If you need a little excitement in your life, walk into any faculty lounge or meeting room and announce that you think self-paced software is the wave of the future for education. You’re sure to find yourself swarmed by a mob of lesson planning critics who argue that technology can never replace the learning experience afforded by a highly qualified, dedicated teacher. And for the most part, they’d be right. There’s something to be said for a knowledgeable instructor whose mission is to ensure that all students get exactly the educational experience they need.



But with more and more schools being held to strict curriculum standards while faced with increasing student populations and decreasing budgets–let alone the warnings about teacher shortages–technology-driven self-paced learning starts to look like a good idea. The problem comes in when the technology isn’t cost effective while also not producing results.

Case in point was the great digital textbook craze, which hasn’t taken off like supporters expected it to. When ebooks and tablets first joined forces, education experts predicted the end of print textbooks. The cost savings, the environmental impact, the ability to include amazing curricular enhancements for next to nothing, and a host of other highly touted features were supposed to signify the end of heavy backpacks in exchange for a Star Trek-esque learning environment.

Instead, the reality hit: the outrageous costs of student textbooks–even in the public school sphere–is due to the expense of having Ph.D.-level experts write the content, not in the printing or the shipping. Digital editions were hardly a savings to cash-strapped school systems who then had to find a way to ensure all students had connectivity access and the required technology to consume them.

On the self-paced software front, critics have cried foul when it comes to schools looking to replace teachers with laptops; and arguably, sitting a class of forty high school math students at a bank of computers has no guarantee of producing the same educational outcomes that one well-qualified teacher can exact.

But new software profiled this week in Slate may offer a solution that certainly won’t replace teachers, but stands to fix many of the issues that digital textbooks and self-paced software couldn’t address. The beauty of programs like ALEKS is in its ability to adapt to student responses to provide a more individualized instructional method. By gauging how and for how long students interact with the topics on their screens, the software quickly becomes structured for every single student, rather than the one-size-fits-all approach that schools (and even learning software titles) have used all along.

Rather than replacing teachers, software like ALEKS is better suited to helping reach students whose needs were not being met under the traditional model, whether it was due to a learning deficit or to a student’s higher level of achievement. In the hands of this same qualified, dedicated “dream” teacher, this type of AI software approach stands to help all students achieve at their own optimal levels, something that the centuries’-old model hasn’t been able to do so far.