Tue Jun 30 2020 Michael McQueen

It may sound like something out of a sci-fi film, but technology firm Promethean recently trialled the use of an interactive hologram teacher in a London classroom. Known as a ‘HumaGram’ this holographic educator is touted as being highly interactive and extraordinarily lifelike.[1]

As I was discussing this experiment during a recent television interview, the program host asked what could be considered an obvious question: ‘Does this mean the end of school teachers?’

In news that’s likely reassuring, I answered that it certainly is not. Even the creators of Promethean’s holographic teacher suggest it is primarily designed for remote education or in areas where there are significant teacher shortages.

The more important question, though, is this: just how much of a teacher’s role can be automated? Certainly grading papers, tracking attendance and collecting data can and is increasingly being automated using Artificial Intelligence.[2]

Even elements of class monitoring could be taken over by technology in the years to come. A new classroom surveillance system being developed by Hikvision Digital in China is specifically designed to monitor student attentiveness. Tested in Hangzhou Number 11 School, the system features cameras placed at the front of the classroom that detect facial expressions ranging from neutral to happy, sad, disappointed, scared and surprised.

Unnervingly, a display screen shows the teacher’s engagement results in real time.[3] While this whole application of technology is a bit creepy, it is indicative of how technology could re-cast the role of educators in the years ahead.

In one sense, the ambition of using technology to replace or enhance human educators is not new. As far back as 1924, Sidney Pressey was trying to sell a machine designed to take the place of teachers and enhance learning.[4] Pressey’s device was widely panned (as every attempt to do the same has been since).

A number of years ago I was invited to speak at an education conference in Sydney’s western suburbs. The theme of this particular conference was ‘Increasing Student Connections’ and I was excited to learn that the speaker who would be presenting prior to me was actually going to be a student. I remember thinking, ‘What a novel concept, having a student speak at a conference designed to help teachers better understand students!’

This young girl, Melissa, spoke at length about the things that she and her friends found engaging in a teacher. While she offered a number of valuable insights, I was particularly struck by one thing she said: ‘The teachers that my friends and I connect with are the ones who treat us like people, not just students.’

There was an uneasy silence in the room. Undoubtedly there were some teachers attending the conference who saw this as common sense. And yet it was a timely reminder that common sense is not necessarily common practice and we often forget the basics.

For others in the audience, it became clear that this notion was an uncomfortable one. When I asked the event organiser why so many teachers appeared so averse to what Melissa had said, she pointed to the fact that many of the attendees had been taught in teacher’s college that if they had any hope of gaining the respect of their students they must not laugh, smile or show any hint of their ‘humanness’ for at least their first three months at a new school! ‘Don’t smile till Easter’ was the mantra drummed into many a new graduate. Still today, many teachers believe that their role in the classroom is defined by the professional distance they maintain between themselves and their students.

What this demonstrates is a dangerous resistance to change present in schools and teaching methods. If there is any place that is ripe for disruption it is schools, and this mode of teaching is the most vulnerable.

I am firmly of the opinion that technology will never truly replace human teachers in the classroom. Educationalist Elisa Guerra agrees: ‘To say that technology will replace teachers is like saying that a hammer will replace carpenters. Technology enhances lessons, it is not the lesson. Technology is not the teacher, it assists the teacher. Yes, a machine can produce a piece of furniture quickly, precisely and efficiently. However, students are not mass-produced pieces of furniture. Children need the artistic touch of human connection to reach their full potential.’[5]

The teaching of the future will not be driven by detached student-teacher relationships, in which the teacher relies on their authority and position for rapport. It will not be about the transactional, one-sided delivery of information in exchange for obedience and respect.

My colleague Dr Ian Lillico put it well when he observed that ‘Today’s students learn teachers not subjects’. That is to say that, until students have a strong rapport with teachers, they will be reluctant or resistant to what a teacher is trying to teach them.

Masterful teachers who can apply creativity, artistry and empathy to what they do in the classroom will become more valuable in a future dominated by technology. It is the capacity of teachers to connect with and relate to students that will be most critical.

Teachers who do not embrace these areas are leaving themselves highly vulnerable to the technological disruption of the future. After all, if teachers do not provide the touch of humanity students are looking for, then why not replace them with something that is not human?


Michael McQueen is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.

He features regularly as a commentator on TV and radio and is a bestselling author of 8 books. To order Michael's latest book "The Case for Character", click here.

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[1] Blunden, M. 2017, ‘Holograms Of Teachers Beamed Into Classrooms From Around The World’, London Evening Standard, 25 January.

[2] Doucet, A. et al. 2018, Teaching In The Fourth Industrial Revolution, Routledge, New York, p. 22.

[3] Connor, N. 2018, ‘Chinese School Uses Facial Recognition To Monitor Student Attention In Class’, The Telegraph, 17 May.

[4] Doucet, A. et al. 2018, Teaching In The Fourth Industrial Revolution, Routledge, New York, p. 135.

[5] Ibid., p. 33.