Friday, December 31, 2010

To Fix Education: Fire Human Teachers, Hire Holograms (Satire)

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Thu, 12/30/2010 - 11:30am.

"50 years later, our generation
's Sputnik moment is back," President Obama declared at a recent speech at Forsyth Technical Community College in Winston-Salem, North Carolina; this time, however, we aren't just losing to the formidable U.S.S.R., but now are being beaten senseless by wimpy little nations like Finland, for cripes sake.
hankfully, in Shanghai we have a far more scary-looking foe than Finland, one actually worthy of replacing the Red Scare.  Fifty years after Sputnik, we still have a healthy fear of a communist takeover of our country, which has been fed not only by Glen Beck's chalkboard conspiracy theories, but also by the reality that China owns most of our debt, a fact feverishly exploited by both liberals and conservatives to grab votes in the midterm election.  Now, in outperforming us in the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), these communist children have given us a "wake-up call," as Obama concludes, demonstrating that we are "in danger of falling behind," and waking up to a Red Dawn.

Our imploded economy, and the subsequent Red Scare, has led to a sudden, well-publicized "crisis in education," one which  - of course! - has nothing to do with the imploded economy, and everything to do with poor performing teachers, and inefficient, poorly run schools, a refrain popularized by the documentary Waiting for Superman, promoted by billionaires Bill Gates and Oprah, and one that has made a star of former Washington D.C. superintendent Michelle Rhee. Fixing the "educational crisis" is also the policy that underlies Obama's Race to the Top, a policy that places faith in the free-market  - yes, the same free-market that imploded the economy  - to fix education, and to make sure that we beat those dastardly commies in the classroom, and thus, the global economy.   That, and of course, we can regain our honor by besting those bothersome, socialist Finns, who outperformed us, and don't even believe in competition in education! An important cause of our "educational crisis", Secretary of Education Arne Duncan points out in a speech before American Enterprise Institute, a powerful neo-conservative think-tank, is inefficiency.  In "Bang for the Buck in Schooling," Duncan pushed superintendents to look to their inner CEOs for ways to cut all that fiscal waste, and to "make tough decisions that will pay off long term, including rethinking teacher compensation and class size and integrating technology into school systems."

Here is a modest proposal for America, one that will help our educational system become far more efficient, one that will help us get considerably more "bang for our buck" out of public education by integrating technology and thus dramatically reducing wasteful overhead: holograms.

Yes, to win the Race to the Top, we should fire human teachers, and hire holograms.

Think this is mere science fiction?

In Japan today (who also beat us on the PISA), Hatsune Miku is the first holographic star, playing to sold-out audiences.   The product of cutting edge software, Miku appears on stage as a real person, and is, according to Huffington Post "incredibly realistic," and has been drawing a massive following.  While the initial cost of the software may be pricey, unlike a human star, Miku won't require travel expenses, five-star lodging, specialty water from the Amazon, the Betty Ford Clinic, beefy security guards, a greedy agent, nor, well, anything other than a steady power supply and a competent programmer. What's more, Miku can play live at simultaneous locations around the world, rather than a single location, and won't say or doing anything embarrassing  - that is, unless programmed to!

Unlike Miku, teachers are human beings, and humans - even non-stars - are exceptionally expensive: each individual expects fair compensation in trade for their specialized labor, including a wage commensurate with cost of living, health care, and retirement when they have completed decades of public service.  What's more, humans can only be in one place at a time, and can only provide effective attention to a limited number of students at a single time. Thus, to run an entire educational system, one which serves nearly 80 million children and adults we need to hire millions of human teachers, which requires billions of our hard-earned tax dollars, all for an enterprise that that doesn't appear to produce any clear profits. 

Unfortunately, these human teachers don't seem to appreciate how expensive they are, and often stand in the way of efforts to lower costs, and make education more cost-effective - imagine just how much money we can save through simple math, by increasing class sizes to 40 and 50 students, rather than the paltry national average of half this.

Worst of all, human teachers have conflicting ideas of how education should work, and all too often, they say and do things in the classroom that do not prepare students for standardized tests, nor their careers.  For example, many human teachers don't believe constant standardized testing to be an effective way to capture the learning process, and some even believe these tests harm substantive learning. These wayward teachers use class time to explore unquantifiable wastes of time such as imagination, creativity and empathy, none of which can be accurately assessed in metrics, nor converted into reliable data points, nor analyzed into standard deviations, and bar graphs. These teachers don't seem to appreciate Public School Operating System designer Bill Gates declaration that  "If you want something to be excellent, it can't go unmeasured."

Unlike Miku, unlike the latest edition of Windows, human teachers don't always do what they are commanded to do!

Hal could solve all the inefficiencies inherent in public, human education.  Rather than hire millions of fallible, inefficient humans, hire a single holographic teacher, Hal, to perform in all classrooms across America at the same time. Just as industry thrived from automating manufacturing processes, so will education under Hal, who can simulate effective education, sans all the pesky human costs and problems.  Hal won't require a living wage, health care, nor will he form unions, nor will he ever - ever - deviate from the lesson that his programmers in Washington, DC, have designed.
Hal will provide a frictionless, perfectly efficient transfer of information to students' minds, at a fraction of the current cost.
Think this is too big a leap for the public? That they won't accept a human-less educational experience?  That they still want actual, breathing humans in the classroom with their children?
Hal wouldn't be that big of step beyond what many college students already experience, as they "attend" their lecture class with 1400 other students via Webcast, and take many classes online with a teacher they never meet, all from the comfort of their dorm room.  Further, programs like Accuplacer - used by many universities already - can automatically grade student writing, at a fraction of the cost of even low-paid, coffee-addicted, grumpy graduate teaching assistants.

What does it matter if the teacher exists or not, in the first place?  If we accept Automatic Teller Machines to dispense cash, why won't we accept Automatic Teaching Machines to dispense information?

We are already on the path to Hal, who may be here sooner than we think. Holograms aren't far from the home, according to virtual reality visionary Jaron Lanier, author of  You Are Not a Gadget, who sees a future in which mass broadcasting will be transformed into "telegigging," where a performer could be "telepresent" via holographic projections.  He predicts that within five years, holographic technology may be in our homes.  And given how much money can be made in the emerging educational market - especially when we downsize millions of obsolete human teachers - there will be a new breed of educational entrepreneurs that will be highly motivated to move holograms from the home, to the classroom.

Bill Gates and his team can serve as the primary programmers for Hal: they have the technical infrastructure, and have already invested half a billion dollars in quantifying the qualities of an effective instructor. With these metrics, Gates will be able to produce an algorithm to program Hal, one that could inform exactly what material to cover, at what pace, and how, precisely, to respond to all types of students in all situations. Future versions of Hal will include realistic simulations of sympathy, if the student is stuck amidst a messy divorce, or dealing with the death of a parent. Hal can extend a holographic arm of sympathy for an ailing student, without fear of any sort of real, human touching that might result in a lawsuit - and again, at a fraction of the cost.

And all of this new technology will finally make education profitable, pumping billions into our economy, rather than just taking from it.

Humans will still play a vital role in supporting Hal: we will need technical support if the projector has problems, which can easily be outsourced to Microsoft branch offices in more cost efficient countries, like India.  To update content, the ruling political party can select a panel CEOs of major corporations to manage the Central Bank of Knowledge (based on Google servers), that will hold all the information that students need to know in order to stay competitive in the global marketplace.  The Central Bank will download into Hal's mainframe at any time, and from there, directly into students' minds.

The only inefficiency left in the Public School Operating System will be the human students themselves, who have the unfortunate tendency to act irrationally, much like their human teacher counterparts.  These human students may have a crush on the girl across the room, or want to socialize with a friend; they may feel sad for some inexplicable reason, or more generally, have emotions that deviate from Hal's educational algorithm, and thus, combating Shanghai in the global war for jobs.

This is an easy bug to fix, though. Simply replace the students with holograms.

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