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No Substitute: Mia Works Alongside Librarians, Parents, and Teachers

July 18, 2018

No Substitute: Mia Works Alongside Librarians, Parents, and Teachers

As useful and knowledgeable as Mia is, she will never attempt to replace the real people in your child’s reading life.

By Diana Black

“Why would I want this app when I have a great librarian to select books?”
“I don’t need Mia – I’d rather just talk with my teacher.”
“There’s no reason to use a bot when mom and dad can help me choose fantastic books.”

There’s no doubt: librarians, teachers, and parents are the people at the center of a child’s reading life. Sometime children don’t have strong relationships with adults in these roles, but for those who do, where does Mia Learning fit? Is Mia competing to replace these human beings, to mechanize a service that really ought to have a warm, personal touch? 

The short answer is: not at all.

At Mia Learning, we use artificial intelligence to support the efforts of parents, teachers, and librarians, not as a substitute. First of all, Mia makes no bones about her own limitations: as our co-founder, Darren Cambridge, has noted, we never intend for her to represent herself as human. It is no secret to kids using our software that Mia is a robot, and Mia often encourages kids to consult with the real, live people surrounding them about their reading. Although her own experience of it is fiction, Mia embraces the social side of reading motivation: Books are conduits for human connection. She might suggest that kids recommend their favorite reads to friends, for example, or that they read a book aloud to, or with, a parent.

Rather than seek to replace, Mia picks up where adults leave off. Certified Reading Specialist and seventh grade English teacher Leigh Ellis Beauchamp wishes she could give each of her 125 students personalized reading recommendations and reflect with them on what they’re reading, but there simply isn’t enough time in the school day: “I would love, love to have a tool like Mia in my classroom,” she says. “It would be so helpful to have a better sense of my kids’ interests and what they really like to read.” Very few of the hundreds of teachers with whom Mia Learning has consulted over the last two years report having sufficient time during the school day in which to conduct organic, long-form conversations about book selection or independent reading experiences. “I would love to believe that I am somehow able to answer every question they have, provide frequent on-target book recommendations, consistently suss out their reading issues, and provide meaningful feedback on a daily basis, but, sadly, I’d be kidding myself,” Beauchamp says. It’s easy to see where Mia could fit in to classrooms like hers.

Mia guides each child as they learn to choose books well in ways teachers wish they could if they had more time to work with children individually. “I really want my students to know what’s out there, that there’s a book for every single one of them,” says fifth grade teacher Chris Mendoza, “but so many just get overwhelmed by the choices and never seem to find the right book. They don’t know how to make a good [book] choice; that’s a skill that doesn’t typically find space in a school curriculum.” Mia takes the information overload that confronts so many kids and narrows down a daunting slew of books to a manageable number while teaching the skill of making a great choice.

Youth Services Librarian Danica Thompson, who works with elementary and middle school-aged children, agrees: “Of course I do my best to recommend books I think these kids will love,” she says, “but I don’t have the superhuman memory Mia does to be able to call up the right book from thousands of titles at a moment’s notice.” Mia can retain and shift through certain types of knowledge about books that would be difficult or impossible for literacy professionals, even the most experienced and well-read. However, Mia could not exist without librarians’ professional judgments: The metadata she draws from was created by dozens of them, who carefully cataloged the characteristics of each book in her database.

Just as teachers and librarians see the usefulness of a service like Mia to supplement their efforts, many parents envision the ways Mia can help support their goal of their children becoming more passionate readers.

“My son would just prefer to talk through certain things with someone other than an adult,” explains Elaine Day-Burruss of Harrisonburg, Virginia, a mother of three elementary and middle schoolers. “With me and with his teachers asking him questions, he’s sort of afraid to be honest because he thinks they’re looking for some particular answer. … He’s very anxious to please, to be ‘right.’ So I think a robot he didn’t have to worry about getting approval from, who had no dog in the fight so to speak, would be really helpful to him.”

Parents of children from Mia’s earliest testing sessions would doubtless confirm that this is exactly what they found: Kids report feeling comfortable talking to Mia frankly about their book preferences and experiences, including their failures and frustrations. While your child develops a feeling of trust and rapport, rather than isolating them from the real world in a digital bubble, Mia steers them right back into it. She gives them the option to share their reading with the important adults in their lives – what they thought of each book, new interests they are developing, or ways they could use real person help to get what they want to get out of reading. Mia emphasizes ways to build relationships with others using books, always reminding kids that reading should fulfill their purpose, which might range from acquiring knowledge, to strengthening friendships, to imagining a better world.

Finally, unlike your run-of-the-mill app, Mia Learning is unique in our commitment to implementing the latest research in education, psychology, and computer science. We write and design our program in consultation with some of the nation’s top experts on literacy education and youth services.

In short: Librarians, parents, and teachers needn’t fear. Mia isn’t trying to put you out of a job. She respects that in so many ways, she could never hope to compete with you. Frankly, if she does her job right, she’s going to put herself out of a job by empowering kids to the point where they don’t need her anymore. In fact, that’s her dearest wish.

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