Thursday, September 4, 2008

Is a computer a good substitute for a teacher??

Nigerian kids get a taste of the OLPC laptop. Can these types of technologies substitute well for real teachers??
(photo courtesy:

Nicholas Negroponte has an amazing vision. During his tenure at MIT's famed Media Lab, his team came up with the $100 laptop (granted it has since doubled in production cost, so it should be called the $200 laptop!), and proceeded to start the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program. His idea was to use computers to engage and help educate the poor kids of the world. He talks about his vision in great detail at a TED conference in 2006. (Regardless of what other people say about the program or him, Negroponte is a visionary and he deserves tremendous credit for trying and testing out an idea that people have long thought about but never gone forth with.)

But the question technology a good substitute for a human teacher??

To answer this, I'd refer to two different write-ups: one a paper (you can also read a summary here) that's come out of the well-respected Jameel Poverty Action Lab (JPAL) at MIT; and a piece on education published in the New York Times (NYT) on August 17, 2008.

The JPAL paper publishes a study on randomized trials in India that compared learning rates between computer-assisted learning and those without. The NYT piece covers computer assisted learning in the United States and UK.

I would highly recommend reading both pieces. In general though, I found that the two highlight two very specific ideas:
  • Computer assisted learning works best when learning in class (with a human teacher) is complemented with technology. Technology by itself isn't a substitute for a teacher. Having been through all three combinations (teachers only, computers only, and computer assisted learning) , I couldn't agree more.
  • Probably a BIG caveat to any of this is that different students respond differently. This is NOT a one-size-fits-all idea. This is why having a teacher around REALLY matters. Teachers can customize their teaching; computers can't. This is the key. This is why technology is a poor substitute for real human teachers.

1 comment:

Alanna said...

For those who want more information, Jon Camfield is a goldmine of information on OLPC -