Published on 2013/03/12

The Evolving Role of “Teacher” in a MOOCs and Badges World

The Role of “Teacher” in a MOOCs and Badges World
In 10 years’ time, instructors who cannot learn to move beyond simply providing information to students will be replaced by technology, as the entire higher education landscape shifts towards a focus on competency and lifelong learning.

Technologies will re-place higher education. I didn’t say “replace;” I said “re-place.” Higher education will still be here, but our “place” — our role in the education of people — will change.

People can learn without being taught. Technologies can do a better job of conveying information and developing understanding than can lectures. The cost of postsecondary education is high and rising, and economies around the world are troubled. Most students leave college with significant debt, and having a degree no longer guarantees employment. Clay Shirky, in a recent article titled, “Your Massively Open Offline College is Broken,” proposed:

“Things that can’t last don’t. This is why MOOCs matter. Not because distance learning is some big new thing or because online lectures are a solution to all our problems, but because they’ve come along at a time when students and parents are willing to ask themselves, ‘Isn’t there some other way to do this?’”

Yes. There are several better ways to handle at least part of “this.” Learners are finding these ways and employers are beginning to respect them. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and other technologies are making content and knowledge-level assessments available, and a competency-based approach to education and “digital badges” are increasingly used in place of grades and transcripts to communicate the outcomes. The dissemination of knowledge and the development of understanding at a basic level can be handled more efficiently, less expensively and better by technologies other than “class,” without our help, and at almost no cost. It’s hard to compete with free, and we shouldn’t want to.

On the bright side, there isn’t a better way to promote the development of skills and attributes that make people successful in the world, and there may not be for some time. The development of skills and attributes requires multiple opportunities to perform in front of a competent reviewer and solid assessments that provide comprehensive feedback to inform improvement. MOOCs can’t do that, and that’s what really matters. Knowledge is necessary, but not sufficient, for success. Employers are looking for people who can and will do things, and do them well. They will be looking to higher education to certify that our graduates can perform, not pass tests.

Any teacher who can be replaced by technology deserves to be.

There. I said it. And I’ll stand by it.

I first heard that from my colleague, Paul Welliver, in the late 80s when people thought that computer-based instruction would replace teachers, and I’ve been saying it ever since. If all that teachers do is convey knowledge and basic understanding of a subject, technologies can do that job better and more cheaply. We need to move up the hierarchy of educational outcomes, to “re-place” ourselves, accepting the more difficult aspects of education as our domain and leaving the less-demanding jobs to technologies and peers.

The development of higher-order skills and the deep understanding of complex topics will become the primary business of higher education. We (those of us at institutions that survive) will need to understand the difference between disseminating, coaching, assessing and certifying, and we will need to get very good at the activities that require our expertise. We will need to understand that tomorrow’s learners will be less and less likely to come to us for long, multi-year engagements that separate them from family, work and other responsibilities and opportunities. We will need to work with others to define the skills and attributes that are required for people headed for different futures, help people develop them and certify their competency. And we’ll need to offer learners experiences that fit within their evolving lives. A one-size-fits-all education is a thing of the past.

It’s going to be a bumpy decade, but I’m convinced the product that emerges will be much better than what we offer now.

In 10 years, more people will come to the colleges and universities that successfully re-place themselves, but for shorter periods of time and, increasingly, via technologies such as Skype, Adobe Connect and Google Hangouts. Literally tens of millions more learners will be able to consider college-level education, because they will be able to accomplish the basics on their own, at low cost, thus reducing the overall cost and time to complete a degree.

The role of the teacher changes, becoming more focused on the development of skills and attributes and on high-quality assessment and comprehensive feedback, rather than on the dissemination of content. We will be certifying sets of competencies that are much smaller than degrees and allowing learners to assemble these smaller credentials (badges?) to document readiness for the roles they seek.

This metamorphosis will be painful and not all institutions will survive, but the result will be a system that is focused on more important outcomes, is more efficient, less costly and more accessible.

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Readers Comments

Danielle Fisher 2013/03/12 at 10:02 am

“Any teacher who can be replaced by technology deserves to be.”

A harsh but true statement. There are a lot of ‘content disseminators’ out there, but few true teachers. The ones who are willing to “re-place” themselves, as you say, will be more likely to survive through the changes to postsecondary education. As institutions look to hire fewer faculty, the ones who stand out as flexible and effective will be the ones to keep their jobs.

    Kyle Peck 2013/03/18 at 1:10 pm

    Thanks, Danielle.

    I appreciate you taking the time to comment. The people involved in education have SO MUCH to offer that mechanized systems can’t, and so little time during which to offer it. Like you, I welcome the opportunities that technologies give us to make contributions that only a dedicated teacher can make. More time building relationships, motivation, and relevance. More time assessing higher-order performances. More time understanding and telling students about resources through which they can extend their learning.

    Thanks again.

Tyrese Banner 2013/03/12 at 11:50 am

This article is a good starting point for the important discussion of what role teachers will play in the 21st century classroom. I agree that, too often, educators are of the mindset that they’re in competition with technology and that, eventually, the latter will overtake them. They’re missing the purpose of teaching, which is not to provide information, but the route by which students will find information. When educators can stop seeing themselves as ‘in competition’ with technology, they’ll be better able to integrate it into their classes, thus making themselves more effective teachers.

    Cindy Lauer 2013/03/12 at 4:29 pm

    The issue is not that educators see themselves as ‘in competition’ with technology, but that administrators hold this viewpoint. In efforts to cut back costs, many institutions have become reluctant to hire new faculty or even retain current ones, for example, by reducing the number of tenure-track positions available and relying more heavily on short-term instructors.

    The administration’s reasoning is that technology can replace the professor at a cheaper cost.

    Unfortunately, this robs students of the value of a true education. Students of today may be more adept at finding information online than the previous generation, but they need as much assistance/support as any students before them in understanding what they find.

      Kyle Peck 2013/03/18 at 1:18 pm

      Good point, Cindy. Administrators need to understand that just as pharmaceuticals didn’t replace doctors, mediated learning resources don’t replace educators! And robots haven’t replaced surgeons, but they have improved their performance. Let’s not reduce the number of people, let’s focus them on the most important aspects of learning, and equip them with tools that make enable them to go farther and faster.

    Kyle Peck 2013/03/18 at 1:14 pm

    Well said, Tyrese! We can make connections and can model and share what expert performance looks like. We can inspire and support and troubleshoot and redirect. I like to repeat that technologies won’t make a weak teacher strong, but they will make a strong teacher even more valuable. Technologies won’t necessarily replace teachers, but teachers who use technologies well are likely to replace those who don’t.

Charles Camarda 2013/04/29 at 12:03 pm

All very good comments above. Clayton Christensen of Harvard has written several books and numerous articles about disruptive innovation. In one of his books, “Disrupting Class” he discusses the possible future of education which we are starting to realize. A future in which the role of teachers may be changing from “Sage on Stage” to “Guide on the Side.” If we look at disrutpions such as the Khan Academy, we see the role of the teacher doing exactly that. The classroom is being flipped with the students watching the video lectures at home and the teachers facilitating learning in a more interactive way in the classroom. Students progress at their own pace (to some degree) and the teachers monitor individual progress, and facilitate student centric learning to overcome any obstacles in the classroom setting with as-needed guidance.

As with all new ideas, there will be much pushback by incumbentw within the existing profession, change is inevitable and once teachers recognize this technology as a useful tool
and become adept at using it to meet their needs and styles it will become an effective resource. Those who do not/cannot change with the times will…well what can I say!

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