No Online Education Technology Will Ever Replace the Value of an Amazing Teacher

Editor's Note: This article is part of a special week of discussion PolicyMic is hosting with Noodle and EdTech Women around online education. Read more about the content week here.

Is the teacher an endangered species? This is the question that no one feels comfortable uttering aloud, but one that richly deserves an informed discussion.

The soaring EdTech industry is even now imagining the schools and universities of the future, a trend most evident in the current conflicts at the university level in regard to MOOCS (Massive Online Open Courses).

Initially lionized as the fate of the modern university, the MOOC was applauded for its potential to disrupt the inequitable costs that students shoulder in the pursuit of higher education. As Nathan Heller notes in his New Yorker retrospective on the relatively short but dynamic history of the MOOC, a few tech savvy professors and those with a growing sense of digital literacies, such as classics scholar Gregory Nagy, embraced these changes at first. They sensed the potential to rejuvenate their pedagogical methods, and could see the positive effects that a digitized course had on the students in their brick and mortar classrooms.

This utopian vision, however, has crumbled in the midst of the UK’s recent Open University study, which found that only 6.8% of all students enrolled in MOOCS actually ever finish the course. 

The study's findings came to light just as the California State University system implemented a controversial policy reform to adopt MOOCS into their curriculum and outsource classes to edX whereby public university students could enroll in online courses broadcast by major Ivy League Universities. This decision was reached as a way to ease overcrowding in undergraduate and community college classrooms and to minimize the human resource costs associated with servicing an expanding student demographic.

A publicly subsidized education is an attractive option to an increasing number of students. The educational landscape seems to be shifting to reimagine a world where the teacher is on the verge of obsolescence; Professor of Political and Social Thought Bob Meister’s farcical-yet-prophetic Coursera proposal “The Implications of Coursera’s For-Profit Business Model for Global Public Education” examines the consequences for both students and teachers if MOOCs become the dominant world view. 

As the EdTech industry reconceptualizes the future of education, it is essential that teachers, particularly at the K-12 level, are an articulate and dominant presence in both the discussions surrounding the changing profession and the development of web-based products designed for student engagement. As curators of digital knowledge, teachers have a rich and growing understanding of how our cyborg youth read, compose, and create. This is particularly true amongst those master teachers, defined as practitioners with five plus years in the classroom, who truly have had the time to hone their digital curation skills.

What does this mean for teachers? 

By participating in a MOOC, Professor Nagy became a curator of digital knowledge. His observations about the positive impact this had on his students are outside the scope of the Open University study and cannot be easily quantified. Master teachers at the K-12 level see these kinds of effects on their students when the classroom extends from the concrete space to the digital sphere, as is evidenced by scrolling through any of the various #edchat Twitter feeds. 

As a modern educational practitioner, one is not expected to be the center of knowledge; the teacher who with sage words alone both instructs and inspires has been dead for at least 30 years. In the wired classrooms in which many, but not all, practitioners are privileged to teach, the internet has reorganized the breadth of resources available for student consumption and production. The extensive range of varied texts both visual and verbal, the myriad methods of annotation, and the seemingly limitless ways to share and collaborate demand that teachers curate rather than pontificate. This is something that might be new in higher education, but it is becoming a hallmark of the K-12 educational experience.

Policy, not technology, will ultimately decide what role teachers will play in the future, and it can create a future where teachers lead the tech revolution.

A remarkable move in this direction is the recent development of EdTechWomen. Women comprise the majority of the teaching jobs in the U.S., and EdTechWomen is finding ways to bring female educators and educational technologists together to collaborate. The recent gathering of EdTechWomen in NYC, founded by Sehreen Noor Ali and supported by Jenn Cotter of the General Assembly, had its first meeting this past Monday, just one of what will hopefully be many opportunities for these two worlds to collide.

The best-designed tools are the ones that will extend and enrich the relationship between teacher and student; new technologies should be designed to empower educators, not erase them. 

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Gina Sipley

Before she was a teacher, Gina Sipley's writing appeared in The New York Quarterly, The Sierra Nevada Review, Slate, and other journals. Gina has been recognized as a Teacher of the Future for her commitments to technology and social justice, and as an Emerging Leader by the National Council of Teachers of English Conference on English Leadership. She loves gardening and loathes cooking. She is equal parts upstate and downstate NY.

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