Issue Number 236 June 30, 2018

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is edited by Dave Moursund and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education (IAE) publications.

All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are available online. In addition, seven free books based on the newsletters are available: Joy of Learning; Validity and Credibility of Information; Education for Students’ Futures; Understanding and Mastering Complexity; Consciousness and Morality: Recent Research Developments; Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education; and Common Core State Standards for Education in America.

My most recent free book, The Fourth R, has had more than 15,000 pageviews (Moursund, 12/23/2016). This 4th R of Reasoning/computational thinking is fundamental to empowering today’s students and their teachers throughout the PreK-12 curriculum. It is currently undergoing a revision that includes updating and expansion.

Cobots in Automotive Factories and in Education

David Moursund
Professor, Emeritus, College of Education
University of Oregon

A robot is a machine capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically. Nowadays, most people think of robots as being computerized and having a certain level of artificial intelligence. As a youth I grew up with robots in science fiction stories, such as in the large number of books and stories written by Isaac Asimov (Wikipedia, 2018b). Nowadays, I like to think more broadly about robots. I consider a handheld calculator, a Smartphone, and a smartwatch to be examples of robots. In this newsletter, I use this rather broad definition of the term robot.

A cobot is a collaborative robot designed to work closely together with a human factory worker, each doing what it can do as well as or better than the other. In terms of factory automation, “better” is defined both in terms of quality of the work done and the cost of doing the work.

I first encountered the term cobot in an article, Tomorrow’s Factories Will Need Better Processes, Not Just Better Robots (Harbour & Schmidt, 5/11/2018). My browser then led me to an earlier article, Meet the Cobots: Humans and Robots Together on the Factory Floor (Hollinger, 5/4/2016).

As I read the two articles, what immediately popped into my mind was an analogy with students and education. In some sense the job (work) of a student is to become educated. We provide students with books, pencil/pen and paper, desks, classrooms, teachers, and other aids to do their job of becoming better educated. We teach them to read and write so they can use these tools, both as aids to further learning and as aids to solving problems and accomplishing tasks.

This newsletter explores the analogy of what cobots are doing in factories and what cobots are doing and can do in education.

Redesigning Automotive Manufacturing

Modern automotive factories are highly automated. Here is a quote from the more recent of the two articles mentioned above (Harbour & Schmidt, 5/11/2018):

There’s no doubt that the auto industry will continue to vigorously pursue automation solutions to lower the cost of producing cars. But the reality is that any major leap forward on cost and efficiency will no longer be possible through automation alone, since most of the tasks that can be automated in an automotive factory have already been tackled.

When a real Factory of the Future arrives, it will not look different because we have automated the processes we use today. It will look different because we will have invented entirely new processes and designs for building cars requiring entirely new manufacturing techniques. [Bold added for emphasis.]

Both of the cobot articles discuss robots costing in the range of $30,000 to $50,000 that are designed to work safely alongside human workers and are easily reprogrammed for different tasks. The first article goes into detail about how the automotive factory of the future will become much more efficient than those of today through a complete redesign planned specifically to make effective use of the steadily improving robots and cobots.

This compete redesign is a key idea. What does a factory look like when many workers have a cobot as a work partner? Keep in mind that as artificial intelligence continues to make progress, such cobots will become “smarter” and will learn both through additions/changes to their programming, and also by learning on the job through interaction with their human partner.

Redesigning Education

Now, let’s go back to the cobot factory production and education analogy. Since I was a child, I have worn a wristwatch. Eventually my windup spring-powered analog watch gave way to a battery-powered digital watch. Think of a wristwatch as a cobot. In terms of my learning to deal with time, my wristwatch effortlessly tells me the time, day of the week, date, and so on. It also serves as a timer in races and as an alarm. In this working partnership, my brain power and world experiences tell me how to make effective use of this wristwatch cobot that provides information to help me solve the variety of problems and accomplish the variety of tasks that I encounter in my everyday life.

Next, consider my Smartphone as a cobot. Of course, I can use it as a wristwatch. However, it is a far more powerful cobot than a wristwatch. My Smartphone cobot can provide me with GPS information, access to the Web, a digital still and motion camera, and so on.

For years, educators have been achieving slow but significant progress in making effective use of computers to try to improve various aspects of education. For example, consider writing. Teachers know that one key to producing a well-written document is “revise, revise, revise.”

A word processor is a powerful aid to revising written documents, since it greatly reduces the time to do, then redo, then redo a document. It also is a useful aid to finding spelling and grammar errors, and accessing an online dictionary and thesaurus. Current word processors have become still more user friendly through the addition of voice input and output, and computer translation into other languages. Another feature of this language arts cobot is that it assists in desktop publication – designing and producing a document that is physically appealing and is designed to make the document easier to read and understand.

The short quote from the article about redesigning automotive factories is relevant to language arts education. Think of the whole area of computer-assisted multimedia as a new aspect of both reading and writing. We need to redesign the reading and writing components of language arts to take advantage of multimedia cobots.

Here are a few important ideas to incorporate in language arts redesign, as well as in other curriculum areas:
  1. We now have the Web. Think of the Web as a redesign of the library that incorporates an online browser cobot. Every student can easily access the world’s largest library, but it takes considerable learning and experience to become skillful at this task.
  2. We now have spreadsheet and graphing software. Think of this as a redesign of by-hand processing of data and then incorporating this quantitative and graphical information into the written document. Every student can learn to make use of these cobots that are aids to processing data and communicating the results of such data analysis.
  3. We now have Highly Interactive, Intelligent, Computer-assisted Learning (HIICAL) systems. Think of these as a step toward each student having an educational cobot that is a personalized computer tutor. In the future, a student’s personal cobot will gain a knowledge of what its tutee knows and can do, as well as ways to specifically help its tutee to gain more knowledge and skills.
This list of using cobots (computerized aids) in teaching, learning, and using what one is learning in school is easily expanded. In each subject area, students learn about some of the problems and tasks addressed in that discipline. To a very large extent, they currently learn by-hand methods of solving some of the problems and accomplishing some of the tasks that help to define the discipline. This education is strongly rote-memory oriented. For many students, such education becomes a process of memorizing, regurgitating during a test, and soon forgetting. Educational leaders know that this is a very poor type of education.

For a specific example, consider mathematics. The past 50 years have seen the development of better and better computer algebra systems (Wikipedia, 2018a). Quoting from the Wikipedia:

A computer algebra system (CAS) is any mathematical software with the ability to manipulate mathematical expressions in a way similar to the traditional manual computations of mathematicians and scientists. The development of the computer algebra systems in the second half of the 20th century is part of the discipline of "computer algebra" or "symbolic computation", which has spurred work in algorithms over mathematical objects such as polynomials. [Bold added for emphasis.]

In essence, a CAS is a cobot that can now solve essentially every type of math problem that students encounter through their first full year of calculus. A useful analogy is to contrast using a handheld 6-function calculator with learning to use paper-and-pencil methods of doing addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and calculating square roots. Educators have been arguing for more than 40 years about “proper/permissible” uses of calculators in schools and in the math education of students. 

Costs and Benefits

It is easy to understand why factory owners make the decision to automate many factory activities. They save money by doing so, and such automation may well help in the production of better products. It is relatively easy to measure costs, and usually it is possible to measure improvements in the quality of a product.

We now have considerable history about how automation affects employment. Thus, in a particular type of job in a particular factory, a robot might do the work of four humans. Even that, however, lacks precision. How much preventative maintenance and repair does the robot require? How many years will it last? Is it of danger to human employees? And, what becomes of the displaced workers? There is a social cost to automation that must be considered.

Costs of Educational Cobots

It is not nearly as easy to determine the cost-benefits of providing every student with an educational cobot. This cost component can be researched and determined through case studies. For example, consider the Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow project (Ringstaff, et.al, 1996). Quoting from this document:

Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow (ACOT) is a collaboration—initiated in 1985— among public schools, universities, research agencies, and Apple Computer, Inc. In ACOT classrooms, students and teachers have immediate access to a wide range of technologies, including computers, videodisc players, video cameras, scanners, CD-ROM drives, modems, and on-line communications services. In addition, students can use an assortment of software programs and tools, including word processors, databases, spreadsheets, and graphics packages. In ACOT classrooms, technology is viewed as a tool for learning and a medium for thinking, collaborating, and communicating.

ACOT’s research has demonstrated that the introduction of technology to classrooms can significantly increase the potential for learning, especially when it is used to support collaboration, information access, and the expression and representation of students’ thoughts and ideas. [Bold added for emphasis.]

It is certainly possible to determine the cost of all of this computer equipment when the project began in 1985, and what somewhat similar but more powerful facilities would cost today.

What are we spending on public education in the U.S. today? Quoting from U.S. National Center for Education Statistics (NCES, 2017):

Total expenditures for public elementary and secondary schools in the United States in 2013–14 amounted to $634 billion, or $12,509 per public school student enrolled in the fall (in constant 2015–16 dollars). Total expenditures included $11,222 per student in current expenditures, which includes salaries, employee benefits, purchased services, and supplies. Total expenditures also included $939 per student in capital outlay (expenditures for property and for buildings and alterations completed by school district staff or contractors) and $348 for interest on school debt.

The U.S. and a number of the other economically developed countries have made substantial progress in the development of Internet communication systems that serve businesses, governments, libraries, homes, and schools. In terms of schools, Internet access already is included in the average yearly cost of schooling for students. In addition, essentially all schools provide some computer facilities for students. This varies from poor, totally inadequate facilities to one relatively good desktop, laptop, or tablet computer per student.

Facilities for teacher use also vary considerably and are steadily improving. Computerized versions of “by-hand” grade books were first developed about 50 years ago. Now, such software is in routine use and is a component of many of the computer assisted instruction programs that students use in schools. Many teachers make use of a personally-developed Digital Filing Cabinet (Moursund, 2016).

Suppose we are starting from scratch in terms of providing every student with relatively good computer facilities for use both at school and at home. In this type of discussion, I like to begin with the figure of $500 per student per year. Would $500 per student per year be enough to cover this cost? I believe it would, but you can make up your own numbers.

Certainly that is enough money to provide every student with a good cobot. Indeed, for some students, far less money is needed. I recently purchased an Amazon Kindle Fire for Kids for $75. It is a ruggedized version of Amazon’s widely sold Kindle Fire 7. This price included a two-year replacement guaranty for loss or breakage. It has voice input and output and might well serve quite a bit of the cobot needs of a young student.

But wait, what about the cost of redesigning the curriculum, retraining teachers, and producing the curriculum materials and assessment tools that such a school system will need? Will we need more school personnel, or less? Will the salaries of such school personnel be higher than current levels? What will the costs be in redesigning the school infrastructure? What about the extra costs of providing good at-home connectivity to all students?

Perhaps most importantly, don’t forget the downside of students spending inordinate amounts of time in social networking via computers and playing computer games. This can lead to a major reduction in face-to-face student interaction in the classroom and on the playground, with a potential social cost. As you can see, even the cost analysis of my proposal is a dauntingly difficult task.

Benefits of Educational Cobots

This section briefly discusses some potential benefits of redesigning our schools to thoroughly integrate routine the use of educational cobots. We must, of course, consider possible decreases in costs. For just one example, many schools now make routine use of online courses in providing students with access to a broader range of courses than a school can currently afford, in credit recovery courses, and in serving the needs of students who cannot attend regular classes in a school building (for example, due to illness or injuries). Such online instruction is also widely used in home schooling. As another example, most school libraries now provide students with online access to materials that the libraries previously purchased. Consider the free online Wikipedia versus print copies of equivalent reference materials.

However, the real challenge in determining the cost-benefits of providing every student with an educational cobot is examining how this affects the quality of education that each student receives.

How does one attach a dollar value to a changed education? Certainly not by how well students score on tests that do not allow the use of educational cobots. Such assessment becomes less and less authentic as the world outside of schools embraces a growing use of steadily improving and changing cobots. We want precollege education to help students be prepared for responsible adulthood, continuing lifelong education, and employment and volunteer activities that contribute to their communities and to a world that rapidly is becoming more and more computerized.

Final Remarks

Computers (aided by artificial intelligence) can now solve a very wide range of problems and accomplish a very wide range of tasks. When it comes to rote memory and rapid, accurate information retrieval, computers far outperform humans. Yet a substantial part of today’s schooling consists of teaching students by-hand and rote-memory methods to do things that a computer can do much faster and often more accurately.

Adults at work and in their everyday lives outside of work have chosen to make use of increasingly powerful cobots. Personally, for most of my long professional career, I have done my writing and the research for my writing by making extensive use of a high-end desktop computer, a good printer, and a wide range of software. Now the Web has become a routine aid to my everyday professional work. I see no reason why students of all age ranges should not be making use of similar educational cobots as they learn to read and write.

I strongly believe that formal schooling should be redesigned so that all students learn to work with their cobots to solve the problems and accomplish the tasks that are deemed by “the powers that be” to be appropriate and important for students to learn in school. Curriculum content, instructional processes, and assessment should all reflect the steadily increasing capabilities of personalized cobots. For example, in much in the same sense that schools routinely make use of “open pencil-and-paper” tests, students should routinely make use of “open cobot” assessments.

We all know that schooling provides only part of a person’s education. I also strongly believe that our informal and formal educational systems need to be redesigned to provide every student with an appropriate cobot for education-related use both at school and at home, setting a pattern for this use throughout their lives.

References and Resources

Harbour, R., & Schmidt, J. (5/11/2018). Tomorrow’s factories will need better processes, not just better robots. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved 5/16/2018 from https://hbr.org/2018/05/tomorrows-factories-will-need-better-processes-not-just-better-robots.

Hollinger, P. (5/4/2016). Meet the cobots: Humans and robots together on the factory floor. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved 5/16 2018 from https://hbr.org/2018/05/tomorrows-factories-will-need-better-processes-not-just-better-robots.

Moursund, D. (2018). What the future is bringing us. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 5/17/2018 from http://iae-pedia.org/What_the_Future_is_Bringing_Us.

Moursund, D. (11/22/2017). Very fast, very mobile robots. IAE Blog. Retrieved 5/17/2017 from http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/entry/very-agile-very-mobile-robots.html.

Moursund, D. (10/18/2017). Cognitive computing. IAE Blog. Retrieved 5/17/2018 from http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/entry/cognitive-computing.html.

Moursund, D. (2016). Digital filing cabinet. IAE-pedia. Retrieved 5/19/2018 from http://iae-pedia.org/Digital_Filing_Cabinet:_Overview.

Moursund, D. (12/23/2016). The Fourth R. Eugene, OR: Information Age Education. Download the Microsoft Word file from http://i-a-e.org/downloads/free-ebooks-by-dave-moursund/289-the-fourth-r/file.html. Download the PDF file from http://i-a-e.org/downloads/free-ebooks-by-dave-moursund/290-the-fourth-r-1/file.html. Access the book online at http://iae-pedia.org/The_Fourth_R.

NCES (2017). Fast facts. National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved 5/17/2018 from https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=66.

Ringstaff, C., Yocam, K., & Marsh, J. (1996). Apple classroom of tomorrow report # 22. Retrieved 5/18/2018 from https://www.apple.com/euro/pdfs/acotlibrary/rpt22.pdf.

Wikipedia, (2018a). Computer algebra systems. Retrieved 5/17/2018 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Computer_algebra_system.

Wikipedia (2018b). Robot series (Asimov). Retrieved 5/18/2018 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robot_series_(Asimov).


About the Author

David Moursund is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon, and editor of the IAE Newsletter. His professional career includes founding the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) in 1979, serving as ISTE’s executive officer for 19 years, and establishing ISTE’s flagship publication, Learning and Leading with Technology. He was the major professor or co-major professor for 82 doctoral students. He has presented hundreds of professional talks and workshops. He has authored or coauthored more than 60 academic books and hundreds of articles. Many of these books are available free online. See http://iaepedia.org/David_Moursund_Books.

In 2007, Moursund founded Information Age Education (IAE). IAE provides free online educational materials via its IAE-pedia, IAE Newsletter, IAE Blog, and IAE books. See http://iaepedia.org/Main_Page#IAE_in_a_Nutshell. The IAE website has had about 14 million pageviews since its beginning. IAE is now fully integrated into the 501(C)(3) non-profit corporation, Advancement of Globally Appropriate Technology and Education (AGATE) that was established in 2016. David Moursund is the Chief Executive Officer of AGATE.

Email: moursund@uoregon.edu.

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About Information Age Education, Inc.

Information Age Education is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world. Current IAE activities and free materials include the IAE-pedia at http://iae-pedia.org, a Website containing free books and articles at http://i-a-e.org/, a Blog at http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog.html, and the free newsletter you are now reading. See all back issues of the Blog at http://iae-pedia.org/IAE_Blog and all back issues of the Newsletter at http://i-a-e.org/iae-newsletter.html.