Remote Education, Technology, and the Social Brain

Two little boy attending to online class from home. The school has been closed during coronavirus outbreak and the classes have moved to e-learning platform. Nikon D850

It wasn’t long ago, that I was seated in a conference room at my old job as a teacher, hearing a talk about technology and the future of education. A college professor from the region warned us about the possibility of being left behind due to the rapid technological advancements in Artificial Intelligence. “In the future, your profession – being an educator – will disappear… technology and machines will do all of the work,” the instructor said.

He gave us a timeline. In 2045, our jobs as educators will radically change, demoting us as mere intermediaries between the students and the machines. I remember being visibly mad about the prospect of the machines replacing the art of pedagogy; although deep inside, I wondered if there was any truth to it. That instructor could not have foreseen the disaster that was the Covid-19 pandemic and the test that it would bring to the advancement of technologies in education. It’s safe to say that the utopian – or dystopian? – future that he predicted arrived early and the results weren’t pretty.

Covid-19 and Remote Education

Students across the world didn’t have the technological advantages to have remote education through the internet. Moreover, there were problems with the way learning worked through the screen of a computer; while teenagers and adults had a better understanding of how to navigate the technological barriers of the web, younger students need assistance from their parents and caregivers to study online. Many parents now work through a computer or have returned to their jobs, making the return to school even more challenging. What’s left of the supposed demise of the job of teaching is a new clamor for students being eye-to-eye in a physical space with their educators. Common are the stories of parents talking about the frustrations of their children during a class or while trying to connect with their teachers. Bethany Mandel reported in The Atlantic:

Most adults have a hard time in online meetings for that long for one day; it’s completely unreasonable to expect it of a child for months on end. And it’s leading to behavior issues, too. On one recent Facebook thread about screen time–generated outbursts, one mother wrote, “This is a major conflict in our family because we do not believe in this amount of screen time, and the kids thrive without it. Yet it is expected in order for online learning to occur.”

Technological promises for education

How do we arrive here, with technology betraying many and the longing for physical interaction between pupil and teacher revealing itself as a necessity for learning?

Yuval Noah Harari, arguably one of the most prolific intellectuals of the 21st century, wrote in his essay on Education that, “by 2048, people might have to cope with migrations to cyberspace… with new sensory experiments generated by computer implants.” Moreover, “…all jobs demanding this level of artistic creation might have taken over by AI.”These predictions went hand-to-hand with the progress of education in the last 100 years. Cognitive scientist, Steven Pinker, in his widely acclaimed book, Enlightenment Now, presented statistics that showed that the world was progressing in literacy and basic education; literacy in the world in 2010 was at 90 percent; more than 80 percent of the world population had basic education. Pinker expanded on the poorer communities in the US:

In the United States, measures of school readiness among low-income, Hispanic, and African-American children increased substantially between 1998 and 2010, possibly because free preschool programs are more widely available, and because poor families today have more books, computers, and Internet access and the parents spend more time interacting with their children. [emphasis is mine]

This data, in combination with the takeover of technology, especially AI, prompted other writers to think of the alternatives to in-school education. Fareed Zakaria wondered about the possibilities that big data and technology could bring to learning into college education. In 2015, in his book, In Defense of a Liberal Education, he wrote:

With big data – and strong analysis and smart programs processing that data – educators can learn a great deal about what is and what isn’t working. As students progress through a course, their teachers could get feedback related to each individual’s performance. The system could use early indicators like answers on quizzes and problem sets to created specific remedial content, change the place, and tailor reading and exams in ways that would be most effective for that particular student. If thousands of students around the world stumbled over certain questions in quizzes, it would send a broader signal to educators that the teaching of that section or the design of the test required fixing. Big data could be an early detection system that allowed for quick course corrections. [emphasis is mine]

Notice that the role of the educator is reserve to customize learning through big chunks of data and letting students complete quizzes and other lectures through a computer. Zakaria was thinking of programs like Khan Academy and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOR), to supply a liberal education, like the humanities, that are currently disappearing from universities. And yet, you can see the direction toward an online education that could take over the role of teachers and professors.

Social brains and long-distance learning

Returning to the current Covid-19 crisis, these prospects of online learning and remote education haven’t blossomed. Although many families have access to the internet, most of it is not reliable for a full, 8-hour day of classes. Students don’t have the same interaction that they would have in a physical classroom. Moreover, the feedback of professors, which sometimes involves present, social interaction, sometimes feels incomplete. In countries with scarce resources, says David Robson, these effects, “are expected to widen the existing inequalities across the globe, with repercussions for years to come.”

Part of the problem is due to how our brains evolved to learn and interact. One big part of the evolution of our brains is the social interactions and organization of groups in human experience. As many scientists have discussed in the past, “we are deeply social creatures.” Neuroscientist David Eagleman further explains: “From our families, friends, coworkers, and business partners, our societies are built layers of complex social interactions. All around us we see relationships, forming and breaking, familial bonds, obsessive social networking, and the compulsive building of alliances. All of this social glue is generated by specific circuitry in the brain…” The lack of social interaction during remote learning is latten in the current context of the Covid-19 crisis.

Cognitive scientist, Stanislas Dehaene, in his recent book, How We Learn, puts up-front why social interactions, especially up-close is pertinent for learning. Dehaene proposed that in education there are four pillars of learning: attention, active engagement, error feedback, and consolidation. Of these four, two of them are pertinent for the classroom and seem to be missing in the current state of remote learning. The first one, active engagement, can be achieved in the online classroom. Active engagement involves the teacher creating curiousness in his/her student. Brains through “discovery of previously unknown information bring its own reward: it activates the dopamine circuits.” Many online tools for introducing or exploring topics are available in the current context. Even museums, like the Smithsonian, have online interactions with their exhibitions.

However, error feedback is another story. Here, the involvement of the teacher guiding the pupil through errors, pointing out what to adjust after the latter discovered his/her mistake, is key. Our brains are predicting machines, they create patterns to minimize errors – yet again, another important evolutionary trait –, so it’s normal for many students to err during classwork. The teacher or professor, in a physical environment, gives real-life feedback on want went wrong, and, instead of punishing him, showing where did he/she err. Many of these interactions require non-verbal inputs and signs, that only our social brain, in the context of learning (remote education), can understand. With low-quality internet, a screen separating the teacher and the student, it’s difficult for such social and pedagogical interaction in the classroom.

As the Covid-19 crisis continues, a return to full capacity is highly improbable. Educators and curriculum will need to adjust. Still, this experience demonstrates the failures of technological utopias, in which teaching jobs disappear, and AIs become the new educators. That still could be true for the future, but for now, it looks dim. Neil DeGrasse Tyson once said in a late-night show that we already are surrounded by AI and that it wasn’t the end of civilization. There’s a long road before our social brains can accept the pedagogy of machines.

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  1. […] History only serves Eagleman as the vehicle to contrast primitive ways of living versus the technological progress of the present. In a way, proving that Eagleman did not learn much about the virus. He falls into the same traps that many other intellectuals of his caliber have fallen lately. As Steven Pinker, Matt Ridley, and others, Eagleman places his hopes on technology, ignoring far bigger problems that not necessarily require innovations from the tech sector. […]


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