I've been asked a couple of times whether or not I would make my courses online, and I just wanted to talk about some of the reasons why I don't want to make online courses. In this blog, I'll outline some of the various reasons why a human teacher is better than any robot or online course.
I've always been in awe of all teachers, especially early childhood educators and elementary school teachers. They have altruistic intentions and are underpaid. They sometimes put up with overbearing parents, misbehaving kids, and all sorts of emotional and behavioral issues. The one saving grace that they do have is that it's one of the few professions that is not in danger of being replaced by automation.
Robots and online courses aren't empathetic
It will be a long time before a robot will be able to read emotions. Although there has been some work done to read emotions by analyzing facial expressions, technology would also need to analyze resting heart rate, pupil dilation, body language and a myriad of other data points before we could accurately read emotions. An online course will never be able to read silence. A robot cannot interpret a child fidgeting in their chair or a blank stare out the window. Sometimes, only an empathetic teacher can realize when a child is frustrated or intimidated or bored. Assessing and interpreting a child's emotions is something that teachers are adept to and it will be a long time before we have technology good enough to do this. Plus, if a robot puts its hand on a student's shoulder, it's just not the same thing as a teacher placing his/her hand on a student's shoulder. It's actually kinda creepy.
Can't my kid just play Osmo Coding Awbie and learn everything he needs to know?
Maybe or maybe not. While I think any exposure to coding is good, children will always learn more if they are taught by a good teacher. It's possible for a child to get pretty far in the game without really understanding some of the concepts. For example, instructors need to present challenges to the children that will motivate them to learn the concepts. We can ask a child, "Try to grab all these strawberries here and cross the river all in one move". These types of challenges force the child to come up with more efficient ways to write his commands by using loops, functions, and the "not" operator.
Some children are kinesthetic learners, which means they learn by doing and by movement. At bitcubs, we've developed a game that embraces visual, auditory, and kinesthetic ways of learning.
Why unplugged activities work better than going straight to the screen
Over the past few years, I've heard many comments about how the high-tech private schools in Silicon Valley don't teach with any tablets. While I do see many benefits to tablets in education, I also see the harm it does to our attention spans and ability to learn.
Have you ever tried to teach your child something on your smartphone or tablet and had your hand pushed away? And then they never learned what you were trying to teach them?
This is because most people are addicted to that instant gratification that a push of a button brings. The child cannot resist the lure of the button and also the false sense of independence. The child thinks "I can do this on my own and don't need your help". In reality, they do need our help but just don't realize it. For this reason, we need to still have some level of teacher-led discussions, lectures, and games that are off-screen.
My own experiment and what I learned
Back in 2014, when my eldest daughter was in preschool, I built this HTML5 game that would teach her how to count. The app would generate a random number of circles. When she tapped on a circle, it would say the number she was on. I even recorded my daughter's voice to make it a little more engaging. In my sleep-deprived state, I thought to myself "I can just give her this app and she can learn this on her own." Boy was I wrong. Although she thought it was fun to hear her voice, she quickly became bored after a few minutes.
Here's a link to the open source (keep in mind that I abandoned this project since it wasn't effective). FYI, there are now much more interactive apps that are a little more effective in teaching how to count.
So then, I decided I wanted to talk to her about addition. Her eyes lit up and she snuggled next to me as I drew sticks on a piece of paper. She was completely engaged. That day, I learned a big lesson in life....that teachers are more effective than apps.
My mental health counselor friend
Recently, I taught my friend's child. My friend is a mental health counselor and we were talking about teaching "off-screen". He told me that a student's relationship with the teacher is fundamental to learning. If you have a teacher that makes eye contact and connects with the student, then the student will learn more from that teacher. Conversely, you can have the most brilliant professor with a nasal voice that isn't able to teach anything to his students. Some of the most brilliant developers make for the worst mentors. Sometimes it's their inability to communicate or inability to interpret silence. Sometimes they are too impatient to deal with those they feel are intellectually inferior. Sometimes they just don't care or don't have the time to help others.
Discovery or project-based learning
Discovery based learning, AKA project-based learning, is based on the premise that children learn better when have to solve problems with little or no guidance. I just recently learned about "project-based" learning myself. As I soon discovered, it's a pretty big buzzword in the educational community. While I think there are merits to this style of teaching, I do not believe it is the primary tool to be used for children in elementary school. Elementary school kids don't have quite the cognitive ability to learn this way. They must be taught. Especially when we talk about coding, where exposure to coding is very limited. This cognitive ability to think independently improves in middle school and becomes more fully developed in high school. (Based on research from the book How We Learn by Professor Monisha Pasupathi, Ph.D.)
The impact of teachers
My co-worker, Evelyn recently signed up her son for my Coding Awbie camp. After the classes ended, I was able to grab lunch with Chaz and Evelyn. We talked a lot about teaching and the impact of teachers. I've always been very interested in learning more about her and how she remained so positive in an industry that can become cut throat and jaded. Well, one thing I found interesting is that Evelyn was home-schooled and had 5 siblings! Whoa! Her mother must be Wonder Woman. She obviously knew what she was doing. Evelyn and her husband were college sweethearts that were both Math majors. She also took some Computer Science in college. Evelyn taught high school math for a little while and also received her MBA.
Evelyn currently does automated QA (Quality Assurance) for my last employer, ICF Olson. For those not in the tech world, she works on scripts that test software and identify bugs in code. She's extremely hard-working and very well respected. Then my natural next question was...."Why didn't you pursue becoming a software developer?"
Her answer broke my heart...
She replied, "because I had a terrible professor that didn't care if we learned anything....it turned me off". Here was a lady who could ace Differential Equations, but struggled to achieve a good grade in a basic Computer Science class. Back then, there was such little exposure to Coding and Computer Science before college. So when your only exposure to a subject is taught by a professor who couldn't teach, then it's not surprising that she would be turned off.
One of my best friends had a similar story. She was forced to take Computer Science in high school by her parents. She was only 1 of only 2 girls in the class. When the class started, the boys in the class were already exposed to coding and they aced the class. The girls had no prior exposure and were left hanging dry. My friend told me "I got my first C in that class. That class ruined my near perfect GPA". I can't help but think that she may have become a great programmer if she were exposed to this earlier. My friend is a real ace at Escape Rooms and she is a natural at solving puzzles (she's also ultra-competitive).
I also have a similar story. In college, I aced my first Computer Science class. Unfortunately, that streak did not continue, and for my second class, I got a D-! A lot of this was due to my lack of hard work during my college years. I eventually starting showing up during office hours to get extra help. I bombed the final exam. When the posted all the scores on the wall, I noticed they intentionally curved the scale so that I wouldn't be the only one to fail the class.
Despite this setback, when I was looking for a job out of college, I still told every interviewer I had that I was willing to code. Every company was looking for people to write code. I landed a job at a startup, and that's when things completely changed for me. Not only did I learn how to code....I enjoyed it! I realized that I couldn't learn about coding in a lecture hall listening to a professor or by taking tests. It wasn't until I was financially on my own and building websites for a living, that I finally learned how to code. And I continue to learn more each day, 20 years later. I'm just thankful that I didn't let that one class turn me away.
Now that I have the opportunity to teach children, the responsibility is not taken lightly. I've had great teachers that inspired me to study Engineering. I've seen how one bad teacher can have a ripple effect in a person. I want children to understand that coding can be fun. I want to expose them to some of these concepts early, so they have a better chance to excel when they take more difficult classes. I want to comfort them if they are upset. I want to assure them that they "can" when they say they "cannot". All of these things will not be replaced by a robot (at least not in my lifetime). Please re-share!