The technology that could replace us

Most of the claims that new technology will make teachers obsolete are patently false.

TED Talks, MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses), educational videos, vast online databases and typical educational apps and games simply cannot replace an effective teacher in a classroom.

But that doesn’t mean that nothing can. The technology tools with the greatest potential to disrupt and replace our current educational system are well-constructed simulation games.

Think about what makes a teacher effective.

  •      An engaging style. A teacher with a sense of humor, a gift for storytelling and the ability to simplify complicated concepts can draw students into almost any lesson.
  •      Knowledge. A teacher who thoroughly understands their subject matter can also understand what makes a concept difficult for students, and how to help them reach mastery.
  •      Relationship skills. A teacher with cultural competency and the ability to connect personally to teens and talk to them at their level can motivate students to want to do well.
  •      Clear communication and high expectations. A teacher who is organized, who clarifies learning objectives and creates a clear roadmap to achievement will succeed in pushing more students to achieve more growth.
  •      Frequent, accurate, helpful feedback. A teacher who takes the time to help students understand and learn from their misconceptions will earn students’ trust and respect, and again motivate students to do their best work.

Most ed tech products fail across the board. TED Talks are engaging, and they expose students to leading thinkers, but no relationship is formed, and no one is providing guidance or feedback to the student.

Most MOOCs I’ve seen aren’t even all that engaging. The teachers may be experts with tons of content knowledge, but these experts aren’t trained to hold the attention of a 15-year-old. No wonder only 4-5% of adult participants complete them.

Videos and databases are even worse. So what if there is information accessible, if no one has sparked a student’s desire to learn it? A teenager might seek out a video to learn how to snowboard or take better pictures, but are they intrinsically motivated to pursue stoichiometry?

What about apps and games? They have potential, but most existing ones are written at very rudimentary level, the electronic equivalent of a workbook. They may be fun and feedback-oriented, but they aren’t personal or deeply engaging.

The future of simulation games, however, may change all of this.

The simulation game I know best is Junior Achievement’s Titan game. In this game, students work in teams to manage their own firms, all of which are competing to produce “holo-generators,” futuristic holographic entertainment systems.

This game, even with its simplistic graphics and interface, is highly engaging to students. The players have a sense of purpose, and they are motivated to gain the knowledge they need to win – which includes understanding concepts like factory capacity, depreciation, minimum average cost and the importance of research and development.

The game doesn’t form a relationship with the student, as an effective teacher would, but it fosters teamwork and relationships within student groups. And at the end of every “business quarter,” students get very detailed, realistic feedback on their firm’s performance, including sales data, price-earnings ratios and employee morale.

This game draws in low-performing teens right along with the overachievers, and many continue playing it at home. The creators of this game understood something fundamental about how we learn, something that has eluded most ed tech firms.

Now imagine this concept applied to other sophisticated scenarios. Imagine a game where you are a pilot, a lawyer, an actor, an advertising executive or a cancer researcher, and the game plays out over months, not hours. You are expected to do complex, critical work, but you always have the chance to pause and learn new skills or information on a need-to-know basis.

For example, in the “lawyer” game, the player is preparing to argue a case in court. The student starts out knowing next to nothing, but feels competitive pressure to win in the game, so they seek out tutorials on gathering evidence, interviewing witnesses, using precedent cases, writing in a legal style.

I have seen this method work, in classroom simulation, using Mock Trial competition materials. In a virtual setting, where students see their avatars at work in a law office and arguing in virtual courts, it would be even more compelling.

These games are already in use for training pilots and business managers;  it won’t be long before they are available for widespread use in K-12 classrooms. Sites like provide links to new games being developed right now.

These games provide a sense of real-world purpose that many students haven’t developed for themselves, which makes them very powerful tools.

What will the teacher’s role be? That remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: If we want to remain relevant in a world of digital games, we need to retire the “same old, same old” lessons and work to engage our students with a sense of purpose.