Baseball is the sport driven by numbers. The Houston Astros, who won the American League Championship last week, have been seen as a team that is driven by statistics to an extent never seen before. However, Manager A.J. Hinch markedly tempers this reliance on technology. When he talks about managing in an age of analytics, he is very careful to emphasize the human element. He said in a recent interview, “Whether you believe in analytics or not, you’re trying to make smart decisions. But that’s not the only thing we are. We’re a pretty good blend of instincts, intellect, and information — and then player feedback. […] What we try to be better at than anybody in the league is the blend that it takes to make smart decisions.”

Sports journalist Jeff Passan described Hinch’s role in a different way: “Their metrics were the limo that took them to prom; Hinch was their date.” There are now two things that are being said about the Astros: they are a team driven by numbers and by heart.

As we consider a future dominated by automation and its implications for humans, the Astros provide us with an extremely important lesson. It has implications for how we interact with our technology and how that in turn impacts how we learn and grow as humans. This fusion of technology and humanity needs to be reflected in our design choices as we build learning environments for the next generation of teachers and learners.

Machines will not replace humans in the near future. Instead, the most effective implementations of technology will augment humans. This has been borne out time and time again, and it is not limited to baseball. For example, Gary Kasparov has emphasized this kind of human-machine partnership when speaking about the best chess players. If you think about it, most great art comes from humans mastering technologies, whether represented by a brush, violin, or camera. As an artist, I am at my best when I use my camera (and now computer) as a tool for extending my imagination.

These lessons are critical as we contemplate how to use technology to enhance teaching and learning. Like the Astros, we have to recognize how technology and the human element must complement each other to achieve the best results possible for the learner. How effectively a teacher leverages learning within their physical and technological spaces will determine whether or not his or her students become educational champions in the same way that the Astros have become champions in sports.

Effectively integrating humans with machines continues to be one of the most difficult and pressing problems within our society. Putting obstructions — through bad interface design or difficulty in accessing tools — between humans and their technology are significant barriers to finding augmentation that will benefit our society and, most importantly, our children.

We have to recognize that the primary barriers here are increasingly not technological but rather societal, cultural, and normative barriers that have not adapted to rapid changes in today’s technological paradigms. The industrial relationship with machines was inherently adversarial. Machines were often complex and required specialists to control. This thinking has spilled over into our relationship with computing technology and is reflected in the doomsayers that predict machines will supplant human activity rather than augment it.

If we persist in a mindset that views machines as adversaries instead of partners, replacement is the more likely outcome. This is because the technological environments we create will be inherently hostile to positive human interaction except through specialists, giving a small group of technocrats most of the power in society.

It doesn’t have to be this way. I have hope for a better technological future because I have seen how my own existence has been complemented and augmented by my relationship with the machines around me. At their best, they have helped to me to find the human in myself and to share it with others through photography, writing, and other forms of storytelling (like this blog). I have seen time and time again how humans always seem to carve a human element into any set of technologies, whether those are “impersonal” computers or clinically designed physical spaces. It’s just a question of how hard this is and whether the human is disintermediated so much that the normal consequences for antisocial behavior are suppressed (or accentuated).

For instance, it is no accident that today’s most popular and effective tools like Facebook and Twitter facilitate connections between people. They bring out the human in us (for better or worse). It is when we disintermediate the human from the conversation through poor use of technology, such as poorly-designed (or deliberately manipulative) algorithms, interfaces, or physical spaces, that our most serious problems occur. People are cut off from understanding the world around them and are disempowered by the systems around them at precisely the time in human history when empowerment is truly possible. This is where the human connection is critical.

A Collaboration Space at Paetow HS in Katy ISD

It almost goes without saying that the human connection is absolutely critical to the process of teaching and learning. You remember that special teacher that changed your life, not whether she used a whiteboard or a computer to convey the connections she was trying to make for you. However, there are many instances where we have relied on technology to replace good teaching rather than augment it. Improper application of technology in education risks removing the human element from the most human of processes: that of learning and, more importantly, developing a love of learning. Baseball teams fail to maximize their potential when they are driven solely by analytics that diminish or even ignore the human element. One of the secrets of the Astros is the humanity of the leadership that uses the data to effectively create learning opportunities for the players. It is this understanding, coupled with passion on the part of both the players and the management, that ultimately creates the performance on the field.

We should attempt to create positive and nurturing experiences for all of our students and use all of the tools we can muster to achieve this goal for as many students as much of the time as is possible. Good technology and good environments are those that we can put on like a comfortable pair of shoes. Next Generation Learning spaces are technology environments that should be designed to be approachable and to make human activities like learning and collaboration easy. They should also provide a seamless connection with tools that augment those activities to optimize teaching and learning experiences within that space. Those tools should encourage active learning and provide access to the vast information reserves and social networks of the internet on demand. The teacher should be able to easily play this environment (and play in this environment) like an artist would to create the music of learning in much the same way as A.J. Hinch is able to leverage his analytical tools to create the music that is championship baseball.

The Astros have worked hard to create an environment (combining both virtual and physical technologies) that allows them to maximize the human potential of their players. Technology and the human element have been carefully crafted to create champions. Teaching is all about creating champion learners. There are lessons to be learned from the strategies the Astros follow that can be applied to teaching and learning and to the designs we create to facilitate those activities. The first, and most important, lesson is to never lose sight of the human in that equation.

About The Author

In 2017 I began a new position at PBK Architects as Director of Learning and Innovation. In this role I lead a team responsible for developing and implementing strategies that integrate technology, new forms of curriculum, and sustainability into designs and planning for educational institutions (both K12 and Higher Education). Additionally, I am responsible for promoting innovative thinking and a future focus throughout the firm. From 2001 to 2017 I taught government government to students and new media and technology to faculty at Houston Community College. In 2006, I became Instructional Design Coordinator at Northwest College and subsequently Director of Technology and Instructional Computing. Prior to working at HCC, I worked for several Internet startups in Austin, Texas where I filled roles as diverse as Project Manager, Business Intelligence Analyst, and Director of Marketing. My technical experience extends to 3 years working at Apple and Motorola in support roles. I have used computers since 1981 and have engaged in serious photography since 1982.