There, I said it. And with these words, I am jumping with both feet into a debate that has alternately raged and simmered since computers first began appearing in schools in the 1980s.
The debate was reignited recently when Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), online courses designed for large-scale global participation, became one of the hottest topics in education. I wrote about MOOCs in my last LinkedIn Influencer post, “Education is Having Its Internet Moment.” MOOCs have huge potential to increase access to education, and especially to expert explainers. But we know that explaining represents just one aspect of teaching. Even as technologies for learning become more evolved, they will not replace teachers — anymore than commercial airliner cockpit technology has replaced pilots.
Few would argue that without Captain Sully Sullenberger, a former fighter pilot with nearly 30 years of commercial aviation experience, there would have been no miracle on the Hudson.
And while it will be some time before we know all the facts of the crash landing of a commercial jet at San Francisco International Airport in July, initial findings suggest: the plane’s speed and engine thrust were being controlled by an automated system and the pilots failed to notice that the plane was flying too low and too slow until it was too late.
In other words, technology can augment and amplify a commercial pilot’s skills, but it is no substitute for experienced human decision-making and intervention in complex, dynamic, high-stakes situations.
There are settings in which technology has replaced people. Robots and automated manufacturing systems have replaced assembly-line workers whose jobs were based on standardized, repetitive tasks such as welding and painting. Web-based software has replaced airline and hotel reservations agents whose jobs consisted of completing transactions with a small number of options and variables.
But the highly complex and nuanced demands of teaching cannot be met by computers executing repetitive tasks or simple transactions — or even sophisticated algorithms. People learn in different ways, at different rates, and numerous variables can affect their progression on any given day — including those in the social and emotional realm.
Furthermore, while many aspects of teaching can be planned in advance, even the best-laid plans can go awry, requiring an immediate pivot to Plan B. And then there are those serendipitous moments when students become captivated by an activity, a current event or a challenge and engage with an intensity that could not have been foreseen. The best teachers harness this energy and use it as rocket fuel for learning.
No, technology will not replace teachers. But technology has already dramatically changed the role of the teacher.
In schools and classrooms all over the country, ubiquitous access to technology has given motivated teachers the opportunity to shift from being deliverers of content to what many have dubbed orchestrators of learning.
The term perfectly captures what we need from teachers in a rapidly changing world, driven by technology and the global connectedness it enables. In this world, America does not need a workforce that has memorized fleeting facts and knowledge, taught in the belief that what we need to know will never change.
Instead, the key to our global competitiveness is a workforce comprised of people empowered by curiosity and persistence – attributes that will enable them to learn whatever they need to know and do to solve a problem or do a job well.
To paraphrase a well-known proverb, if you teach me the relevant skills and knowledge of my time, I will have a job today. If you instill in me imagination, drive and the ability to adapt to a future I cannot anticipate, I will have relevant jobs for a lifetime.
Orchestrators of learning empowered by technology have so many more options for fulfilling this promise than teachers who do not use technology. They can:
- Keep students deeply engaged in learning — connecting personally relevant content, customized options for difficulty level, alternative learning pathways, and choices for support and guidance
- Improve students’ understanding of complex concepts by bringing animations, simulations and visualizations into learning — and yes, videos of expert explainers.
- Increase the quantity and quality of feedback during learning, at precisely the time that adjustments and adaptations made by either the teacher or the technology can make a difference in learning outcomes
- Provide students’ access to people, courses, materials, data sets, research and primary source documents available online and often for free
- Enable students to connect and participate globally as they engage in problem solving with other learners around the world
- Put the same technology tools professionals use in the hands of students for writing, publishing, organizing, producing, researching, composing, visualizing data and more
It’s not hard to see how we can vastly improve the opportunity to learn by putting the best digital learning content, tools and resources in the hands of both teachers and students. It also is not hard to see that teachers need new skills to add to the timeless attributes of caring for students and love of learning.
And so there is a corollary to the proposition that technology will not replace teachers: while technology has its limits, a teacher without technology is unnecessarily limited.
This must change.