On my future obsolescence

When will high school English teachers be obsolete? When will we be made redundant by technology? I expect to retire around the year 2035; will my job description still exist in twenty-something years? Let’s take a look at the different components of my work and imagine when they might no longer require a human being with specialized skills to perform them.

Vocabulary instruction: Obsolete within 2 years
Gamification and artificial intelligence should produce a better way to teach students vocabulary any day now. Students already grind through SAT-style vocabulary lessons for hours on end in some prep classes (esp. overseas), and there is very little that requires a human instructor to improve learning outcomes.

Grammar instruction: Obsolete within 5 years
Existing software to catch grammar mistakes in students’ writing is better than it was a few years ago, but still pretty weak. Idiomatic statements and artistic turns of phrase confuse the grammar checking software of today, but it should begin to improve rapidly now that companies such as Apple and Google are throwing so much weight behind speech recognition and natural language search. Combining all of the books that have been scanned by Google with a product like IBM’s Watson should dramatically improve a computer’s ability to understand context. Meanwhile, the grammar checking function within Microsoft Word is already quite reliable for run-on sentences, fragments, agreement, case, and basic punctuation errors. The fact that society is putting less and less emphasis on proper grammar anyway (Do you use “whom” in your spoken English at all?) helps by lowering the bar.

Writing instruction: Obsolete within 8 years
Even today, I’m hard pressed to argue that writing is always best taught in a classroom setting. Distance writing instruction, albeit with a human instructor, can replace the classroom model now. Editors have been working with authors to improve their manuscripts via snail mail more less since the Flood, and real-time collaborative document mark-up apps are proliferating. Low paid copy editors could be given the task of marking papers, and once this function is separated from the more artistic side of teaching writing, the teacher-student ratio could be altered dramatically. Teachers are getting busted for outsourcing their grading today. Out-of-work humanities majors could grade 500 essays a day for peanuts while a shrinking number of “star” instructors will be the last few permitted to run elite writing workshops (via video conference, of course).

Literature instruction: Obsolete within 10 years
MOOCs can deliver quality college-style literature instruction today. If you want something closer to the 15:1 student to teacher ratio discussion experience that independent school English teachers deliver, you may be waiting a while. But does society even put a value on that model? A MOOC taught by a distinguished professor, abetted by a squadron of TAs in a work-study program could instruct a thousand high school students through a reading of Macbeth for a fraction of the price paid to teachers today to deliver that instruction. Online chats will replace face-to-face instruction, but will that be a noticeably inferior way to wrestle with literature?

Communicating progress to parents: Obsolete within 2 years?
Many schools have embraced LMSs that report grades back to parents in real time. As this increasingly becomes the norm and gamified instruction proliferates, parents will have access to real time performance data any time they want, delivered via their handset. Sure, parent-teacher conferences will go the way of the dodo, but the colorful charts and graphs will be very reassuring.

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

I’m struggling to keep working on this post. My problem is that I can’t decide if I’m writing satire or not. If I knew it was really satire, I could embrace the genre and go for laughs. If it isn’t satire, it needs many more specifics (names of apps, software, companies, pilot programs, research reports) which I can’t rattle off from memory. In truth, I’m just becoming familiar with many of these options as I hear more and more good suggestions from my PLN. Of course I believe that the personalized, relationship-based, community-building style of teaching that independent school English teachers like me deliver can’t be duplicated by apps and software next year, or ten years from now. But it doesn’t have to be 100% as good, does it? If it is 90% of the way there, my career could be headed for trouble.

But on reflection, I suspect that my future obsolescence will come not from technology replacing English teachers per se, but from technology replacing the schools in which we work. As online education increasingly offers a cheaper alternative to venerable institutions with major overhead problems, English teachers will all be freelancers running our own tutoring businesses and contracting ourselves out to the online grading-mills. Our existing secondary school system is under assault from both ends: parents looking for better alternatives to disappointing public schools, and parents looking for more personalized and cost-effective alternatives to pricey independent schools.

The answer for English teachers like me? Permanent beta, of course. But if the number of English teachers needed to deliver the same quality of instruction is cut in half in twenty years, it will require an awful lot of “building one’s brand” to stand out from the crowd and be one of the survivors. How many of us have the patience for that dreary exercise?


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