My Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Yehuda Amital, once told of a conference he attended in Bar-Ilan University. At that conference (whose exact purpose I do not recall), one of the academics declared that artificial intelligence and robotics had reached a point - and this was at least 15 years ago - where the day was not far away where a robot could be built that could do everything that a mother could do. Short of marvelling at the advances in technology, Rav Amital took a broader view and replied, "Yes, we could construct such a robot that could serve in place of a mother. But what kind of child would it raise?"
This question is consistently on my mind these days as we continue to make computers and technology an increasingly important part of education. It seems that we have reached at least the third level of computer involvement in education. Once upon a time, computers were more or less for typing up papers - glorified typewriters, if you will. The next level was computers as a communication tool (email) and then sliding into a role as a classroom aide (smartboards, etc.). The current level is computers being used as a more collaborative medium, as blogs, wikis, googledocs and so on allow students and students and/or students and teachers to work together on projects, lessons, and an ever-widening variety of educational experiences.
Now education is moving towards the next level - online learning or blended learning. In some ways, this has already arrived. The University of Phoenix is famous for their online courses, and people have been able to order great books or entire university courses on tape for decades. YUTorah.org has made it possible to download thousands of shiurim and to literally follow shiur yomi from many of Yeshiva University's Roshei Yeshiva. However, all of those efforts have been aimed mainly as adults. What is beginning to happen is the introduction of this type of learning at the high school, the middle school, and perhaps even the elementary school level.
Few, if any, people are suggesting that 3rd graders should download their assignments, watch YouTube videos, and play podcasts and somehow assemble an education in that fashion. Rather, most suggestions to this effect speak of gradually introducing more and more computer-based elements into a student's education, thus providing them with the opportunity to expand their horizons, better control the pace of their own education, and come to class ready to discuss that which they have already absorbed. As I will discuss in future posts, there is much to commend this approach to education when done well and in an age-appropriate fashion.
However, I write this post as a necessary caution for myself and all other like-minded educators who willingly embrace the next wave in education, and particularly if technology is involved. To my mind, much good has already been achieved through our adoption of various technologies, and there is much more good still on the way. However, we have to bear in mind Rav Amital's question - what kind of children will we raise if we hand over significant portions of the education process to machines? Our role as educators is not simply to pour information into receptacles known as children. Rather, we are charged with helping our students develop as students, as good citizens, as socially responsible members of society, and as Bnei and Bnot Torah. Computers can accomplish the information aspect - we have to make sure that we hold on to our role and ability to do the rest.