Sunday, September 20, 2009

Self-checkout lines: the future of education?

As do many millions of people in the U.S., I am now regularly forced to use the self-checkout apparati at such national chain stores as Home Depot (shown above) and Walmart (shown here, in case you live under a rock.) I must admit, I don't like them; but, I also admit they make personnel and commercial sense for the companies that use them. Afterall, a manager doesn't have to hire or fire a machine, and machines don't need insurance, or moral talk, or discipline, or that host of a zillion other interactions required for human resource management. My guess is that they also breakdown at a much more (quantifiably) predictable rate, and probably are easier to price and plan for installation than are employees.

In the 80s, I was a part of a (educationally profitable) band. One day, a few bandmembers and myself were standing around, killing time, and the drummer made a good-natured joke at one of the instrumentalist's expense. The bemused object of the joke retorted, "Hey, buddy, you can be replaced by a machine!" Back then it was quite funny, as the drum machines of the day sounded like a cross between tin foil being crinkled and wine-glasses being dropped. However, with today's technology any such retort would be quite accurate, and maybe also in bad taste. Still, even back then, a short conversation broke out on the matter about machines and drummers, with the eventual conclusion being that "you can 'hang out' with a drummer, but you can't with a machine." That was true at the time and is probably still true for a couple of more decades, though the general drift of how we'll first have A.I. buddies is now clear.

So, as has been well attested since the industrial revolution, people are being replaced by machines. Well, not completely, of course. At checkout kiosks, there is one employee who keeps watch over a half a dozen or so of the devices. The same thing happened in the yarn industry in the late 1700s, where one (lucky) employee could watch over eight or more Spinning Jenny machines. The difference, I suppose, is that now such replacements are occurring in the service industry, not just in the manufacturing industry. It used to be said that this wasn't so bad, since somebody had to be trained to fix the machines. An optimistic view, but not true to the employment threat, since the number of people displaced is far more than the number of technicians required to maintain the displacing technology, as is seen by the automobile industry's usage of robots (video).

The sudden rise of the internet was not at first a problem for the education industry, per se, but the super-addition of broadband tools which make the posting of audio and video almost effortless is. Add to this the ever more-powerful, free and open-source cloud-based software, and one begins to think that education would not require institutions like colleges and universities to deliver an adequate degree. However, at this point, it is way too early to make such a claim, since having access to information and learning a subject are two different things, as anyone who has bought a calculus or foreign language textbook knows.

From my observation, most of the educational success that occurs in formal institutional settings comes from peer motivation and personal coaching. People do best when operating in face-to-face social groups, whether in academics, sports, or even in casual exercise programs. World of Warcraft crack-heads not withstanding, the internet is not yet able to offer a significant substitute for this social activity. Granted, that it might offer this someday cannot be ruled out, but we do not have full immersive, three-dimensional displays (i.e., interfaces) nor even the internet infrastructure to deliver this. Furthermore, not all disciplines are skill-based, template-based, or procedural-based; or, put differently, education and Engineering are not the same kind of endeavor. Still, in the early stages of education, there is information that must be mastered, and often it is somewhat template-based--such as using a technical vocabulary, a fairly-standardized history of the discipline, and other lower-division kinds of overviews and introductions. And it is with these where educational institutions are being forced to change. By analogy, just because the checkout kiosk is tolerable for some retail activities does not mean I would want it for all of them. For instance, the case-by-case, situational complexities of medicine and chemistry means that pharmacists are still required to review and perhaps even discuss what products I get at the back of Walmart, even if the fruit and vegetable guy at the front of Walmart need not review me about my choice of onion.

Ultimately, universities will have to separate (1) content that can be delivered for impersonal learning from (2) discipline-specific knowledge that requires a certain amount of personal interviewing and coaching. Quite a bit of money has traditionally be generated by using instructors to teach the former, but it turns out the latter is the more difficult and important task of education. Acquiring data is one thing, analyzing it is quite another, as Astronomers, for example, well know. The internet will continue to be a fine (if financially disruptive) tool for content delivery, but as a student gets more content, there are subsequently more difficult issues in knowing what to do with such content, and that requires a mind-to-mind engagement.


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At 11:36 AM, Blogger Chad said...

"most of the educational success that occurs in formal institutional settings comes from peer motivation and personal coaching. "

I couldn't agree with this more. What motivated me to become a successful student during my education at SNU (and ultimately what I found most impactful) wasn't the material learned, although logic and philosophy of mind certainly presented information that I'm still captured by. Rather, it was exactly as you said, peer motivation (both in terms of being motivated to keep up with the other majors and in terms of competition/rivalry* with the students from down the hall) and personal coaching. I'm not sure if personal coaching could be as meaningful at larger institutions like state schools with huge undergraduate classes, but at a school like SNU it becomes a vital part of the educational experience.

- Eichorn

*Rivalry between philosophy majors and theology majors was similar to that of the rivalry between a hammer and nail, so maybe that's a bad choice of words.

At 2:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanx, Chad, for the bit of your own analysis on the matter! -- b

At 7:18 PM, Blogger SpockTheSecond said...

While I agree that there is educational material for which a machine is inadequate to package and deliver to the student, human teachers can have trouble teaching their students too, due in large part to having to adapt to the different learning styles of each individual student. Psychological profiling often helps in this area, and while there is still much to understand about the different ways we learn, what we have come up with so far could be considered template-based to a degree. A machine to crank through all the intricate statistics from various case studies could possibly be more efficient in determining how to present information to any given student than a human.

But again, as has been emphasized, human teachers offer a degree of social interaction that a machine that still fails the Turing test probably could not. Students learn better the more engaged they are in the subject, and while a machine might be able to determine how exactly to engage a student, like finding out how often to use visual aids, analogy, or even humor in a lecture, the human is still the ideal choice to actually deliver the material.


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