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To Fix Education: Fire Human Teachers, Hire Holographic "Hal"

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Message Adam Bessie

"50 years later, our generation's Sputnik moment is back," President Obama declared at a recent speech at Forsyth Technical Community College in Winston-Salem, North Carolina; this time, however, we aren't just losing to the formidable U.S.S.R., but now are being beaten senseless by wimpy little nations like Finland, for cripes sake.

Friggin' Finland.

Thankfully, in Shanghai we have a far more scary-looking foe than Finland, one actually worthy of replacing the Red Scare. We still have a healthy fear of a communist takeover of our country, which has been fed not only by Glenn Beck's chalkboard conspiracy theories, but also by the reality that China owns most of our debt, a fact feverishly exploited by both liberals and conservatives to grab votes in the midterm election. Now, in outperforming us in the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), these communist children have given us a "wake-up call," as Obama concludes, demonstrating that we are "in danger of falling behind," and waking up to a Red Dawn.

Our imploded economy, and the subsequent Red Scare, has led to a sudden, well-publicized "crisis in education," one which "of course!" has nothing to do with the imploded economy, and everything to do with poor performing teachers, and inefficient, poorly run schools, a refrain popularized by the documentary Waiting for Superman, promoted by billionaires Bill Gates and Oprah, and one that has made a star of former Washington D.C. superintendent Michelle Rhee. Fixing the "educational crisis" is also the policy that underlies Obama's Race to the Top, a policy that places faith in the free-market - "yes, the same free-market that imploded the economy" to fix education, and to make sure that we beat those dastardly commies in the classroom, and thus, the global economy. That, and of course, we can regain our honor by besting those bothersome, socialist Finns, who outperformed us, and don't even believe in competition in education!

An important cause of our "educational crisis", Secretary of Education Arne Duncan points out in a speech before American Enterprise Institute, a powerful neo-conservative think-tank, is inefficiency. In "Bang for the Buck in Schooling," Duncan pushed superintendents to look to their inner CEOs for ways to cut all that fiscal waste, and to "make tough decisions that will pay off long term, including rethinking teacher compensation and class size and integrating technology into school systems."

Here is a modest proposal for America, one that will help our educational system become far more efficient, one that will help us get considerably more "bang for our buck" out of public education by integrating technology and thus dramatically reducing wasteful overhead: holograms.

Yes, to win the Race to the Top, we should fire human teachers, and hire holograms.

Think this is mere science fiction?

In Japan today (who also beat us on the PISA), Hatsune Miku is the first holographic star, playing to sold-out audiences. The product of cutting edge software, Miku appears on stage as a real person, and is, according to Huffington Post "incredibly realistic," and has been drawing a massive following. While the initial cost of the software may be pricey, unlike a human star, Miku won't require travel expenses, five-star lodging, specialty water from the Amazon, the Betty Ford Clinic, beefy security guards, a greedy agent, nor, well, anything other than a steady power supply and a competent programmer. What's more, Miku can play live at simultaneous locations around the world, rather than a single location, and won't say or doing anything embarrassing -" that is, unless programmed to!

Unlike Miku, teachers are human beings, and humans - "even non-stars" - are exceptionally expensive: each individual expects fair compensation in trade for their specialized labor, including a wage commiserate with cost of living, health care, and retirement when they have completed decades of public service. What's more, humans can only be in one place at a time, and can only provide effective attention to a limited number of students at a single time. Thus, to run an entire educational system, one which serves nearly 80 million children and adults we need to hire millions of human teachers, which requires billions of our hard-earned tax dollars, all for an enterprise that that doesn't appear to produce any clear profits. Unfortunately, these human teachers don't seem to appreciate how expensive they are, and often stand in the way of efforts to lower costs, and make education more cost-effective -" imagine just how much money we can save through simple math, by increasing class sizes to 40 and 50 students, rather than the paltry national average of half this.

Worst of all, human teachers have conflicting ideas of how education should work, and all too often, they say and do things in the classroom that do not prepare students for standardized tests, nor their careers. For example, many human teachers don't believe constant standardized testing to be an effective way to capture the learning process, and some even believe these tests harm substantive learning. These wayward teachers use class time to explore unquantifiable wastes of time such as imagination, creativity, and empathy, none of which can be accurately assessed in metrics, nor converted into reliable data points, nor analyzed into standard deviations, and bar graphs. These teachers don't seem to appreciate Public School Operating System designer Bill Gates declaration that "If you want something to be excellent, it can't go unmeasured."

Unlike Miku, unlike the latest edition of Windows, human teachers don't always do what they are commanded to do!

Hal could solve all the inefficiencies inherent in public, human education. Rather than hire millions of fallible, inefficient humans, hire a single holographic teacher, Hal, to perform in all classrooms across America at the same time. Just as industry thrived from automating manufacturing processes, so will education under Hal, who can simulate effective education, sans all the pesky human costs and problems. Hal won't require a living wage, health care, nor will he form unions, nor will he ever -" ever -" deviate from the lesson that his programmers in Washington, DC, have designed.

Hal will provide a frictionless, perfectly efficient transfer of information to students' minds, at a fraction of the current cost.

Think this is too big a leap for the public? That they won't accept a human-less educational experience? That they still want actual, breathing humans in the classroom with their children?

Hal wouldn't be that big of step beyond what many college students already experience, as they "attend" their lecture class with 1400 other students via Webcast, and take many classes online with a teacher they never meet, all from the comfort of their dorm room. Further, programs like Accuplacer - "used by many universities already" - can automatically grade student writing, at a fraction of the cost of even low-paid, coffee addicted, grumpy graduate teaching assistants.

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Adam Bessie is an assistant professor of English at Diablo Valley College, in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is a co-wrote a chapter in the 2011 edition of Project Censored on metaphor and political language, and is a frequent contributor to (more...)
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