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.