top of page
  • Writer's pictureJolie Radunich

Here's where the edtech kid in me agrees with the Duolingo CEO on computer teachers

Luis von Ahn doesn't want to make computers better teachers than humans because he's some out-of-touch tech insider. After all, he's a teacher too.

I thank teachers for their service and envision a future where so many more of them can thrive—with the resources their precious job should provide them.

I'm not in lockstep with von Ahn's POV from his interview with the New Yorker, but give some commentary about the teacher issues he raises.

This post exposes the realities many of us experienced as kids attending school.

Human teachers are stretched too thin

von Ahn:

A human teacher can get better by teaching thirty people. We [Duolingo] get better by teaching tens of millions of people.

My take: Teachers are stretched thin.

To the point where students need to use supports outside of the regular school day to advance. Here are a few of the many things teachers are battling:

  • Large class sizes

  • Minimal classroom assistance

  • Limited support for nonacademic purposes (ie: mental health resources)

Enter edtech.

Kids' experiences with teachers vary by the year

von Ahn:

We’ve all gone to school. Some teachers are good, but the vast majority are not all that great.

My take: I've clicked with some teachers and didn't with many others.

And during those years my relationships with teachers weren't the greatest they could be, and I felt less comfortable going to them to get extra help, edtech tools saved the day.

This extends beyond personal relationships. Some teachers are locked in. Others, for many, many reasons may not be.

Kid performance shouldn't depend on the enthusiasm or strengths of the teacher assigned to kids each year.

Sometimes tech can be a better teacher

von Ahn:

[Humans] are just hard to deal with. You need a lot of human tutors, and they’re kind of hard to use, and we can’t get them for free. And I really want people to be able to learn for free.

My take: I can't put into words how wonderful it felt to log onto Khan Academy and repeat math videos, ad nauseam until the concepts sunk into my head.

Kids like me may feel more comfortable asking tools questions than humans. They shouldn't feel this way, but if we're talking about reality, they do. Why?

Usually, they don't want to seem unsmart in front of their teacher and classmates.

When it comes to getting the practice kids need to achieve, kids and tech don't always need a middleman.

Not everyone should become a teacher

von Ahn:

Ultimately, the reason I decided to work on teaching is because I really think that, net-net, humanity benefits more from having a really good way to teach everybody. I’m, like, O.K., well, a small number of people are out of a job, but suddenly we can teach everybody better. It’s not like I feel great about this, but I think it’s better to be able to teach all of humanity cheaply, right?

My take: Human contact is supreme.

I'm concerned about creating AI with the purpose of replacing human teachers, instead of building a partnership on behalf of students.

I don't think Duolingo does this. The bite-sized lessons are a wonderful supplement. But I question von Ahn's long-term goals.

To the teachers who enter the profession, past and present, thank you for your service.

Channel your edtech kid to understand teachers

How did you view your teachers as a kid?

Think back to the teachers you viewed as heroes, like the ones who remembered to pass out "brain food" (of beloved cereal brands and candies) during tests.

Don't forget your teacher villains, who never seemed to have extra time to review lessons with you.

Consider the (edtech) supports they had that influenced their behaviors.

With this in mind, do you view these teachers differently?

Tap into your teacher network and get to know the supports they have available.

bottom of page