Human Touch vs. Technology

The role of professor is more than just teaching. It involves guiding students, young and old, through the many small steps needed to complete courses and degree programs. Faculty defend their role in providing the “human touch” to people whose futures depend on what courses they take and what they learned in school. But, sometimes faculty overstate their role and its benefits to students. The assumption is that the “human touch” that faculty provide is always correct and helpful to students. The “human touch” can also cause students a lot of confusion and frustration, because of errors that professors make in teaching, grading, academic advising, and so on.

As I documented in The Lean Professor, teachers make lots of errors which result in unclear and disorganized teaching. This obviously reduces students’ satisfaction with face-to-face learning and creates opportunities for technology to displace the “human touch” from faculty. If the “human touch” does enough harm to annoy students, then students will seek alternatives. In the past, the alternatives were limited: drop the course, switch programs, or switch schools. Now, students have many online alternatives that diminish the role of live professors and the common types of recurring errors they make.

It is a mistake to think that education cannot be automated using technology. Just as faculty are self-interested in preserving their job and way of life, because of the benefits that they see to students, providers of teaching technologies are self-interested in growing their business, because of the benefits they see to students. I suspect that, as in most other industries, technology will prevail, in part because of most professors’ historical unwillingness to acknowledge and correct errors.

Of course, here will be some universities that remain committed to the “human touch” and will survive and prosper because they do that well (small private colleges), and the top schools will do whatever they want and also survive and prosper (the Ivies and some flagship institutions). Public higher education (regional comprehensives), however, is at risk. Negative perceptions of faculty unions, taxpayer burden, stereotypes of state employees (as people who do little actual work and have great benefits), job-for-life, etc., exposes public higher education to the introduction of teaching technologies.

Most public higher ed leaders will not expend the political capital to change politicians’ society’s minds about public higher education. That requires them overcome myriad deep rooted biases, beliefs and untested assumptions, illogical thinking, and decision-making traps that people possess. Nobody wants to be proven wrong, especially influential political leaders, so why should higher education bother trying to prove them wrong? They will put in the minimum effort so that they can say to us, “I tried.” But they know the reality of their situation.

In industry settings, the managers closest to those who do actual value-creating work have long tried to defend the need for humans (flexible to changing requirements, identifies improvements). Mostly, they lose the argument, as senior managers seem universally pre-disposed to dislike the people who do value-creating work and seek alternate ways to get the work done at lower cost – even if the required up-front investment in technology is large. Faculty in public higher education face a similar situation. Large sums of money will be available for technology, but not for people.

Naturally, we search for a way out. There are many things that faculty can do to demonstrate greater student focus, reduce errors, improve the relevancy of education to industry needs , etc., via Lean teaching. And public higher education can adopt Lean management for administration. Both require leadership and a concerted effort to inform the public, every day, of improvements that are beneficial to them – progressive unions, taxpayer value, new attitudes about state employees (hard workers that deserve their pay and benefits), earned job security, etc.

It’s not too late. But it could be getting close.

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