There was a moment in popular culture when the vision for a the future included a teacher who looked a lot less human. In the 1960s cartoon “The Jetsons,” children attend classes taught by a purple and blue humanoid computer program, Ms. Brainmocker. That idea has resurfaced several times in the decades since — often as a monster-in-the-closet for teachers, but occasionally as an aide.
In some ways, it seems Ms. Brainmocker’s moment may be on the verge of arriving. Last week, Knewton announced the creation of an artificial intelligence program that automatically delivers content to students based on how they learn. Similar programs have begun to spring up, offering ways to automate at least some of the practices of a teacher. But as the market grows, the focus seems to be less on all-out replacements like Ms. Brainmocker and more on the blackboard, the books, and the homework she assigns. In short, many of the so-called “smart” technologies are intended to aid, not replace, teachers (at least in the U.S.). But making sure they do will require examining exactly how they fit into schools.