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.


Easy to suppress the bandits in the city but difficult to suppress the bandits in your heart

Personally speaking, as a Chinese I never encountered with racial discrimination in my daily life. Although I was reminded of this issue by my relatives and friends seriously before coming to the United States, I have not encountered any obvious racial discrimination. But this may be because I am lucky to be in Blacksburg, and in Virginia Tech—it is a peaceful, harmonious and friendly community which residents have higher levels of education and income. When I met with friends from other universities and regions in the United States, racial discrimination was a must-have topic. Although my friends have not suffered racial discrimination in class, those living in metropolitan areas have encountered some unpleasant things in their neighborhoods. Sometimes these behaviors are not invasive, bad or indifferent, they will make you feel treated differently. For example, I went to Georgetown University to attend my friend’s graduation ceremony. He told me that: “one driver of our school bus at night is an African-American. He never greets or speaks with the Chinese or people looks like a Chinese.” I take this bus with him that night, and he is right; The driver only said hello to blacks and whites. For the Chinese, it is just a poker face with silence. I don’t think this is discrimination, but obviously, it makes me feel uncomfortable unconsciously.

Before I came to the United States, racial discrimination is not a topic of concern. In my hometown, the Hui nationality (Muslim) is the most important ethnic minority in addition to the Han nationality. But the only difference in school you can feel is that they go to the halal canteen (no pork), not the ordinary canteen. Besides, they can get extra points in the college entrance examination. However, this situation has changed slightly in my college life. Just as Shankar Vedantam mentioned, “The Hidden Brain” may affect our thinking. In college admissions, universities will give preferential treatment to ethnic minorities such as Tibetans and Uighurs, Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan students as well as foreign students. One consequence of this policy is that although they can enter China’s top universities easily, there is a huge gap in academic performance between them and Han students. This gives the Han students a feeling in the subconscious: THEY are not as smart as WE are. I can guarantee that I have never seen public ridicule, discrimination or any inappropriate behaviors toward them, but from everyday chat, you can feel that everyone regards it as a fact: they are counting down on the scores. In the qualifying exam for the doctoral student program in my school, if a student from Xinjiang or Taiwan fails, we will think it is normal; but if a Han student fails, we will think it is a shame. I think that is how “The Hidden Brain” works and it’s harder to eliminate, just as a Chinese philosopher Wang Yangming said: “It is very easy to eliminate the bandits in the city, but very difficult to suppress the bandits in your heart” (破山中贼易 破心中贼难).

Moreover, in my view, while racial discrimination is not a problem, the challenge of inclusive education is enormous, especially cultural differences between American and international students. When I do group work, presentations or papers, I usually work with other students from Asia—Korean, Filipino, Indian and Vietnamese. Well, this may be because there are too few Chinese in our department! But indeed, I don’t have much communication with the “native Americans”. The differences in values? The difference in living habits? I am not sure. Although I sometimes work with American students according to the mentor’s arrangement, I rarely take the initiative to team up with them. To be honest, I don’t have much feeling about the role of diversity in the classroom. At this stage, it is like a “politically correct” for me which is overestimated in the real world. I know it’s important, and everyone is talking about it, but I think I still need to experience it and feel it more in the future.

Abandon grades? Maybe the right reasons, but not the right time

Perhaps there is no doubt that the grading system is “inherently problematic” for most people in the modern society. However, from my personal experience, I think there are many problems although this assessment approach has many problems, it cannot be replaced right now. I disagree with Alfie Kohn’s statement that “Nor are grades a necessary part of schooling…we have to be willing to challenge the conventional wisdom, which in this case means asking not how to improve grades but how to jettison them once and for all”.
I can say that China is the most important country in the world to pay attention to the rating system, starting with the Imperial Examination System that appeared in the Tang Dynasty 1400 years ago. Since then, the selection of talents for the country through standardized tests has become the main purpose of education under Confucianism. However, the coin has two sides. On the one hand, the imperial examination system is considered to be rigid and lacking in creativity, which in turn leads to China’s scientific and economic development lags behind Europe in modern times; On the other hand, it promoted stability and social mobility. The poor, even the embarrassed, can change their destiny through hard study—the Confucius educational opinion of “instruction knows no class distinction” then became the mainstream value in China.
For modern China, traditional educational genes are still visible everywhere in the current education system. Some of the things that Chinese people are used to may be unimaginable for Westerners. For most primary and secondary schools, the student’s test rankings will be open to everyone; teachers will talk to parents if their children have poor grades; in the year before the college entrance exam, there will be an exam with six subjects almost every week…Scores become the most important thing for teachers, students and parents in education. Some standardized tests are not very useful, such as English. The English test of the college entrance examination and the graduate entrance examination are very rigid and almost useless for daily communication. In the three years of high school, students usually learn new knowledge in the first two years, and in the third year, they all review and keep doing exercises. This process is boring and painful for most people and is the toughest year in life. But for many people, especially those who are the bottom class or come from the rural areas, college entrance examination, one of the most important annual activities of the country, is the best way for them to change their destiny.
I am very grateful for this ranking system in China. I grew up in an agricultural city in a backward province in China. My parents didn’t have a college degree. My family didn’t have our own house until I graduated from elementary school. I need to work hard to get enough grades to enter the local junior school and high school with good education quality. I have also experienced more brutal competition, the college entrance examination. I clearly remember that I am the 475th among the more than 200,000 candidates in the province. This allowed me to enter a top ten university in China, which only recruits 30 students in our province. I keep my first place for four years in college, which gave me an opportunity to enter the best university in China to get my master’s degree. After that, I applied to come to the United States to study for a doctorate at Virginia Tech. I have no other specialties. Before I entered college, I rarely had free time to spend on sports and social activities or other personal interests such as music and painting. But is this all worth it? I think it is worth it. I changed my destiny and the fate of my family. I totally rely on my own efforts. Although this scoring system is not completely fair, I do benefit from it. If leadership, social skills, or specialties in sports or music are included in the assessment system, how do I compete with those with rich resources?
I admit that the grading system will definitely be reformed in the future. But any reform measures that do not consider social equity are ridiculous. Education can change not only the fate of the individuals but also a nation. Some education reform experiments are very good, but there are no conditions for promotion. Grading system reform is necessary, but the extreme idea that completely abandoning seems to me to be like Utopia and needs to be avoided.

Games in Education: Learning by Doing

Here is the definition of the game from Wiki: “a game is a structured form of play, usually undertaken for enjoyment and sometimes used as an educational tool”. And a video game is an electronic game that involves interaction with a user interface to generate visual feedback on a video device such as a TV screen or computer monitor.” In my view, the meaning of these terms at least two points: First, the game can be regarded as an educational tool; secondly, interaction is an indispensable and even the most important part of the game. In other words, playing games is also a kind of “learning by doing”.
Mark Carnes’ ideas about “active-learning” are very interesting. Essentially, I think the learning style that he describes is role-playing. During the gaming process, students need to actively collect materials and build a world of their own and this adventure is of course exciting. However, what I want to emphasize is that games in education are still at an experimental stage. Two and a half hours of the schedule per week may not be able to adapt; on the other hand, the time and energy that students spend on it will inevitably increase dramatically. Can the games in education improve the graduation rate problem at the universities? I also have deep doubts about this because the education evaluation system still uses credits and grades as the key criteria. If these fundamental factors do not change, then this model will be difficult to promote.
Personally, I have a positive attitude towards games, including video games. As a student majoring in public administration and political science, I learned about the operation of the government in Western countries including the United States through a game called “Democracy 3” before I came to the United States. It is considered as a sophisticated political strategy game which has a unique user interface that makes visualizing the connections between laws, policies, voters, and situations easy. I must say that I learned more about the US politics from this game than I learned from the boring textbooks. Other examples include “Minecraft”, my nephew in elementary school really likes the open world of this game. The game developer, Microsoft has already treated Minecraft as “a collaborative and versatile platform that educators can use across subjects to encourage 21st-century skills”. Other games, such as League of Legends and Dota2, have higher requirements for teamwork. With the development of AR and VR technology, I am optimistic that games can break the boundaries of the classroom and play an increasingly important role in education.

The game UI of “Democracy 3”Image result for democracy 3Image result for democracy 3

Networked Learning: Important but cannot replace face-to-face education

Just like Seth Godin and Tom Peters mentioned, blogs, microblogs or other “We media” are useful marketing tools for free. Of course, those tools can make a great difference in education. I strongly agree that the blog provides an effective channel to clearly express my views on certain things publicly. As a student major in social science, I can communicate online with other people with similar interests that I cannot find without a face-to-face communication. I can debate with people about a certain public policy with opposite political views, and also join the online community which focuses a topic that I concern. Networked learning has become part of my life already—I always use Sina Weibo (a Chinese microblogging) and “moments” function in Wechat. I have participated in many Wechat groups for academic purposes. Group members share the literature they have read and discussed them. Unfortunately, I did not find that Facebook has similar functions. I think social media (including Twitter) can play a more important role than blogs because the communication is instant.
However, my point is networked Learning: Important but cannot replace face-to-face education. In my previous courses, many professors asked for blogging and the results are different. In a course with 40 students, the professor just asked to post blogs, nobody made comments even the professor. This is no different from ordinary homework. In another course with 12 students, we are required to post blogs no less than 600 words every week and no requirement for making comments. Some students made comment actively, but very few. The key thing is that the professor discussed the content of our blogs in class—students are very positive about this. This is what I realize that networked learning is just a tool, the effect still depends on individuals. Face-to-face education is will never be replaced. Sometimes I have to suspect that networked learning maybe is an excuse for professors to be lazy. With or without networked learning, professors should play a leading role in class instead of just emphasizing the “creative” of students.