Monday, September 6, 2010

Are teachers necessary?

At Tertiary level, are teachers necessary?

It seems like a stupid question, but often stupid questions have interesting answers, if it is only that we understand the conditions that make it a stupid question, and whether those conditions might change. History has a way of undermining assumptions so that yesterdays stupid question is tomorrows front page surprise.

Teaching is facilitating or catalysing learning. If you teach at tertiary level, it's worth reflecting on how much of your time is spent actually doing that. Strike out the hours spent on college politics, bureaucracy and course management, research, lecturing and any marking that isn't properly formative with feedback and how much time is left for real teaching? Probably not so much.

Students have gotten used to that, and often teach each other. It's an open question how central that peer to peer learning really is, and how important it is to have a present guiding hand (see my MOOC post and comments thereon for some points on this), but it's fair to say a good slice of what you learn, you learn from trying to figure something out with the person next to you.

Advocates take that idea one step further. If teaching is the part of education that doesn't scale, and if tertiary education is becoming unaffordable, as it has for many, especially in the US, who needs it. The web has changed the game. Why endure third rate lecturers when you can find first rate ones online for free. Why pay extortionate rates for textbooks when the web is awash with free content. Why go to the cost and expense of physical attendance when you can find peer groups online in just about anything. If you really want to pay money for accreditation, there's any number of online for profit providers, like University of Pheonix, who will gladly take your money. Anya Kamenetz's book DIY:U  (see my review) competently summarises a lot of the thinking in the field, but the ideas go back a long way, at least as far as Illich's 1971 book, Deschooling Society.

It's generally been a fairly left wing idea, with Birkenstocks on it's feet and a chip on it's shoulder. But it's origin has no relevance to it's quality. Even if it is a terrible idea, it can still be important and influential (consider, for example, much of Economics as a wellspring of influential, profoundly bad ideas). It's also an idea that might find allies beyond it's left wing originators. To those who see teachers as 'Salary Costs, Fixed' finding a model for teacherless learning will surely be compelling. If it can be done, they'll find a way. Business models that cut to the bone, pile high and sell cheap tend to do very well, and bring things to people who couldn't afford them otherwise. You might hate Ryanair, but are you going to take the Bus instead? Somebody, quick tell Africa tertiary education is important, but they can't have it until they can afford tenured professorships.

Can it work? It works all the time for informal learning. Lack of a teacher is practically a definition of informal learning. The web has certainly made it possible to learn a lot more informally than before, while at the same time extending the reach and firepower of 'hyperteachers' like the Khan Academy into an informal space. We've slowly cottoned on to the idea that maybe a not so good Youtube right now for free is better than a really great class next year sometime.

But can informal, teacherless learning conquer all?

My current opinion is no (but I'm ideologically fickle - change my mind). I've had some excellent teacher catalysed learning experiences as a student, (generally from Postgraduate teaching assistants it must be said). Probably one of the most important elements of teaching is contriving situations (assessments, labs and so forth) where the student fumbles through and learns something on the way, often without any direct intervention at all. My most significant learning experience was one of those, 53 days of field work, entirely alone, but addressing a challenge first imagined by some long forgotten Professor. More on that in another post. That kind of teaching, the creation of learning experiences, can often scale very well indeed. If I wanted to make teachers redundant, or catalyse more learning with the ones I have, I'd look hard at that.


  1. Two parts of the problem: 1) most traditional learning environments are unfortunately but perhaps necessarily encumbered by non-pedagogical responsibilities; and 2) we tend to operate with a lazy and incomplete definition of what "learning" actually is.

    As to the first part, I imagine that any educator who actually is concerned with learning laments the fact that so much of their time is taken up by non-teaching. That is the price we pay, however, for the fact that the history of mass education has largely been one of educational institutions, not self-directed learning. Perhaps there are benefits to be gained by de-institutionalizing learning, and perhaps that process is only now possible with the technologies we have developed. But it would be hasty to conclude that institutionally-embedded learning should be dismissed entirely. What seems more certain is that institutions should strive to minimize the time faculty spend on non-teaching matters in order to best support the institution's core purpose.

    As to the second part, I believe that the dispensability of teachers seems reasonable only if we see the teacher's job as direct communication of content. If one makes that assumption, then clearly teachers should be replaced under certain circumstances. We've all had dry, boring professors we wished could lecture more like that OTHER professor. But performance skill doesn't even have to enter the equation. For decades now learning theory has been teaching us that for a lot of different types of content, and for a lot of different learner types, direct lecture may be the worst possible way to promote learning.

    The next step beyond this view is the recognition that faculty play a vital role in creating the learning environment and learning experiences. Students enter most areas of study without an understanding of the breadth of a discipline, its seminal works, its major hypotheses, etc. True, many students can begin to develop an understanding of a discipline through content immersion. However, it's often much later that students develop the critical apparatus necessary for fully understanding a given field. Reaching either of these two goals is complicated by the fact that many learners are unaware of their learning styles and how to best strategize their learning process. In this "second step," it may still be possible to dispense with teachers beyond the initial creation of learning materials.



    Where I believe it becomes clear that teachers can not be dispensed with lies in the assessment of learning. Assessment has become priority one for many institutions, at the same time that it has become even more of a four-letter word. Scholars differ over how to assess learning--and whether it's even possible to assess learning at all. And all of us who have actually taught a class know, developing a meaningful and consistent evaluation tools is maddeningly difficult.

    But one of the real advantages of learning at a degree-granting institution is the assurance that student learning has been assessed at all. The process of completing classes and making progress towards a degree is predicated on successfully meeting educational objectives--not simply finishing a podcasted lecture or paying for access to learning materials.

    Until "teacherless" informal learning can meet the assessment challenge, it may serve for self-enrichment but will fail as a functional replacement for formal education. Employers are unlikely to treat the successful completion of a few Open University courses as equivalent to a respectable GPA-backed degree from a well-known institution.

    None of this is to say that every course in a traditional institution reaches the Platonic ideal of learning experiences. It is in assessment, however, that the indispensability of teachers is clear. When done well, teachers provide timely in-depth feedback that engages the learner in a process of self-evaluation and self-improvement--not just earning points or meeting outcomes. Proper assessment places current performance in the context of potential performance and helps students evaluate and overcome obstacles to learning. It also recognizes the dynamics of the learning environment and is willing to adjust the environment as needed, based on feedback from the learners.

  3. I don't believe there is any technology currently available that allows a teacher to convey passion quite as effectively as a face-to-face teaching environment does. And in my life, it is the passion of teachers that has ignited and directed my own learning, more so than any course content or well-constructed assessment!