Robot teachers in the classroom: It may sound like science fiction, but science fiction has a surprising habit of turning into reality. As technology develops at an astonishing pace, certain jobs become obsolete because computer programmes can do them better than humans can.
It looks like truck drivers and cabbies are next on the chopping block, but what about teachers? More specifically, what about people who teach languages like English? Will students of the future really need ESL lessons or IELTS preparation classes?
In this article, I’m going to talk about the future of IELTS and ESL teaching more generally.
Why might there be no ESL teachers in the future?
I’m sure you can imagine what I am about to say. Technology has developed quickly in the past decades and it’s hard not to wonder how it will change our society in the future. Is anyone’s job safe? Will we soon be sitting at home while robots do our jobs, and receiving universal basic income rather than earning a salary? Presidential candidate Andrew Yang seems to think so, as do many other important people.
It has indeed been suggested that even teachers might be in line to lose their jobs due to advancements in artificial intelligence. This is not so hard to believe. While twenty years ago, AI was extremely basic and only able to operate in very limited capacities, we now have self-driving cars and AI systems have been shown to outperform humans in diagnosing diseases.
It is impossible to predict the future, but looking forward one may well wonder whether or not any job is safe. A computer could definitely have more knowledge than a teacher and with a little training it could offer an infinitely patient approach with a communication system gleaned from the world’s best communicators. In short, it is easy to imagine many of a teacher’s roles being usurped.
As for ESL teachers in particular, we have to worry about more than just robots taking over classrooms… There is a much bigger question on the table:
Will anyone want to learn English in future?
I don’t mean that people will just be learning Chinese or Arabic instead. The question goes deeper than that:
Will there even be a reason to learn languages?
In the past few years, language translation software has moved forward in leaps and bounds. For languages with a shared origin, like French and English, it is now possible to use translation software with incredible accuracy. Moreover, one doesn’t have to feed in text or wait for a minute for the results. It is instant and it can be done through a microphone or even by pointing your camera at a sign.
Few things make me feel old as much as this development. I remember studying French in school with my dictionary in my hand, figuring out the meaning of a word and then trying to conjugate the verb. But will there be any place for that in future?
What’s the future of IELTS and IELTS teaching?
If no one really needs to learn languages, then language exams will naturally die away. Imagine that you can stick a tiny device in your ear and automatically translate any language into your native tongue. Why would you bother spending years learning to speak one single language? It would just be pointless. Then there is the question of whether you would want to go through the hassle of learning exam techniques for something as complicated and seemingly unfair as IELTS.
If learning languages did become obsolete, then surely so would IELTS, and so would the professions of ESL and IELTS teachers.
In defence of learning languages
Let’s say, then, that in 10 years’ time, the science of language learning has been perfected and distilled into translation software that we all carry around with us. I could go to Ecuador, Indonesia, Namibia, or Russia and communicate perfectly with all the people I met despite never having learned a word of their language. Would I still bother to learn any languages? What about my children?
We have books that tell us about history and maps that describe the world’s surface in great detail, but we still learn history and geography. We have calculators but we still suffer through maths classes and we can use GarageBand on our iPads but we still learn to play the piano.
To me, there is more to learning than the acquisition of knowledge. Sure, it may be the ultimate point, but I think that it is just about as important that people learn to think. I studied history in high school and at university, but I don’t remember the dates of all the major battles or the names of the generals. Was it a waste of time for me to study that subject then? No, I don’t think so. In the end, I learned how to think critically. I learned that history is made up of different sources and perspectives, and that you can try to figure something out but in the end you will probably have a theory rather than a definite answer. I learned to trust and distrust certain sources, and to always question what I was reading.
Learning a language is a similar affair. The process of learning this new language teaches you a great deal more than the nouns and verbs. It changes your brain, alters your perception of the world, and even makes you understand your own mother tongue better. It improves your communication skills in all languages, and the process of learning it usually exposes you to a totally new culture.
So I think that learning languages will always be attractive to many people, even if translation software does diminish its importance. But what about the job of teaching English?
A case for the necessity of teachers
There is a wonderful quote by Sir Ken Robinson from his TED talk, “How to Escape Education’s Death Valley.” He says:
- There is no system in the world or any school in the country that is better than its teachers. Teachers are the lifeblood of the success of schools. But teaching is a creative profession. Teaching, properly conceived, is not a delivery system. You know, you’re not there just to pass on received information. Great teachers do that, but what great teachers also do is mentor, stimulate, provoke, engage.
I have highlighted the two central sentences for a reason. Those bring to the foreground the very reason why I think that there will continue to be a need for teachers regardless of AI development. Although our profession will undoubtedly change in response to developing technology, our human qualities will still be required. It creativity, above all else, that inspires education, and even if you created a stunningly effective computer programme for inserting knowledge into a person’s brain, teachers would still be required to create lessons. A head full of knowledge is not the result of education. Education is about teaching people to think.
Even if we have translation software and AI programmes that can impart knowledge, there will still be a place in the world for language teachers.
What might teachers need to do in the future?
With all this new technology, the job of a teacher will undoubtedly change somewhat, but then it has been changing for decades. Advancements in technology and changes in societal norms have all had an impact upon the teaching profession. For one thing, throughout the whole of the western world, it is now widely accepted that you cannot hit a pupil, whereas it was perfectly normal just 50 years ago.
Teachers will have a role in facilitating the learning process and designing fun and creative lessons for their students, even when much of the knowledge is transferred to the pupil through a digital medium. In a way, this is already happening. The teacher is not expected to know absolutely everything any more, but rather is expected to be an expert in education – that is to say, an expert in getting knowledge from the classroom resource and into the student’s brain.
This will probably continue in future, with more and more knowledge being proffered from digital sources. The job of a teacher will shift and it will probably do so quickly, but we will not just be put out of a job and replaced by some sort of C3P0-like machine.
ESL teachers in the 2020s
The next decade will bring big changes in ESL, but ultimately classrooms around the world will still be filled with students learning English from teachers. The demand for this world language has not yet started to diminish, and it probably won’t for a long time. Any sweeping technological changes that come our way will not have a particularly huge impact until much later, although the more affluent schools may bring in new devices a little quicker than that. Still, as I said above, our job will partly be to help students use these devices.
I expect that the ESL job market will change more than the actual job itself in the next decade. For the last twenty years, East Asia was the big destination for teachers, but it will surely reach a saturation point. One also cannot predict the geopolitical state of the world, and jobs will also be affected by that. Will it be safe to teach in China or Taiwan or Hong Kong? It is impossible to say for sure.
Online teaching has grown in popularity over the past few years as internet speeds have allowed people in different countries to communicate easily over broadband connections. This trend will almost certainly continue for a few more years, and perhaps soon there will be more people going this route than actually travelling to faraway countries on expensive journeys. However, I believe that those who are willing to go where few want to go (rural China, for example) will continue to be rewarded.
Future-proof your ESL career
If you want to prepare for the future, then it is not exactly rocket science. You will need to build experience and gain qualifications, just like before. Having contacts in the industry will still be important, although the internet may well bring schools and teachers closer together.
Learning a foreign language will also make you a better candidate for these jobs, as will staying abreast of technological developments. Of course, as we become increasingly dependent upon technology, a good teacher will make sure to be knowledgeable about its potential uses in the classroom.