Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Technology Versus Jobs

The replacement of human workers by machines is an old story. In early 19th-century England, weavers and agricultural laborers, under the banner of their imaginary commander General Ludd, attacked the new machines which threatened to eliminate their jobs. Since then people who oppose technological innovation have been called Luddites, meaning benighted opponents of “progress”.

Although our very present-minded society might consider two centuries an eternity, the transformation of human life through technological innovation has been rapid, even violently so. In 1850, most people on earth still lived and worked much like their ancestors 1000 years before, assisted only by hand tools and animal power. Within a few generations, everything changed, and now it seems like everything keeps changing faster than we can keep up.

While technology has destroyed jobs, it has created even more new ones. The blacksmiths and wheelwrights who maintained the primitive vehicles of the 19th century were replaced by many times as many automobile workers and mechanics. But in recent decades, many of those jobs have disappeared, replaced by machines. Over the past 20 years, the US has lost about one quarter of our manufacturing jobs. That rapid decline has been due to the twin processes of automation and export of jobs to places where workers are paid much less.

One drive of capitalist business is to create new products and new markets, which can mean more jobs. But an equally important drive is to reduce costs by replacing skilled workers with cheaper, less skilled workers, and then replacing them with even cheaper machines. The benefits of that kind of progress flow to the owners of industries, while their formerly employed workers have to scramble for other jobs. The first kinds of jobs that were replaced by machines were in manufacturing. But recently clerical and service sector jobs are also being replaced, usually by computers.

That brings me to one of the most recent technological innovations, online education. We are told, or being sold the idea, that computers can replace teachers. Even though teachers are paid strictly middle-class incomes, replacing them with ever cheaper computers could represent enormous savings. At the university level, the development of MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses, vastly increases the number of students who can be reached by one teacher. Harvard University recently offered a course on ancient Greek literary heroes that enrolled 27,000 students. In order to provide a minimum of real human contact, Harvard alumni and former teaching fellows were asked to volunteer to direct online discussions. But most of the interaction was among the students, rather than between students and teachers.

The fundamental claim behind MOOCs is that content is everything. The personal interaction between teacher and student is unnecessary, or can be reduced to occasional email question-and-answer, without any loss in learning. Because much of the teaching at giant public universities is already done in courses with hundreds of students, this may seem like only a minor shift. But even when the professor lectures by Power Point to an auditorium full of passive students, graduate students or part-time adjuncts supply the possibility of human contact and personal attention. MOOCs and similar forms of online education eliminate that remnant of the teacher-student relationship.

EdX, a consortium between Harvard and MIT, one of the larger enterprises offering online education, uses computer programs to grade student writing. That effort has spawned a Luddite reaction: thousands of faculty have signed a petition against this practice, stating clearly “Computers cannot read.”

Public universities are starving for financial support as state educational budgets have been reduced in recent years. The recession caused major cuts to state financial support of higher education: per student funding has fallen by 23% since 2008. An inevitable result is that tuition has increased by 28% over inflation, greatly outpacing the sluggish growth in Americans’ average income.

I am not opposed to all forms of online education. The use of computers to deliver information and ideas cheaply and across any distance can greatly increase access to learning for students of all kinds: families who cannot afford college tuition, adults who wish to pursue special interests, professionals who seek further knowledge in their specialties. But the drive to cut costs in secondary and higher education, the increasing reliance on standardized tests, and the easy provision of content via computers could come together in the near future in the replacement of teachers with machines.

Last year the American Council on Education recommended that college credit be given for some MOOCs. The model of teaching and learning through personal interaction would be replaced by Power Point lectures, passive video watching, and computerized grading of student essays, all in an effort to save money.

Maybe I’m just a Luddite at heart. I don’t have a smart phone, a Facebook page, or any presence on social media. I don’t want to talk with my refrigerator. I do like to talk with students, to see their reaction to the information I give them and the questions I ask. I believe that my colleagues are far more effective at teaching information, concepts, and ways of thinking than any computer program.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, November 25, 2014

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