It was Teachers’ Day. Greetings were pouring in. In a self-congratulatory mood, I announced, “You know, I have a dinner date today with Mr Kaushal... my student.” My better half replied, “Yes, we know. He honours you, this day, every year.”
My grandson, studying in class IX, said sarcastically, “Enjoy your dinner, grandpa. Teachers’ Day dinners are not going to last long.” Indignant and a little annoyed, I asked, “What do you mean?” “Sorry, grandpa. I read in my book that human teachers will be replaced by mechanical teachers in future. So, Teachers’ Day will hardly be celebrated anymore,” he explained apologetically.
Science fiction writer Isaac Asimov’s story, The fun they had, which I had taught in my class, immediately flashed in my mind. Set in the year 2157, the story depicts a society where children learn individually at home, sans school, sans human teachers. I pondered over the scenario. The way information technology and artificial intelligence (AI) are influencing society, everything seems possible. Otherwise too, as Robert H Schuller observed, “It is difficult to say what is impossible, for the dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow.”
The teacher-incarnate robot, I tried to visualise, will teach right in the room of each learner. The whole library of books, dictionaries and encyclopedias built in, he will act omniscient. Blessed with an unfailing memory, he will never fumble or falter and will always be composed and consistent, calm and cool. He will never fume or frown, rebuke or reprimand, punish or penalise.
If learning was to be only about acquiring information, a robot or tele-teacher would be the right choice. But I wondered if to educate a person meant only to stuff him or her with facts and figures. I was reminded of WB Yeats: “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Will a mere machine be able to light a fire in the young hearts, I asked myself.
Devoid of human warmth and emotion, will the electronic educator ever be able to build an emotional bond with students? Also, will an apparatus be competent enough to judge whether the learner has grasped the concept or not just by reading the face? Will it be capable of conveying and communicating through expressions and gestures, modulation and intonation, references and anecdotes from daily life? Can we expect the same commitment from a robotic device? The list was unending.
Perhaps Asimov also struggled with such concerns. Hence, the subversion of the notion of ‘A home school, independent of human teacher’, for the story ends with the character Margie ‘thinking about the fun school-going kids had in the old days.’ As American educationist George Couros observed, “Technology will not replace great teachers, but technology in the hands of great teachers can be transformational.”