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Jun 11, 2018

Promises and threats of relational technologies

Why has information technology failed to revolutionize education so far? The reason is as simple as it is unexpected: education turned out to be much more relational and much less informational than we all believed. Various thinkers suspected that to be the case for a long time. Vygotsky, for example, emphasized the social nature of learning. However, it was more of a theory. Now we know for sure –people are almost incapable of learning anything on-on-one with a machine; they need each other to learn anything of importance. Many smart people got excited about MOOCs around 2012, because MOOCs promised to change the economic fundamentals of higher education. Well, if you are still excited about MOOCs, you have not been paying much attention. Not one university has closed down because of the competition from Coursera or EdX, and it is not likely to happen. Students come to campuses for a relational experience with their peers and professors.

The next logical move would be to invest in technologies that somehow help with human relations, by either faking real human interactions, or helping teachers relate to more students, or relate stronger. That is a genuinely new path; no one has really explored what possibilities exist in relational technologies. For example, what if an AI can maintain realistic and sophisticated conversations with thousands of students, and every one of them would get personal attention and encouragement? After all, people are eager to be fooled. Even the relatively stupid machines we have today, like Siri or Alexa, get an affective response from at least some users. Computerized dolls and anthropomorphic robots incite affection as well. Just a little push may produce a reasonable artificial tutor who remembers where you are with your learning, and imitates collaboration within your zone of proximal development.

In addition, what we know about human attachment, may suggest ways of manipulating student attachments to make their teachers more important, more influential, more relatable, hence increasing their ability to motivate students to learn. Would it not be wonderful?

No, it will not. Whatever I was trying to imagine in the world of relational technology began to morph into monstrosity. The possibility of abuse offered by manufactured relations is enormous. I actually find it difficult to write about what can be done, for the fear that someone may actually try to do it. Messing with human relations just feels very creepy to me. In fact, various cults, malignant gurus, gangs, abusive teachers – all manipulate human relationality. Their tricks bind one person to another person in a strong attachment. Do I want such tools become widely available to educators? – Umm, not really.

The reason education is so slow to change and so repellant to innovation is that it deals with human nature. All attempts to make people kinder, eliminate envy, curb aggression and control love are slow, centuries long processes, resisting quick technological solutions. Well, education if one of those slow things. For a whole host of reasons, it is impossible to suddenly raise productivity. What people are able and willing to learn, and whom they can learn with – these are not easily changed. The human condition has something to do with our evolutionary path, with fundamentals of our social organization and economics.