There is a mountain of speculation and debate about what school and learning will look like in the near future. Will education be online? Individualized? Self-paced? Flipped? Hybridized? Maybe even completely irrelevant? Rarely, however, is much speculation given to the role of the educator in the future of learning. All people seem to want to know is whether lectures are better recorded or in person or if educators at every level are giving students enough real world skills to be successful in the global economy. In reality, however, the radical changes in technology and the increasing demands on teachers are going to fundamentally change the very act of teaching. What will the educator of the future look like? How will the job description and qualifications change? And what effect will all of that have on students?
The Future of Learning
An October, 2012 video released by telecom company Ericsson presents a survey of educational experts and entrepreneurs speculating about the future of education. This promotional video for the company relies heavily on Knewton and Coursera as the models for the kinds of adaptive, individualized technology that will drive learning in the future.
The focus of the video is the ability of these technologies to track minute user data and facilitate intimately individualized instruction based on that data, including student learning preference, peak performance times, prior knowledge, and a host of other information. Even so, teaching and the role of the instructor was largely missing from this conversation about the techno-facilitated future of education. One rather vague reference to the role of the educator was attributed to Coursera CEO Daphne Koller in an article accompanying the piece on GIGAOM:
"Coursera's Koller says one of the revolutions in education is that teaching will be less about conveying information and more of a return to its original roots where instructors engage in dialogue, develop critical thinking skills and spark passion about a discipline." (23 Oct., 2012)
The Role of the Educator on an Individualized World?
The Koller quote indicates that teaching will take a step backward (historically) with the implementation of these new technologies. Pretty far back, to the time of Plato, in fact, where the teaching and learning process was more about interpersonal interaction and fostering the individual ability to critically apply knowledge and cultivate individual passions for learning. While that is a wonderful plan, it is nearly impossible to imagine a way in which it could happen in a world where a factory model of education still dominates and teachers are overwhelmed with dozens of students in a single class. Plato never had 30 students following him around all attempting to interact at the same time. Given the reality of our education system, here are some more realistic roles for instructors in the world of high-tech education:
- Facilitator/Learning Manager: If instructional materials really become individualized to the extent that the video describes, there will need to be someone present to help students navigate the technical aspects of performing the work that the system pushes to them. Additionally, the instructor will have a role in keeping students on task, and in providing support when learners fail to reach the standards pre-programmed into the adaptive learning system. There may also be an increased role in making sure that each student is completing their own work, rather than the work of peers.
- Remediator: When students fail to achieve the learning objectives outlined by the automated system, the instructor will need to step in to troubleshoot the learning disconnect and either provide alternative instruction or adjust the learning system through some sort of control interface.
- Enricher: Playing off the flipped classroom model, the teacher's role could shift to providing enrichment activities beyond the scope of the automated system. If adaptive content is provided that helps students master basic concepts and learn background information, teachers can focus on helping students use the information that they have gained in authentic ways to help turn it into knowledge.
- Collaborator/Mentor: One intriguing possibility in a technology-facilitated education future is for teachers to serve as collaborators and mentors with students engaging in real world, possibly entrepreneurial, activities. Such activities would help students develop actual marketable skills and could potentially provide a new and much needed revenue stream for schools and universities.
- Content Creator: One role that teachers already have –unless their curriculum is standardized- is that of content creator. This is actually one of the most important functions that educators at all levels perform, and one for which they are well trained. Add to these qualifications the fact that they actually know their students, their strengths, weaknesses, and capabilities, and educators could become a valuable resource to be employed to help bolster the content in these adaptive systems. This serves the additional purpose of de-centralizing the curriculum so that a diverse set of perspectives and ideas can be assured.
- N/A: It is possible, though fairly far-fetched, that the further refinement of these adaptive learning systems will make educators obsolete. The Internet is rapidly becoming a repository for all human knowledge (information), and there is potential for these systems to become sophisticated enough to take existing content and reformulate it to create new learning opportunities. This is a frightening possibility that seems awfully close to the scenario that serves as the backdrop for the Terminator movies though.
While it is exciting to think about the rich possibilities that these new technologies could provide for students and the potential they have for liberating teachers from much of the routine, standardized content that all students must master in order to be successful. It is important to remember that true learning happens in context and through a socially mediated process of meaning making. No technology can accomplish that (yet?), so we will need to keep teachers around to provide the most important aspect of education – the human touch.