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ELT Fears: Automation!

I am fascinated by science and the future, and that's what got me reading Humans Need Not Apply: A Guide to Wealth and Work in the Age of Artificial Intelligence. by Jerry Kaplan (Yale University Press, 2015). On page 151, I came across the paragraph above, and the first sentence is written in a way to confirm the fears of many teachers, especially technophobic teachers. In the second sentence, Kaplan casually connects the terrifying notion of being replaced with the flipped classroom. Instructional designers and administrators now prefer to call this flipped learning, which has become an industry of its own. See

Flipped Learning 

Yes, please visit! As of this writing (web designers love to redesign the sites every 6 months or so), "academic subjects" is at the center of the main menu. Guess what is the first academic subject listed? English/ELA. For old school English language teachers, ELA refers to English language acquisition, which is replacing the term ESL in most public schools.However, only two articles are here as of this writing.
  1. A study on flipped learning improving SLOs at
  2. A teacher's narrative of her first flipped learning experience at
Most English language teachers may be comforted that these two articles show we are far from being replaced by technology. These articles show flipped learning as one of the many approaches to use in a course or lesson. Should we relax?

Personalized Learning

If you are not threatened by flipped learning, then how about personalized learning. That term sounds like learner-centered teaching or differentiated learning. Aren't concepts like these at the core of our teaching philosophy? If you answered "Yes," then maybe you haven't thought about Watson.

Watson is the thing that beat Ken Jennings on Jeopardy! over a decade ago. What's Watson up to now? He's after our jobs! Or so some fearful teachers may think after visiting or watching the promotional video below:

Teachers are not being replaced in this video, so that's good. But they are collaborating with Watson through some tablet device that collects how much information from each and every student of yours? Data tracking and interpretation at the palm of your hands! Don't let it interfere with the flow of your instruction, but please refer to the device before you ask questions to make sure they are appropriate and engaging.

Yes, I have a problem with Watson used in a face-to-face classroom, but it's mainly because this video is vague. How is Watson collecting accurate data on each student? Are we assuming that each student will answer honestly about his or her aspirations and passions? And how often does Watson collect this data? Humans have a tendency to change their minds quite often and sometimes drastically. I'm thinking of my own daughter, who last year would answer serious questions with potty humor. I've also witnessed community college students transform within a month from feeling like a dropout to leading the class in effort and performance (and unfortunately vice-versa) with the causes of these changes outside the classroom. Will Watson be in constant communication with these students to monitor these changes? What happens when students rebel against Watson's nosiness or when they start seeing him as a representative of a teacher or school they don't like?

Additionally, there's a sentence from that video (at the 0:26 mark) that comforts me. "Education transforms from something you have to learn to something you want to know." For language educators, we are developing skills in addition to knowledge. Both Watson and flipped learning focus on transforming content delivery, but not on skills development. In this sense, these approaches may revolutionize they way we teach grammar and vocabulary but not reading, writing, speaking, and listening.

Constructivism (Social Learning)

At this point, automation does not come close to replacing teachers in the constructivist sense. Much of learning is social, and the constructivist learning theory best embodies this notion. This became evident to me as a student who has excelled for most of my life working on my own. It wasn't until my doctoral studies that I found how valuable the social environment is to learning. I discovered an area of research very interesting for me to learn more about but most people around me either didn't understand or didn't care. I could not sharing my learning with anyone, and I found that to be a complete demotivator to learning, something I have never felt before.

I imagined younger learners in a context with parents and friends who are not keyed into their education. If your social support network does not care about what you are learning, then what keeps you going? A good teacher usually. But what if that teacher is an automaton? Is it socially healthy to achieve goals to share with a robot that is programmed to emote caring but doesn't really care?

I believe students need someone that values their learning for the sake of personal growth and development. A social support network, such as family, is best for this, but some students come to school with families that are too busy or neglectful to care about this type of learning. Education and learning are more than achieving a certain score or grade. That is the game of schooling, which technology can probably teacher better than humans.

Universal Translators

Who needs language teachers if we will have accurate translation technology in the next 5-10 years? More on that later...

Our Students' Jobs

So if language teachers are not going to be replaced by automatons anytime soon, we still need to worry about our students' jobs. How many of their jobs will be not be around in the next decade or two? That's hard to tell, but my bet is on the transportation industry, specifically trucking and taxis. I believe it is all teachers' jobs to help students anticipate changes in the job market. I haven't had many students in trucking, but I have had many in engineering. And engineers are the ones who will be designing automation to make all of our lives more or less difficult, depending on how you view it. Let's view it one more time, shall we?

What do you think of the future of English language teaching and our English language learners?

If I have you panicked, please read this from 1993. I hope it calms your fears.


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