Step 64: Speculate on the Future Role of Professors

In what is otherwise a mediocre book, Tyler Cowen’s Average is Over contained this passage about the role of professors in a future where online educational material is abundant and AI can precisely measure the progress of students:

In other words, in the longer run, professors will need to become more like motivational coaches and missionaries. The best professors have understood this for years and have been serving that function from the beginning. What’s less well understood is that improvements in AI will make these the remaining roles of what we now call “professors.” The professor, to survive, will have to become a motivator and coach in essence and not just accidentally or in his or her spare time.

[…]

It will become increasingly apparent how much of current education is driven by human weakness, namely the inability of most students to simply sit down and try to learn something on their own. It’s a common claim that you can’t replace professors with Nobel-quality YouTube lectures because the professor, and perhaps also the classroom setting, is required to motivate most of the students. Fair enough, but let’s take this seriously. The professor is then a motivator first and foremost. Let’s hire good motivators. Let’s teach our professors how to motivate. Let’s judge them on that basis. Let’s treat professors more like athletics coaches, personal therapists, and preachers, because that is what they will evolve to be.

The book makes some assumptions about the progress of technology, but since that’s not the focus here, I will accept that assumption as is. On the more plausible side, I will accept that we can monitor the performance of students and model how well a student understands each topic. (The latter is actually a hard problem; I have read papers on modeling arithmetic learners, and there is a surprising amount of data-gathering involved. For this post, however, we can assume that this has been done for every existing college course and subject.) For the sake of argument, let’s say we also include cameras (for emotional recognition, eg. frustration) and virtual reality (and haptics!), even if these technologies will take a decade to mature.

What is the role of the professor in this world?

For one, I agree that professors will be motivational, at least in part. I start my introductory computer science course by telling students that they will struggle, but that I will work with them through it. Especially with computer science, which pushes students in new ways, students often need the reassurance that they can figure it out. And the motivational component is not just coursework related – throughout the summer I have been exchanging emails with students about potential majors and courses of study, and placating their worries about not knowing exactly how their college career will work out. With new student advising happening on Friday, this is a role that I am sure will take up more of my time in the near future.

The question for me is whether professors have any other beyond motivation. Elsewhere, I have written about how technologists are often biased against the human element, something I am also guilty of. Cowen suggests that the “classroom setting” may be essential, but I think even more crucial is the physical presence of the professor. As all-encompassing as Facebook is, it can’t subsume physical interaction as a medium, and hugging an old friend has an intangible je ne sais quoi that cannot be reproduced online. Similarly, being in the same room as professor and other students may bring something that merely video chatting (or VR) cannot bring. The nebulousness of this concept makes it hard to talk about, however, and regardless, I can’t dismiss the possibility that physical presence is ultimately only useful as motivation.

Is there a function that professors currently fulfill, then, which goes beyond motivation and which even the advanced technology we’ve assumed can’t replicate? There are two that come to mind.

First, among the technology we’ve assumed, I was tempted to list that the “best method” of teaching (for all subjects) have been discovered. What I realized, however, is that it’s possible this “best method” may require a guide to be there. Even in computer science, I can envision Heisenbugs that require more context than the computer has data for, in which case there must be a human in the loop. For other disciplines, even if there are algorithms to classify “good” writing from the bad, I suspect that the coherence of the essay would still require a human grader (but I would be interested to know that I’m wrong).

The other role that professors play – and one that I have stepped into – is counseling. I have already mentioned talking to students about majors, and while making sure they get through the process may be motivational, helping them find the right major is a different job entirely. Understanding the psychology of a student, then adapting to it and suggesting a way forward, is not within the skill set of a computer (at least, not without assuming much bigger advances in AI).

If there is a thread between these two roles, it’s that the professor must take a wider context into account which, I suppose, is a standard weakness of AI systems. So it’s not surprising that professors would be left with the messy human elements.

…Although, I suspect that this says more about how we envision computers than the job of a professor.

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Step 64: Speculate on the Future Role of Professors

3 thoughts on “Step 64: Speculate on the Future Role of Professors

    1. Do you think the value is in understanding what the student is struggling with (and providing appropriate interventions), or in motivating the student? I’m curious if you think (in this vision of education and AI) the guide by the side can be “mass produced”.

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      1. Both – when I facilitate a classroom activity, I see where students get stuck; thus I can help them just-in-time, and I learn how to continually refine the activity to avoid (unwanted) difficulties in the future. Also, students work together in teams, and answer each others’ questions, which lets me spend more time on broader issues, or with students that need more attention. So it scales pretty well. Some teachers also use student assistants (combining elements of POGIL and PLTL). I’m not sure we’ll get to a fully automated version that works for every student – F2F human interaction still seems useful for many of us. 🙂

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