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3 things edtech can’t do

As this story shows, teachers matter more than ever

2. Technology can’t … get to know a student

Software today can potentially access a lot of data about a student: home address, race and ethnicity, diagnosed learning disabilities, family income, attendance records, test scores, browser history, and even keystrokes and mouse clicks. But with all that data, can software really know a student? Can a computer understand how his social status at school leads him to feel when he’s assigned to work with a particular group of peers on a class project? Or can it predict that she’ll enjoy reading a particular novel because it reminds her of her best friend from the town where she used to live? Software can make a lot of useful inferences based on patterns it finds in the data it collects. But it can’t collect data on all the important factors that shape a students’ learning experiences, nor can it model all of the psychological complexity of childhood and adolescence. Real knowing and understanding is a human-to-human experience.

3. Technology can’t … care about a student

Where do students get the motivation to learn? At times motivation may come from pure intellectual curiosity. But more often than not, motivation comes from relationships. For example, a student stays after class for extra tutoring because he cares what his parents think of his grades and he believes his teacher’s confidence that a little extra practice will help him get the grades he wants. Or a student becomes excited about science because a teacher who cares deeply about her also cares deeply about science. Students often work to learn and to achieve for the praise and approbation of people who matter in their lives. Software, for all its wondrous abilities, can’t offer that sense of genuine caring.

Related: Are your edtech tools really working?

But teachers can’t …

As the examples above make clear, teachers shouldn’t worry about software and devices taking their jobs. The kind of sci-fi-level artificial intelligence that might do the things described above is a long way off. This means the odds of teachers being replaced by machines are pretty slim. Teachers are a performance-defining feature in even the most technologically sophisticated learning environments. Any edtech aimed at replacing teachers sets a low bar for quality education.

But here’s the rub: while software can’t do the things listed above, neither can most teachers. For teachers, however, it isn’t a matter of capability, but a matter of capacity. How often do English teachers conference individually with their students about the quality of their rhetoric, especially when correcting grammar and structure already takes up so much of their time? How many teachers have time to meet regularly with each of their students one-on-one just to ask about how they’re doing, let alone attend all their students’ extracurricular activities or visit their students’ homes to get to know their families? Caring about students isn’t constrained by time, but showing that you care is. Unfortunately, when push comes to shove, most teachers’ days quickly fill up with planning lessons, writing quizzes, running copies, covering content, participating in staff meetings, and grading lower-order assignments; with little time left for many of the high-value activities described above.

This is why edtech is so important for teachers, in spite of all the things it can’t do. If we want all students to thrive in an increasingly complex world, we need teachers to spend more time developing students’ higher-order skills, tailoring learning to their personal circumstances, and building strong relationships with them. A key way to unlocking teachers’ capacity comes from using technology to take lower-order work off teachers’ plates.

In short, educators need technology to automate some of their work so they can focus on the important work technology can’t do. For anyone interested in advancing this idea, we’re developing a new framework to help educators think about how technology amplifies teacher capacity. We’d love to hear what you think.

[Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on The Christensen Institute’s blog and a version of this post originally appeared on The 74 Million. ]

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Thomas Arnett

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