessful in actually helping students gain a full understanding of material.

While ALEKS is surely a powerful assessor of student’s abilities and can adapt learning to an individual, the program comes at a great educational cost to students. First, the questions are presented only one way. Teachers often explain concepts using multiple terms to aid in the understanding of many different types of learners. A software program simply cannot add the same personal instruction that a teacher can.

“The best of today’s artificial intelligence can’t begin to approach the aptitude of a human teacher when it comes to relating to students, understanding their strengths and weaknesses, and delivering the instruction they need,” Slate writer Will Oremus said in “No More Books, No More Pencils.”

Second, the computer program teaches concrete math skills, such as adding and fractions. While it is undoubtedly important that students have these skills, these functions can all be performed by computers themselves. In today’s age of technology, it is more important to understand how and when to use certain tools than to understand how to carry out the same functions that the technology does. This ability requires critical and creative thinking skills, which computers inherently cannot teach students.

Finally, ALEKS has not been deemed a success in every case. Some students, particularly those who are already high achievers, did not see any improvement in their test scores after using the program.

The failings of programs like ALEKS go far beyond educational value. Schools need to serve the whole student, not just their mind. Children spend most of their formative years in a school building. An important role of the school is to accommodate the needs of the whole child, not just their mental abilities in a subject. Students also have emotional, social and physical needs. How can a computer program meet any of these?

Contrarily, plopping a student in front of a computer for hours a day causes major damages to their overall health. Everyday, developmental psychologists find more evidence of the dark side of our culture’s growing fascination with technology and our sedentary lifestyles. From diminished social skills to externalizing locus of control, overusing technology can negatively impact students permanently.

Students need quality social interactions, both with peers and teachers. If they are to be active contributors to society, interpersonal and critical thinking skills are absolutely imperative. Working on a computer individually allows no room for collaboration in a group setting. Research shows that, for many students, teaching and learning from their peers yields higher levels of comprehension of material, as well as building comprehension skills.

More than that, interactive learning is critical to student’s personal health. Current generational issues, from obesity to anxiety, can be traced back to increasingly sedentary activities and less social and physical activity. Schools that introduced physical-learning based lessons and/or incorporated exercise into their daily routine often successfully increased student engagement, health and academic performance.

I agree completely that the American education system needs work. While I respect well-informed efforts to change current strategies, replacing teachers with computers creates far more problems than it solves. Textbook companies like McGraw-Hill know that textbooks and testing are failing our students, so they look for ways to save themselves.

ALEKS costs less for the company to produce, doesn’t need constant new editions and requires a purchase of an individual program for each student. Because the access is non-transferrable, teachers need to pay for all new accounts yearly, resulting in higher gross profits for McGraw- Hill. Why are we selling our student’s educations to corporate companies?

The use of computer programs instead of teachers implies that teachers aren’t as qualified to teach as they should be. Perhaps this is true in some cases; we’ve seen scary trends of inexperienced and/or uncaring teachers in our public schools. However, implementing computer learning programs isn’t solving this problem, and it points to larger issues within the current system.

Computer programs may be effective as minor supplements to instruction, but they cannot and should not replace teachers. Why aren’t we working on raising teacher salaries and standards, narrowing the education gap in urban areas or increasing physical activity during the school day? Until these issues get solved, let’s forget about pumping money into flawed technologies just to inflate test scores.

Cathrine Meeder ’17 (meeder@stolaf.edu) is from Three Lakes, Wis. She majors in English and psychology.