Is a Computer a Good Substitute Teacher?


Image: Creative Commons

By Tina Olesen

When I was manning the Learning Assistance Centre in a high school, I often helped students who were taking online courses. One day a young man came to see me in the throes of immense frustration with his “distance learning” course. He wasn’t understanding the material and didn’t know what to do about it. He looked at me with pleading eyes and said, “I need a teacher!”

Computers have threatened to displace teachers for some time now, but it hasn’t happened yet. Those who think that a computer can deliver the content just as efficiently as a teacher overlook the relational aspect of education, which, I would argue, is one of the key components in how well a child learns.

As a recent Huffington Post article stated, “there is one thing technology will never replace: the value of the human element in helping schools, students, and communities succeed.”

Yes, technology has had an undeniable impact on modern education. But is it really as crucial to education as some would like to make it out to be?

A Forbes Magazine article quoted US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as saying that, “Technology isn’t an option that schools may or may not choose for their kids.”

Having just completed this most recent year of teaching without a computer lab, tablets, smartphones, or a smartboard, I beg to differ. I have used many such technological devices for teaching in the past, as well as specialised technology for students with special needs. Here is what I found this year: I didn’t miss it.

I didn’t miss policing the computer lab to make sure that students were not on unauthorized websites or getting distracted while playing at changing their fonts. I didn’t miss worrying about something inappropriate that might come up on a Google search and get through the filter. And I didn’t miss dealing with technological glitches.

What I found was that a small class size takes care of a lot of what I would have wanted a student to use a computer for. Rather than surfing the web, we used library books and articles printed from the internet, and I could take the time to read the parts to them that they were unable to read on their own. Their research was deeper, because they were not frantically clicking around but rather immersing themselves in their books.

They hand wrote their drafts and we edited them side by side. We used a dictionary to check our spelling. Then they revised and carefully re-wrote their good copies. And their writing was good, even without a spelling and grammar checker and fancy fonts.

I appreciate this grounding in the writing process, without technological distractions, at least in the early stages of learning to write. Do I appreciate my word processor? Of course – and yes, I couldn’t even post this article without it. But have word processors changed the way we write?

I learned recently about Thomas Aquinas and his writing method – how well ordered his thoughts were, even before he dictated them to be written down. His dictation to his scribe “ran so clearly that it was as is if the master was reading aloud from a book under his eyes”. Now that we use word processors, we edit constantly while writing. I am not sure if this is a good or a bad thing, but it does make me think of McLuhan’s statement: “The medium is the message.

In computer delivered instruction, for example, how is the embodiment of the message in a computer rather than in a human being altering the learning?

A teacher is the embodiment of the message that she teaches. That’s the relational dynamic in teaching. The message is brought home by a living, breathing embodiment of the message right before the eyes of the students. This means that we as teachers have to stop and ask ourselves what message we are giving our students with our lives.

The perfect Teacher, Jesus Christ, is the perfect embodiment of the gospel. As the Incarnation of the Word of God, He perfectly represents in His body the message of His Father in Heaven: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

Although we as human beings are imperfect, nevertheless God can and will use the teacher who is wholly given to Him to put flesh on the gospel.

As Matthew Henry writes, “The more simply the believer relies on Christ for every thing, the more devotedly does he walk before Him in all his ordinances and commandments. Christ lives and reigns in him, and he lives here on earth by faith in the Son of God, which works by love, causes obedience, and changes into his holy image.”

The teacher who is indwelled by Jesus Christ has the opportunity to get out of the way and let Him be seen. “He must increase, but I must decrease.”

In the words of P. Andrew Sandlin, “Christian pedagogy must always be incarnational… In teaching, we do not merely transmit facts or truths. We transmit ourselves. Education is a holistic transaction… while powerful ideas influence people, they do not change the world. Powerful ideas influence people, but only changed people change the world.”[i]

A computer cannot do that.

[i] P. Andrew Sandlin, “Pedagogical Ontology,” Center for Cultural Leadership, 2013.


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