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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Readers Comments

Zandra Thomas 2012/07/24 at 3:01 pm

I think this re-placing will come with time, but it will require some fundamental changes from the systems around instructors.

First, I think there needs to be more recognition of the instructor as more than simply a disseminator of information from students. Students need to see the class as a place of discussion and enrichment, not just a place where they get “taught at”.

Next, administrators need to recognize the changing role of educators and the education sphere. In this sense, they need to realize that this content exists out on the web and allow our roles to shift from disseminators of information to analysts of ideas.

Do you think we’re on track for these changes?

Kyle Peck 2012/07/27 at 4:25 pm

I agree, Zandra. It will take time, but the process may be much more accelerated than we might suspect given the pace at which things are moving around us. We might need some new language as well, because “instructor” and “teacher” for example, may be more closely attached to the delivery role than other words like “mentor” or “advisor” (I don’t like “facilitator” because that implies “to make easy” and that’s not really to role.
I couldn’t agree more that the “class,” (if there is one) and the “place” (if there is one) should be all about discussion, engagement, and enrichment. If and when we come together (and I think we should when that is possible – either physically or online) we should be doing things we can only do when we are together, and we should be benefitting from all that the group brings to the table. That’s one great reason for pushing the “delivery” out.

Agreed that administrators need to understand the changing roles, and that “analysts of ideas” is one great new role we can and should assign to the professional educators.

Thanks for thinking with us about this.

Nina Smith 2012/07/30 at 3:43 pm

The necessary change in educational paradigm comes from focusing more on learning and less on teaching. Teaching and/or instructing is just one part of the learning process, the whole picture is much bigger and all the pieces must come together if we are aiming for effective learning and teaching (think of Finland and PISA to see what I mean with effective learning).

I do like the word “facilitating” in supporting students’ learning, because that truly IS the role of a teacher or professor (or a mentor like me): to make learning easier for the student. Effective teaching means lowering the thresholds for understanding – because students who are confident in their own ability to learn are also the ones finishing courses with good grades.

Kyle Peck 2012/07/30 at 4:40 pm

Good point, Nina. I’ll reconsider the term “facilitator.” I guess I may have been influenced in this by Seymour Papert’s description of certain learning experiences such as programming in Logo as “hard fun.” I think that learning is, and should be, at times, “hard.” But I see that it doesn’t mean that a facilitator who helps me get past certain obstacles is a bad thing. Thanks.

Susan Farber 2012/07/30 at 10:03 pm

Kyle has described a unique and critical role that effective instructors/facilitators could embrace, especially with increasing access to viable and well-designed resources and accessible information through Open Educational Resources, etc. If indeed administrators acknowledge that instructors can assume the chief role of evaluator or assessor of student performance (and provide high quality feedback), we would have to see if a majority of higher educators will embrace this role.
Three concerns:
1. Can we assume that all higher educators are knowledgeable of reliable and valid forms of assessments, matching them to instructional content & goals, and use them as designed?
2. Are students willing to accept this shift and assume increasing responsibility to decide the direction of their learning and the path they will design to learn and demonstrate their new knowledge and skill set? I have found a relatively large proportion of students anticipate professors will designate how assignments are to be completed and express resentment when they are expected to be responsible and creative problem solvers and investigative learners.
3. Within the theory that much of learning occurs through social interaction and co-construction of new knowledge and skill development, will we develop adequate opportunities to create rich, meaningful investigation of ideas and solutions to problems through social co-construction, often structured as group assignments and discussion board prompts?
There is a body of research investigating how to increase the benefit and impact of discussion board forums and to encourage reflective practice in students and professionals who seek ongoing PD (whose findings can inform the design of learning opportunities).

Students have to accept that true learning is ‘hard work’ and requires time investment, dedication and thought. Instructors will also need to invest much time in assessment, impacting the time commitment for online courses or even time usage during traditional, face to face instructional interactions.

I suggest that time is invested in creating and evaluating early models and then to revise them so these models are scalable and increasingly effective and responsive to students’ needs (especially when students are diverse, coming from different cultures) and instructors’ capacities to do this demanding work (with adequate recompense).

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