Machines are tools and tools can ONLY be tools

Clive Thompson’s reading reminds me of a very interesting question: it is possible that robots or other machines can replace humans as teachers in the classroom in the future? It is not a new question, many fictions, movies, and comics imaged this scene before. Arthur Radebaugh, an American futurist as an illustrator, showed his ideas about the role of machines in the futuristic comic “Closer Than We Think” in 1958 and 1960:

“Tomorrow’s schools will be more crowded; teachers will be correspondingly fewer. Plans for a push-button school have already been proposed by Dr. Simon Ramo, science faculty member at California Institute of Technology. Teaching would be by means of sound movies and mechanical tabulating machines. Pupils would record attendance and answer questions by pushing buttons. Special machines would be “geared” for each individual student so he could advance as rapidly as his abilities warranted. Progress records, also kept by machine, would be periodically reviewed by skilled teachers, and personal help would be available when necessary.”


Arthur Radebaugh’s push-bottom school (Matt Novak, 2013)

“Compressed speech” will help communications: from talking with pilots to teaching reading. Future school children may hear their lessons at twice the rate and understand them better!


Arthur Radebaugh’s robot teacher (Matt Novak, 2013)

In most case, we see machines as tools to improve efficiency, and education is no exception. But what is worrying is that robots and machines don’t have human emotion, they follow specific procedures and standardized tasks. Would it kill the curiosity and creativity of the students? If robots and humans can work together as teachers in the classroom, then where are their boundaries? Although I strongly support the use of machines to help to teach and learning in the classroom, I object to the machine playing a leading role. Teachers are not only teaching knowledge, their personal charm and thoughts can also affect students’ perception of themselves, the world, and the values. Many people dream of becoming a teacher when they are young, is it because they worship their teachers? However, who will worship a robot? Machines are tools, and tools can only be tools.



16 thoughts on “Machines are tools and tools can ONLY be tools

  1. Hi Ruixiang,
    These were eerie, yet cool comics that you linked to in your post! Thanks for sharing. Nearly 60 years later, we do have something like that in our classrooms, but instead of large stations for each student, we have smartphones in almost every pocket, purse, or backpack! Not convinced that machines will ever replace teachers, but there are a lot of tasks that could definitely be taken up by machines/tools/apps/databases/etc. For instance, thinking about these information hubs/repositories: they’re designed to bring a great deal of information into one place for easy access by students and teachers. So the trick is to be knowledgeable about them and to share how to use them with our students. Thompson writes that technology use rewires our brains. So, as educators, we should be playing into that notion for our students. The tech isn’t going anywhere, we have to adapt our methods to meet our students where they are. In a way, it’s about learning how to ask the right questions to get to the answers you want.


    1. Thank you, Sara!

      You are right, technology can help teachers reduce workload, improve teaching efficiency, and enhance students’ curiosity in many ways. Then eachers can focus on what really matters in education!


  2. Hey Ruixiang,
    I understand your thoughts. I agree that the emotions that a teacher can bring in the class can’t be imitated by a machine. I generally lean anti-technology. However, playing the devil’s advocate here, I would like to bring another perspective. With the development in the field of Artificial Intelligence, I think the day won’t be too far when the robots will have equal emotions as human beings. I am not sure if you got the opportunity to hear the demo of google assistant making an appointment ( I thought it was quite realistic and firmly believe that there is more to come. I relate to you when you say, “machine are tools, and tools can only be tools” but if the tools become equivalent to humans, I am not sure what future holds for us.


    1. Thank you, Akshay! AI has unlimited possibilities in the future, but if the robot becomes like humans, this could be another disaster – do we need to give the robot “human rights”? Considering the enormous advantages of robots in learning relative to humans, humans may be eliminated in the technological revolution.


  3. Hi Xie,
    I fully agree with you. I think only people can teach using tools or robots. Some people want to argue that robots can teach using contents that teachers made. But we know teaching is not a simple communication. If robots can communicate as same as people, why are we taught in classroom? But I am not sure what happen in the future.


    1. The original intention of using robots is to reduce costs. In education, it is to solve the problem of shortage of teachers. If we have enough educators, we should not leave such sacred work to the machines.


  4. Up until this point, i agree that tools are only tools. However, as we keep on innovating we might get to a point where education can be done at the hands of robots. I’m not saying this will happen soon, or ever, but I do think it is a possibility. If you come and think about it, education is primarily transfer of knowledge and it is different from innovation. As you mentioned, human emotions play a very important role in the education process, but given enough time, i don’t see why robots wont get to a point where they are able to incorporate at least some level emotions in their education process. Now whether this approach will be effective, i have no clue, all we can do is speculate and hope for the best.


  5. This reminds me a lot of our first week of class. What is the ideal with critical pedagody? The machine based hyperefficient learning idea is from an old culture of what teaching is for. What is the sci-fi future ideal, now?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I don’t think technology can play a leading role in teaching and still be effective. Just like you said, robots only have a set of specific rules they can follow. They are bad at creativity, innovation, and improv; these are things people are good at. Given the kind of technology that we have now, the closest I see of this becoming a reality is taking the idea of “human in the loop” to the extreme. “Human in the loop” is a term to describe a type of analytical process in which both the machine and the human take part. It calls for the human to drive the machine, and for the machine to respond and even self-correct accordingly. For example, rather than building an algorithm or model on its own and presenting the results to the human analyst, the human plays an active role the model/algorithm building. The equivalent in a classroom would be something like instead of the robot teaching the student from a set of directives that it can’t really deviate from, it instead learns what the student learns and adapts its material according to the student’s abilities and understanding. That is, instead of working off of a fixed model, the robot would be constantly building and adjusting a model specifically for that student. This would actually make the student the leader of their own learning. However, the effectiveness of doing this would be heavily dependent on what degree of adjustment the robot is capable of doing… If there’s little adjustment that is even possible, then it’s highly unlikely for many students to be able to learn effectively from it. Yet, a large amount of adjustment– to ideally be able to work with any student– would be incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to “program.” Again, teaching does take constant adjustment, learning, and creativity, which are all things machines are terrible at.


  7. Hey Ruixiang, Great post! I really like how you point out that human teachers have “personal charm” and students dream of becoming teachers because they’ve had experiences with teachers that encourage them to follow in their teachers’ footsteps. Along the same lines, I found the quote from Arthur Radebaugh’s push-bottom school interesting, where it says “Progress records, also kept by machine, would be periodically reviewed by skilled teachers, and personal help would be available when necessary.” Here, again I was reminded that what makes a “skilled” teacher is really not their knowledge, like you’ve pointed out, but their personality and way of communicating with students. If the role of humans was just to review records, then human “teachers” really wouldn’t be required. I also wonder how would the skills of teachers would develop if they were only called upon to help students when necessary. I look forward to discussing this further in class tonight.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I love the title of your piece this week, and it speaks nicely to your well-stated point that, although computers may be tools, they cannot be classroom facilitators. At least not now. I wish I knew more about the psychology behind the effectiveness/ineffectiveness of having computers as teachers. For now, this idea sounds ridiculous. I still remember watching a cartoon episode as a child in which the students had computers placed on their heads for a few seconds to absorb that day’s information, and then fled the school to enjoy the rest of their day. As the integration of technology does become more prevalent, as educators we need to be using technology mindfully—not as a source of information transfer, but as one that encourages and aids in students’ critical thinking.


  9. I like you post Ruixiang. I agree about the need to improve efficiency by using machines, and your example of using “compressed speech” to help in communications. Just as you noted, I think the challenge is one of intuition that machines lack. Sadly, machines do not have or cannot show emotion, compassion or do they have the ability to effectively judge situations based on certain life experiences, openness and situational awareness. As we have been talking about, critical conversations are needed as part of the learning and teaching processes. Rajiv Jhangiani also touched on this in his discussion on critical open pedagogy on episode 226 of the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast.


  10. I really enjoy this blog and your perspective of having a robot being a teacher. Even from the perspective of a student, a machine can only be used as a tool, otherwise, it will be the robot learning and take classes instead of ourselves. In order to really learn from the class, we need ourselves to be really engaged in the class, we may have the help from technologies, but definitely should not let technologies dominating the class.


  11. Ruixiang, I really enjoyed reading this post. I think you make an interesting point about machines being used to increase efficiency. The push-button school certainly would reduce the need for human resources. However, I’m inclined to think this kind of system would stifle student creativity and curiosity, as you suggest, and would fail to teach students how to evaluate the world critically. It seems like this robotic system would only be efficient in creating robotic humans.


  12. I really like your post. You point out something very important in teaching and learning. The emotion that humans have and which plays a big role in a learning environment. What will the world look like when we reach the stage in which machines will be performing instructor’s tasks? Nowadays, it is not rare to hear mostly older people saying that people are becoming less and less sensitive or less caring to others because of the lack of social connection, the reliability on machines, etc. Often times when you talk to people who travel oversea, let`s say in certain African countries like Senegal, they always mention, the warm welcoming, the social connection that people have, the large families with people helping one another, etc. But I can tell you this is disappearing in a daily basis because the world is more and more becoming like a big village. In cities, the life style is same as in Western countries, people are busy, running to make their way to success. They invest in technology to enhance their conditions of life. Even if one has to go to the most remote areas he/she will buy something they call “connection pass” in order to stay connected, updated and continue his/her activities. Some are not caring anymore if the brother, the aunt or the friend of the cousin have enough to make a living or not. People are being more selfish because of the way the world evolve with technology helping.


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