Are Teachers (Becoming) Obsolete?

This morning a could of things that I thought about blogging just didn’t work for me. I couldn’t get into them. So I Twittered that I was feeling a lack of blogging motivation today. You may notice that I didn’t have anything yesterday either so this is a problem for me. A Twitter reply by Kevin Bibo (Cal Teacher Blogger) lead me to Teachers Are Irreplaceable, Right Up Until The Moment They Are Replaced by Rob Jacobs with the suggestion that it would get me going. And it did.

I hear a lot of talk about teachers being replaceable by online education. It all reminds me in some ways about the talk of programming and programmers going away. (See A future without programming for my thoughts on that one.) Every time I read one of these articles I ask myself “have these people ever taught in a classroom?” and “Were they really paying attention to what young people are like?” Now I have met and taught a bunch of highly motivated, self-starting students in my time who were quite capable of learning online or even though other non-classroom resources. But honestly, those were not the majority of students. Most students seem to need a little external motivation. And I don’t just mean grades. They look for someone to be a little proactive about pushing them to work. Maybe not all the time but at least some of the time.

That was high school. I have also taught elementary and middle school students. Trust me when I tell you that kindergarten kids are not that organized. They really do need some hands on (sometimes literally 🙂 ) instruction. Working independently for any length of time is something that has to be developed and until it is developed I believe that flesh and blood teachers are required. How long? Well it depends on the person.

I suppose that in theory most high school students could learn online. They can read well enough. They can schedule well enough (if they want to) to get things done. They can decide to some extent what their interests are and what they want or need to learn. But I think there is an important factor that I doubt can be done online only. That is the expression of passion. Passion in the subject, the field, and insights into areas not in the curriculum that a student may just find valuable and interesting.

Think back on your own school years. Was there one teacher who inspired you? Someone whose passion for the subject inspired you in your career or even just in your studies? Perhaps one teacher who took a subject you really didn’t like and made it a class worth attending? My guess is that for a lot of people the answer will be yes. I know it is for me. Would I have gotten that same inspiration from video casts? I’m not so sure. Can a teacher who is teaching via webcasts that students watch on their own schedule and whose interpersonal interactions are limited to web chats, email, Instant Messaging and other virtual connections see the spark or confusion in a student’s eyes? Maybe but is that the way to bet? I think not.

Online education is going to require real teachers for the foreseeable future. Students need to ask questions. They need someone to occasionally point them in a direction for future study. They need better feedback on test/project/paper results than I think we’ll see for a great while to come. But the classroom teacher teaching face to face isn’t going to disappear for a very long time. I doubt it will happen in my life time. Probably not in my son’s lifetime either. And you know what? If online/virtual school becomes the norm for public schools I bet that the rich people will still pay for face to face education because it will be worth it.

What do you think?

Comments (4)

  1. ranjans says:

    i agree. we will still need teachers when most routine media handling is automated. the reason is teachers are not machine and cannot be automated. the aspect of education that is not possible to be automated is still pertinant in effective education. this is similar to the question of non-computability – problems that cannot be solved in finite time – such as the Halting problem. The challange though is retraining teachers to be human and more effect in imparting the education that machines cannot provide…

  2. Garth says:

    I have taught at both the high school level (as I do now) and at the college level.  After watching some of my college teaching colleagues teach I can understand how they could easily be replaced by on-line classes.  To lecture is not to teach.  High school is a completely different story.  You had better be somewhat of an entertainer, a comedian, able to talk some sports, do something in class other that talk math or whatever.  Education should not only teach the subject matter but also teach social skills; maybe a little morality, proper dating skills at the prom, why to avoid abusing alcohol if you do not have a garbage can by the bed the next morning, etc.  I personally cannot do on-line courses because I cannot challenge the instructor’s solutions or statements.  Can you imagine reading Plato’s Republic and not being able to argue about it?  How boring!  An argument through email lacks flavor.  I have tried with my wife a couple of time, no entertainment value at all.  And education should be entertaining.  We spend a lot of time in the education environment so why waste time being bored stiff in front of a computer or video when you can do the same thing and have some fun with the teachers (or the students, depending which side of the fence you are on)?  The military constantly tries on-line education schemes and gets less than stellar results.  I think we teachers have no job security issues.  As long as people like to think and talk we are good to go.

  3. Ianceicys says:

    I sure hope teachers don’t become obsolete. Some of the most valuable mentors and coaches I’ve had in life have been teachers.

    There is something so vivid in my mind about remembering the time I had to stay after school with my HS calculus teacher for 2 hours struggling to understand differential calculus problems.

    Example after example comes into my minds.

    Forgot twitter, blogs, txts, emails, phones, video conferences…I’ll take a real live teacher any day…Even on their worse days teachers still made a huge difference on my life.

  4. Rob Jacobs says:

    Being provocative as I am, I take ideas to extremes, such is the case with my post, which has caused so much conversation.

    First, I am in the classroom every day, working with teachers closely on literacy issues. Secondly, I work in the lowest school in the district with struggling learners, poverty, etc. So, yes I have really taught in a classroom. I am there everyday. Technology is used to do what many teachers can’t do. That is differentiate to each learner’s individual needs. Online learning going on everyday.

    Paying attention to young people everyday and spending time in the classroom with both teachers and students everyday I can tell you clearly that I see how technology and online resources have brought more interest to these students. That is what students are really like.

    Will teachers be replaced? No, but will teaching methods of the past need to be replaced? Yes! But if the ideas in my post get conversations generated like those found here, then I think that is a good thing.

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