World Futures: Distance Learning And Teaching – Part Two

Los Alamos World Futures Institute

“But is the teacher a human or a machine?” This is the last sentence from the text of Part One. The learner (the student) controls the learning process for many possible reasons that, in my perception, are related to his or her personal objectives.

Clearly, one can argue that the young student does not reason that potty training is a needed skill, but she or he does recognize and appreciate positive feedback from the teacher. Can a machine effectively conduct potty training?

As a person grows a lot is learned by experience, part of which is the interaction with other people. Usually, these other people are children. If children are not accessible because schools are closed, a bigger burden must be shouldered by adults. Can the adults provide the stimulus needed to encourage learning about human to human interaction in a society? Can this be done by a machine?

Imagine a world where all newborns are immediately separated from their mothers and “raised” by machines. No, this is not a script for a horrific science fiction movie, but it could be. The machines influence all of the necessary learning of the children until such time as they can become workers for the machines. But can the humans interact? Can the humans communicate with one another? Is this The Matrix?

If we eliminate the fiction of machines running the world and we look at learning only coming from humans, similar issues arise. Assume that it is solely the responsibility of the parents to teach their children. Each child is then limited to the parent’s knowledge and their skills for transferring it.

Obviously, society found a value in a collective effort and evolved. Through communication it became possible to transfer knowledge and reasoning skills through a distance. One could argue that even classroom learning is distance learning, especially if you sit in the last row. But the student has cohorts present.

Humanity is a system of cohorts. It is essential that we learn independent skills such as using the potty as well a collective kills such as a language for communication. But we also learn other skills and knowledge in order to advance as an individual or as dictated by society.

At some point, usually the end of high school, we choose a job or profession. Of course, society might “draft” you for a specific task because your learning process has been inadequate for entry into other opportunities. Is it society’s fault as a teaching organism?

One can easily assert that what gave humanity a significant advantage was the ability to communicate among cohorts (language) and the ability to document the knowledge for “permanent” communication – writing. Clearly writing improved communication, but documentation may have been more important as long as other members of humanity could learn from it.

I write this column with a pen and paper in cursive. Then I transfer it to digital form. One can assert that this is because my hand writing “sucks”, or that paper distribution has become too cumbersome, or that the communication system has evolved. Who needs chalk, blackboards and erasers when you have a delete button?

Technology has caused explosive changes in how we teach, or at least the consideration of other techniques. In 1964, at the University of California, Berkeley, Edward Teller, PhD, would occasionally teach a course for undergraduates called Physics 10.

There were so many enrollees that it could not be taught at one location. Dr. Teller had to teach at many locations simultaneously, accomplished through the use of television technology. Of interest about this implementation of distance teaching was that each student assembly also has at least one teaching assistant present as well as the presence of other students, all making interaction possible.

While undergraduates were learning physics from Dr. Teller, I was learning nuclear reactor theory from a textbook, a different professor, and my classmates. I “read” the “high technology” textbook, attended lectures three times a week, and struggled with my classmates to build mental models for understanding.

I was motivated to learn nuclear engineering even though I was an active duty army officer at the emerging center of the anti-Vietnam movement. I was motivated to learn both at a distance and through human interaction. Technology was playing a role in the process, and perhaps all I really had to do was read the book. Obviously, I must be kidding.

Til next time…

The Los Alamos World Futures Institute web site is at Feedback, volunteers, and donations (501.c.3) are welcome. Email or Previously published articles can be found at or

LOS ALAMOS website support locally by OviNuppi Systems