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Should Robots Replace Teachers?

Anupama Ramachandra

Anupama Ramachandra, a Fulbright Scholar, is an experienced academician and Principal of Delhi Public School, Electronic City, Bangalore.

Anubhav is a high school student who spends few hours in front of a screen, listening to lectures, watching educational videos, taking online tests, and connecting with his classmates and teachers. His parents are not sure if they should ignore this engagement or stop him from long online interactions. It makes it all the more difficult to take a stand as he is doing reasonably well at school. The indulgence of the youth with technology is a common scenario in many families.

The field of education, like any other has undergone significant transformations over the years, driven by evolving processes and advancements in technology. Artificial intelligence, automated systems are fast invading classrooms, and many foresee a day not far away when teachers would be potentially replaced by Robots. What was seen as science fiction has become a reality in Indus International schools at Bangalore, Pune and Hyderabad where Eagle Robots (India’s first teaching robot) have taken over classrooms to teach diverse subjects like physics, chemistry, biology, geography, etc.  raising a debate on envisioning a future with exciting possibilities and valid concerns.

When one considers the benefits of having robots as teachers, the factors like the ability to deliver pre-programmed lessons unswervingly ensures that students receive education of the same quality. This adds consistency and reliability while reducing discrepancies due to varying teaching styles or levels of expertise of teachers. The fact that robots would not go on leave or quit halfway the academic session makes it more reliable than human teachers who are prone to being away from duty for various reasons. While many question the extent of personalised learning robots could offer, it’s evident that advanced algorithms can cater to each student’s learning style and offer self-paced lessons. The performance of each student can be analysed and this data can be used effectively to create tailor made lessons for each learner. The fact that robots are devoid of human emotions can be used as an advantage to avoid any biases that teachers bring in unintentionally. Thus, a more neutral and equitable educational environment can be created by robots as teachers.

The pandemic experience of teaching online introduced educators to incorporate use of technological tools for almost all aspects of schooling. Gamification, simulations, and virtual reality experiences can be offered by robots to create an immersive student engagement. This paves the way for an interactive and adaptable learning environment enhancing student understanding of the topics being taught and better learning outcomes.

Lacking EI Quotient

When the other side of robots replacing teachers is examined, the topmost argument would be that the former lacks the emotional intelligence which makes it incapable of understanding and responding to complex human emotions. Even the most advanced machine could not be programmed to identify, encourage, support, the students in a way that the human teacher would. One needs to understand that the robots perform within the boundary of the pre-programmed content. The elements of creativity and flexibility are alien to the robots because of which they may not be able to cater to the unique needs of each student. Spontaneous and unexpected questions would not be answered if the bots have not been pre-fed with the answers.

Also, the robot would not be able to teach based on the situation of the day in a classroom. Even if a student were to feel uncomfortable due to poor health, the robot would continue teaching till someone paused or switched it off. This indicates the absence of human interactions in a classroom resulting in lack of development of social skills critical to interpersonal relationships. The humanoid robots could save large data, measure movements, are accurate with results and do many functions that humans cannot do but, these machines can never inspire any learner as they cannot think and function on their own. As envisioned in NEP 2020, tasks of nurturing of attitude, life skills, values and character traits could not be entrusted to robotic teachers because these can be achieved through constant mentoring and guidance provided to student by empathetic teachers.

Education goes way beyond the expertise in specialised subjects of the robots. It encompasses holistic, personal growth nurturing skills of communication. Collaboration, creativity and compassion. This can be accomplished by none other than a human teacher.

Technology as a Boon

When we spread our imagination and think of a hypothetical situation of a day when robots would replace the classroom teachers, a chaotic scenario is more expected than an improved one. Does this mean we ignore the role of technology in the classroom? On the contrary, use of technology can be a boon to provide accessible and affordable educational opportunities to all who seek to learn. It could act as an enabler and equaliser. If used effectively, technology can redefine the possibilities of the teaching-learning process and its effectiveness. A child from the remotest part of the world with minimum means of electricity and internet could have access to excellent educational resources. In our country where there is a shortage of skilled teachers, robots could save the day! Subjects like coding, languages, advanced topics of Mathematics etc. could be instructed by the specialised robots. This condition could result in educators losing their jobs causing socio-economic crisis till they find alternate employment. One could also imagine a day at school with robots as teachers when there is a technical glitch or a power shutdown. While the robotic led system would come to a standstill human teachers would still know a hundred ways of engaging students in this eventuality.

That brings this argument to a logical conclusion of whether or not robots should replace teachers? There is no doubt on the innumerable possibilities technological tools can bring into the educational system but a robot can only be an instructor and not a teacher for the simple reason that robots are machines made by humans. ‘The word ROBOT was actually derived by a novelist Karel Capek in the year of 1920. He introduced this word in his play “Rassum’s Universal Robots”. In the language of Czech , robot word means “ a worker or a servant”( better question to debate on would be, how can robots assist human teachers in the classrooms? Even at the school that is using humanoid robots in class, the teachers are explicit that the robots are never going to replace the human teachers, but they would certainly augment traditional teaching practices.

Teachers Vs Robots?

As the roles that could be played best by the robots and humans as teachers are amply clear, there would be no harm in letting robots take over the instructional task while the human teachers can focus on mentorship focused tasks of emotional support, counselling students, creative projects, life skills, critical thinking projects and inclusive strategies. Human intervention is in dire necessity to ensure that the ‘technology divide’ is mitigated by catering to students from disadvantaged groups who have no access to the equipment and tools. Human teachers could also fill the void of addressing the sensitive issues of ethics and morality which robots could never integrate in their lesson delivery. Also, the authenticity of AI cannot be taken for granted as Delhi High Court has mentioned that” Artificial Intelligence can’t substitute human intelligence or the humane element” (The Times of India 28th August 2023)

Technology is here to stay. Going forward, one can envisage a dynamic classroom with the harmonious blend of both the human teachers and robot instructors collaboratively reshaping education. This could lead to an effective, synergised learning environment that leverages the best of both the worlds. The key lies in carefully harnessing technology's potential while preserving the essential human elements that contribute to holistic learning growth. 

 As Donald A. Norman says, “Will robot teachers replace human teachers? No, but they can complement them. Moreover, they could be sufficient in situations where there is no alternative––to enable learning while traveling, or while in remote locations, or when one wishes to study a topic for which there is not easy access to teachers. Robot teachers will help make lifelong learning a practicality. They can make it possible to learn no matter where one is in the world, no matter the time of day.” Let robots be used for what humans cannot do efficiently and not to replace what only people can do beautifully. After all, it was Shri Siva Subramania Iyer, the teacher of Dr, APJ Abdul Kalam who inspired him to become the missile man and not a robot. 

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