Can software tutors reform education?

I just read Disrupting Class: How disruptive innovation will change the way the world learns by Clayton M. Christensen, et al. I’m not sure whether the book’s findings were obvious or profound, but I was fascinated by the theory of disruptive innovations — technological changes that overtake an existing market in ways that make it almost impossible for incumbent organizations to make the transition. The authors use this theory to predict what sorts of education reform are possible.

One way to summarize the authors’ vision is as follows. There are plenty of cases when a students’ learning experience in school is not well matched to the student (for any number of reasons, be they learning style, teaching style, intelligence type, socioeconomic background, etc). In such cases, the affected student would benefit from a personal tutor to fill in the gaps. Personal tutors for everyone is obviously too expensive. But if we can make computer software that performs reasonably well as a tutor, it would be better than nothing. As the software technology matures, it might even be better than a human personal tutor for teaching certain subjects. In fact, some students might notice that actually going to class is unnecessary; they can learn all of the material in a faster and more enjoyable manner via the tutor. If this is true for a large enough number of students, schools would have no choice but to undergo reform in a way that embraces the software tutors and focuses on providing the services that computers cannot, such as coaching, motivation, teamwork, and other emotional skills.

There are a lot of “ifs” in this vision. However, it seems fairly certain that some version of the scenario will come to pass. The authors think that successful software tutors will be based on lesson contributions from the network of teachers, students, and parents who are also benefiting from the system. How far the vision goes depends on how well the new technology is able to visibly and measurably demonstrate effectiveness — a goal that has historically been elusive in attempted education reforms.

Update: If you have any trouble imagining these changes taking place, start with college-level lecture classes. Some students already skip lecture because they learn better from reading and doing problem sets. But why would anyone attend lecture in person if the best teacher in the world can be viewed online at any convenient time in high-definition video, paused and replayed as necessary? Real-life teachers and TAs quickly assume the role of facilitating, grading, and other forms of individualized feedback and assistance.


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