Daniel Lemire's blog

, 3 min read

From online courses to… automated teaching

Universities worldwide are starting to offer online courses. Personnally, I just launched my first Computer Science graduate course (INF 6104, in French).

Because students can take the course on their own time at home, without having to show up at designated time, accessibility is unbeatable. (Note: some online courses still require you to show at designated times.) However, the transformation goes deeper than just having increased accessibility… the consequences are far reaching!

Some students need a professor holding their hand (see FSP’s recent account). These students are apparently reluctant to use Google, to seek the answers for themselves. In fact, they are probably perfectly able to browse, search, and read on their own. What they need is a strong emotional bound to peers and a teacher. These are the same students who will prefer to wait 30 minutes in line for a human teller instead of using an automated teller. These are the same people who will go to a crowded bookstore to buy a book, even if they have to drive 50 minutes to get there, instead of buying their book online in 3 minutes. What they seek is the human touch. Alas, in learning, shopping, traveling, the human touch will soon be an option. For computers to alleviate our work, we need to learn to rely more often on computers, and less often on human beings.

If you paid attention, you might see that I am drawing you somewhere… online teaching… automated tellers…

To a large extend, what I do with my students is to automate more and more of the teaching process. I no longer assign problems and then ask students to come to my office if they cannot do it. I post the solution online! I no longer wait for the unavoidable questions (when is homework 1 due?), I post all of the answers online. How do I know that I have posted all of the answers? Because 99% of all questions I get from students are answered on the Web site! I even get to tell my students about related stories in an automated manner (by using a blog). I work very hard so that I never need to repeat myself. I write it once for all students, for all times.

And I am not alone. My colleague Guy Tremblay designed a system called Oto. While I do not think he would spin it quite this way, the goal of Oto is to automate the marking of programming assignments.

A very popular service to learn English as a foreign language is Gymglish, an online automated teaching tool. Reviews are very good.

I conclude with some expected consequences:

  • Automated teaching will make learning far more accessible and, eventually, slightly more affordable. The great benefit will be to be able to get a degree in nanomolecular physics from the North Pole.
  • Students who do not need the “human touch” in any case, will get more learning done in a shorter time with automated teaching. Other students will complain that professors are no longer “there for them”. Automation will transform teaching, not make it better or worse.
  • Just as computers are transforming the jobs of travel agents, bank tellers, and bookstore managers, they will have deep and profound consequences for teachers and professors. It is just a matter of time! Consider all the routine operations you do and see how you can outsource them to a computer! How much time do you spend in class telling students about when the next midterm is, and what is covered? Telling them how to get the last set of lecture notes?
  • There will always be students who need the emotional bound with a professor and with their peers. Automation can only go so far. That is, until we can achieve true AI and people start becoming friend with their computers!