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Re-placing Educators: How Innovation is Changing the Teaching Role

The growth of disruptive technologies is changing higher education, and higher education educators must redefine their role as educators to keep up with the shift. Photo by Sid Mosdell.

I don’t know what (if anything) a caterpillar feels* as it transforms into a butterfly, but I suspect it’s confused and uncomfortable. In a remarkably short time, the changes are massive, the product that emerges is VERY different, and most people would report liking the new version better than the old. The result is a thing of beauty and as a result of the transformation what once crawled is actually flying!

Higher education is going through a transformation, as well. For those of us who are paying attention to what’s happening outside our own buildings, classrooms and hallways, it’s confusing and uncomfortable. It’s tempting to look at classes with hundreds of thousands of students (Massive Open Online Courses, or “MOOCs”) as destined to be inferior and “Digital Badges” as little more than gold stars unlikely to compete with grades and transcripts. But as Christensen, Johnson & Horn (2008) [1] cautioned us, competitors that appear to be inferior, and may even actually be inferior, may not stay inferior for long.

Bill Sam recently published a thought provoking ten and a half minute video titled “Epic 2020,” that summarizes the major innovations of the past few years and projects them into the future. In that future, he predicts, higher education is likely to be very different, very soon. His timeline might be off, and the particulars relating to mergers he predicts might not come to pass, but the direction and magnitude of the changes seem right to me.

To me, these changes are good news!! Some will increase access to higher education for people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to participate, and others have the potential to improve quality. One big change predicted by Sam and others is the separation of the delivery and assessment roles. With ever-increasing repositories of free digital content online including text, images, videos and even lectures that stitch them all together—delivered by some of the world’s best professors—how can we justify spending the majority of our own professors’ time delivering the same or perhaps even inferior content? We can’t. And we shouldn’t. We have other, more important roles to play, and those take real time and expertise.

Another force Sam mentions is “digital badging,” which I proposed in an earlier post has the potential to improve assessment and educational quality. But good assessment takes time. Where do we find that time? We “RE-PLACE” teachers. I don’t mean “replace” – the hyphen is important. We move teachers to a new, higher place. (Now, read that sentence again, and picture me moving my hand with an upward facing palm from waist high to shoulder high.)

What makes it higher? People can deliver instruction, but technologies can also deliver instruction, and, in many cases, they can do it better. While technologies are getting better at assessment, I suspect that there are still decades to go before they will outperform human experts. This is because assessment involves higher order skills and professional judgments, both in terms of understanding the product or performance to be evaluated and in terms of comparing that to an expected level of performance. It requires expertise and judgment. It’s at or near the top of every hierarchy of cognitive tasks. Isn’t it time we stop competing with technologies for the opportunity to deliver instruction? It can be rewarding if you do it well, but we, the human element, are destined for the more challenging roles.

As Stephen Heppel put it; “In the 20th century, we built big things and did things for people. In the 21st century we help people help each other. Helping people help each other in learning is a whole different place than just delivering stuff to them. … We’re moving to a very different place in terms of learning. It’s a viral, agile, peer-to-peer, collegial sort of place that we’re moving to.” [2]

In the words of the immortal Curtis Mayfield (1965) “People get ready, there’s a train a-comin’.” My advice?  Follow Curtis’ advice and “get on board.”  Help build the train so you know the quality is there, and then get on board.

* Yes, I do know what anthropomorphism is, and I plead guilty as charged. Can we chalk it up to “poetic license?”





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