A few days ago, I re-watched the classic 1965 movie “The Slender Thread” in which a woman played by Anne Bancroft tries to commit suicide and then calls a crisis center hot-line where everyone is furiously trying to pin-point her location in order to send an ambulance.

Apart from the intricate story which the woman slowly unfurls during her call, there’s another thing which makes the movie so special: Antique technology and a look behind the scenes of 60ies telephony.

As the crisis center is trying to locate the caller’s location they first have to file an emergency request through an operating center (the place where dozens of women used to sit with headsets plugging and unplugging cables), which after being checked by the local police results in a person physically wandering through relay racks and looking for the call with a flashlight, only to find out that it’s coming from another switchboard to which they have to send another person and so on and so forth.

The first thing that came to mind while watching this was that the movie was a great showpiece of long-obsolete jobs in the communication industry.

It’s a good example of the term technical unemployment: how slowly and silently occupations that could be replaced by machines became extinct.

NPR compiled an interesting list of these occupations, among them: elevator operator, copy boy, pinsetter and lamplighter.

Most of these jobs are about manual labor and have already been wiped out a few decades ago.

But what about occupations involving mental labor? Are they next?

Will teachers and educators occupy the list of tomorrow’s obsolete occupations, doomed to extinction by the relentless steamroller of information technology?

Why iPads Don’t Magically Make Shakespeares

If, on any given day, you check the Net for the latest news on education, there’s always a certain quantity of “revolutionary new technologies” and “disruptive tools” that promise to fundamentally change the way we learn.

Whether it involves replacing textbooks with iPads, using Twitter back-channels or using 100% automated language learning solutions like RosettaStone there’s a great underlying hope that technology will somehow increase the quality of learning.

Ironically, when people speak of “quality education” they mostly refer to a quantification (!) of knowledge as measured by scores and making people learn faster, not necessarily deeper, in order to stay competitive and make learning as efficient as possible.

Now, add to this the fact that education technology is a huge, lucrative business! Many education-startups are pressured by investors to constantly fuel the hype with marketing language and new products, apps and subscriptions in a carefree Silicon Valley way.

But there is no guarantee that iPads will make young kids want to read more instead of playing Angry Birds or that Twitter will improve in-classroom communication constructively instead of merely accelerating the slide into banter.

Neither is there any proof that using automated interactive language software helps people to learn better.

Computers Are No Smarter Than A Gnat

Yes, sure, we have these “smart” algorithms crudely mimicking the way a teacher might respond and repeat a particular topic until understood but if you look at the current state of artificial intelligence, it’s far from being intelligent.

From my own experiences with these automated language learning software I always thought that this is how the Orangutans must feel when put in front of touch-screens to push the right color before they get a banana.

Push right – smiley face, fanfare sound.

Push wrong – sad face, tuba sound.

That’s about as “smart” as these allegedly intelligent technologies get in reality.

Sometimes it can help to drill a bit of vocabulary. Then again, language learning is not a boot-camp.

Ultimately, it only insults the contextual intelligence of the user, whether human or primate.

Also, there is the question how you can learn a language which is a form of human interaction by using a software that lacks.. well… human interaction.

Therefore, as promising as it might seem to strip the human factor from the equation, it will eventually backfire, especially considering the disagreements and confusions around what learning actually is supposed to be.

When The Tinkertoy Stops Being Exciting

While the climate around education technology is still largely dominated by the Silicon Valley gold-rush mentality and the large amounts of individuals influenced by this techno-babble bubble, lately more and more people are beginning to voice concerns and weariness regarding the trumpeting of superficial change.

A commenter on a blog post about 21st century learning skills put it like this:

Using a computer doesn’t automatically mean someone is learning. But neither does using a pencil, a whiteboard marker or a chisel. Put the learning ahead of the technology and that’s where the great teaching is found.

And this is where it gets interesting.

If learning is the highest priority, what does it actually mean?

It’s easy to create another app and promise people to learn languages fast, easily and without interacting with real people. (That’s the job of the marketing and development department, the parts of start-ups that are usually perfectly in tune with each other.)

But there are a million questions here, such as: How does the way a human being learns differ from the way software “learns”?

What motivates learning? Smiley faces and fanfare sounds? Or the direct feedback and encouragement of another human being?

What about animals? What can we learn about the way they acquire new skills and how does it differ from our way of learning?

For hundreds and thousands of years human beings have been collecting knowledge, learning and experimenting.

The ever-smaller, ever-faster computer, one of our younger accomplishments, seems to have brought with it a curious predicament:

Not only did it make our lives easier but also we have begun to rely on these new technologies on such a scale that thinking, feeling and communicating on our own has become a daunting prospect.

How can technology possibly be the answer to a growing over-reliance on technology?

Education technology therefore will be very limited if not even obstructing until educators have defined very clear goals and functions for each of these tools that are not merely self-referential.

In other words: Before we don’t find ways to define “quality education” apart from the blind chorus of bigger and faster, there’s no use to bring in technology.

A good way to start is thinking about skills.

If you put a computer and a human being next to one another, what are specifically human skills?

Quickly storing and retrieving information?

Or thinking creatively, self-reflection and emphatic communication?

Once the answer is clear, we can come up with a division of responsibilities instead of trying to be like computers or forcing machines to mimic our own behavior.

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