Can Computers Replace Teachers?


In the Academic Senate paper, The Future of the Community College: A Faculty Perspective,1 the authors maintain that computer-based distance learning is inherently inferior to traditional classroom instruction. This position is not so much argued in the paper as it is merely asserted. "Teaching is the `business' of creating epiphanies," say the authors, "and this will always be best accomplished through the power of personal presence." (Future, p. 14)

It may not surprise anyone that the Academic Senate Office has not been flooded with E-mail and phone calls from the field contesting this assertion. It seems that most instructors-even those most dedicated to developing the new modes of delivery-acknowledge, perhaps on no more than an intuitive basis, the truth of this claim.

As the paper points out, however, there are those whose vision of the future is singularly "facultyless," and who, instead, see the teaching function taken over by machines. How much more efficient and cost effective! How many fewer grievances and contract disputes! And shared what? Govern this! (.as the plug is pulled.)

In view of recent sightings in our fair state of the occasional manager and even legislator given to the opinion that faculty are far too uppity, and whose eyes grow brighter at the prospect of a future without us, it might not hurt to look more closely at the analysis behind the claim that classroom instruction is the preferred route to learning.

At last spring's meeting of the American Philosophical Association in Los Angeles, Professor Eugene Heath of SUNY at New Paltz found himself on a panel discussing the potential of computers for the delivery of instruction in philosophy. Professor Heath was, at best, lonely and, at worst, he must have felt like he had wandered into some sort of sales convention. His fellow panelists were all from the same institution in the Northwest, and they had come to sell. With the zeal of the newly-converted, they hosanna'd the glory of the machine, and praised the learning experience they had brought to their students through the manipulation of bits and bytes.

Professor Heath was no stranger to distance learning: he had developed and taught his own course via computer and had written about it in an article titled, "Two Cheers and a Pint of Worry: An On-Line Course in Political and Social Philosophy."2 On this occasion, finding the "cheers" in abundant supply, Mr. Heath gave voice to his "pint of worry," and talked about his reservations about on-line classes. In the panel discussion, as in his article, he grouped his remarks under three headings: the professor as a cause of thought; the profession of teaching as a practice; and the college as a place.

Behind each of these areas of concern, according to Heath, is the fact "that on-line education reduces all communication to written propositions..The real issue," he writes, "is whether teaching and learning can be reduced to written propositions." (295)

Heath's answer is "No, they cannot." On-line documents, he suggests, "may offer opportunities for thought and reflection, but these documents may not cause reflection, at least not in the same nuanced manner as a skilled teacher causes one to think and reflect." (296) For example, a teacher can cause reflection through the use of her voice and strategic silences. In his spoken remarks, Heath told the story of an instructor whose effectiveness increased dramatically through the device of bringing a cup of coffee to class. Whenever he paused to take a drink, the silence gave students the occasion to reflect and pose questions. Such silences can't be achieved in the medium of the written word.

Additionally, Heath notes, for a professor's words to be effective.

"(in the sense of effecting thought) one must have an awareness of one's audience. This awareness is not merely an awareness of facts about the audience (soand-so dislikes Plato, is active in student government, is unhappy, and so forth) but an awareness of that audience's attentiveness, comprehension, seriousness, and interest. Without such awareness, the classroom professor is merely speaking, reading, or explaining, all of which could be done in a room with no one present. And what is the professor doing when engaged in on-line teaching? The on-line awareness of the professor is limited to whatever facts may be gleaned from some on-line profile of students or from the professor's own evaluation of the student's written work; however, .none of this matches the immediacy or efficiency of direct, face-to-face, awareness. In its absence, there is little room for the unarticulated understanding, the spontaneous insight, or the developing sympathy that can arise between teacher and learner." (296)

The production of that moment of insight is the "epiphany" of which the authors of the Future paper wrote. Of course epiphanies can occur in the course of one's reading of written propositions; their occurrence in such circumstances, however, seems likely to be far more random and less frequent than under the nurturing provocations of an instructor.

This brings us to yet another dimension of the issue of the professor as cause of learning, one which Heath does not discuss. He, and we, when talking about "modes of instructional delivery," tend to be exclusively focused on the advantages and disadvantages to the student. There are, however, advantages to the instructor as well. Through the performatory aspects of their profession, instructors stand in a relationship to their audience similar to that of all performers: They nurture certain appropriate responses in their audience and, in their turn, the performers feed off of-are quickened or nurtured by-those responses when they are produced. As the comedian lives for the laugh, so the professor lives for the moment of insight. From the professor's perspective, the difference between classroom and online instruction in terms of her own satisfaction is similar to the difference between the experience of the singer who has thrilled a live audience, and one who has achieved a "wrap" in the recording studio. The immediacy and intensity of the former cannot be matched by the latter. We have a right to expect that burn-out will occur much sooner for the on-line "performer" than for the one with a live classroom audience.

Heath's concern with the professor as cause of learning leads naturally enough to his concern with the profession of teaching as a practice. At its best, classroom instruction involves the exercise of "judgment and know how, neither of which," Heath writes, "can be reduced to rules or systems, but both of which are essential components of the practice of teaching." (296) The effective teacher's awareness of the "attentiveness, comprehension, seriousness, and interest" of the students is constantly translated into judgments as to which phrase, diagram, admonition, or example will bring students closer to achieving insight. One knows how to rephrase the student's inchoate question in just the way that will help him toward the answer. And one knows that not all inchoate questions are equal, that they reflect greater and lesser distances from the goal of comprehension, and one measures one's responses accordingly.

Heath's concern, of course, is that the conditions of immediacy required for this sort of practice, "involving unarticulated judgment and know how," simply do not exist on-line, especially when " all communication must be reduced to disembodied propositions." (296)

Another dimension of the practice of teaching which gives Heath pause lies in the fact that such practice involves "more than judgment or know how: It is also exemplary of attitudes, dispositions, emotions, and commitments, none of which are easily conveyed through written propositions." (296) In the written word, one finds only the products of the professor's labor; lost are the attitudes, the "intellectual qualities," the passion, discipline, patience, etc., that informed it. Yet, Heath maintains, it is the acquisition of these intellectual qualities, taught by example in the classroom, that makes the difference between true learning and the mere transfer of information.

Finally, Heath's focus on the importance of conveying intellectual attitudes brings him to his concern with the college as a place. One of the great attractions of online learning is that of the "college without walls," of learning that is not bound by constraints of space and time, that can be engaged in when it is convenient to do so. Heath believes that these very features of on-line learning inculcate precisely the wrong attitudes and values.

"A (physical) place devoted to learning, study, and research, a place to which one must go at certain hours, may prove inconvenient to some, but its very inconvenience is also its signal importance: Some things have to be set aside if one is to engage, focus, and commit oneself to learning. Though this is one consequence of place, it also implies the seriousness of education. That the computer is convenient because its courses occur in no real space or time easily translates into the view that one need not engage when one doesn't want to, that one need not set aside certain activities for the sake of learning, and that one may, simply, turn off the machine if something is too difficult; in sum: learning is no more important than anything else." (297)

Heath concludes that "perhaps on-line education has a place, but it is a subordinate one: on-line education is best viewed, at least under current technology, as a surrogate: The best education occurs between teacher and student." (297)

It is certainly worth observing at this point-especially for those who may not yet have read the paper on The Future of the Community College-that the paper by no means places the Academic Senate in opposition to the use of technology in education. As is pointed out in the paper's conclusion,

"The Academic Senate would be clear.that it is rejecting only the extreme demand that technology serve as a replacement for faculty. The Academic Senate maintains that technology, both now and in the future, is a marvelous enhancement to instruction, and would urge that its potential continue to be explored and utilized. In addition, the Academic Senate applauds the fine work of those faculty who are developing course content for distance learning, who are maintaining the highest standards of academic integrity while ensuring increased accessibility to higher education for students in the future." (Future, p. 17)

Heath's remarks do have considerable import for those who develop on-line courses. If he is correct, and the loss of immediacy involved in going on-line is an impediment to learning, then it becomes all the more important that on-line instructors adhere rigorously to pedagogical "good practices." As the authors point out in the Academic Senate paper, Guidelines for Good Practice: Technology Mediated Instruction, "good teaching is good teaching, regardless of the medium or method chosen for delivery."3 If the medium has inherent obstacles (and every medium does-yes, even the classroom), then one must take special care to find ways of compensating for them. One way to do this is to seek out and take advantage of unique opportunities afforded by the new medium itself. As we can see from Robert Breuer's remarks elsewhere in this issue ("What Makes Technology Mediated Instruction (TMI) Succeed?"), this seems to be exactly what instructors in California's post-secondary systems are doing.

Does Heath's analysis have implications for the Academic Senate's hard-fought and successful battle to change the "personal contact" requirement for distance learning to "effective contact"? I don't think so. On-line learning has one huge advantage over classroom instruction: It provides access to education for those who cannot get to the classroom. Heath himself acknowledges this. The "personal contact" requirement vitiated this advantage, and the Academic Senate furthered the cause of student access in getting it changed.

I, like Heath, am an instructor of philosophy who ventured into the digital world-in my own case, spending ten years teaching in a department of computer science. I am excited about the potential of on-line instruction, and am delighted by the Academic Senate's insistence on maintaining the highest pedagogical standards. For my own part, however, I am most interested in computer technology as an adjunct to classroom instruction, which, I am convinced, is inherently superior to its on-line cousin.

There is, in sum, an important role for technology in education; but that role will not entail the `downsizing' of faculty so long as our `business' is that of creating epiphanies.

  1. The Academic Senate for California Community Colleges, "The Future of the Community College: A Faculty Perspective." Paper adopted Fall 1998.
  2. Eugene Heath, "Two Cheers and a Pint of Worry: An On-Line Course in Social and Political Philosophy." Teaching Philosophy, September 1997, 20:3, 277-300.
  3. The Academic Senate for California Community Colleges, "Guidelines for Good Practice: Technology Mediated Instruction." Paper adopted Fall 1997. Page 1.