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Is the teacher an endangered species?

Photo from the Houston Chronicle / original article

Caught between MOOCs and software, the outlook for the teaching profession has been bleak lately. Even labor projections are uninspiring, pointing to declining numbers of students (links below). A recent (albeit criticized) article in The New Yorker even asks if computers will be the teachers of the future (short answer: probably not) But the death of the teacher has been largely overstated.

The problems with MOOCs have been increasingly documented (links below). Students drop out with alarming frequency; the most likely completers are those with already-advanced degrees. Access to high-speed internet is another problem for disadvantaged students and those in rural areas. And while free online content alongside traditional instruction tends to help students, it’s less effective on its own.

Software, on the other hand, may seem more threatening. It has been less debunked, and its grading methods are less scrutinized (no peer assessment; standardized questions like the SAT). And instructional software is often paired with material that will direct a human teacher to a struggling student. Paul Dowland suggests that analytic solutions are “particularly suited to large institutions with a high teacher to student ratio looking to quickly identify specific students who are having problems and require extra help,” but cautions that teachers are still necessary: “One-on-one meetings can uncover details that data analysis is unable to provide.” Both a personal touch and additional accountability can increase student success.

So the teacher is alive and well, and more likely to be monitoring a computer’s activity than yielding to it in expertise. This synergy between human and machine can make education better. But it will require increased attention to the types of software, technology, and training that would best serve an individual classroom.

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About the Author: Jaclyn Neel is a visiting Assistant Professor in Ancient History at York University in Toronto, Ontario.

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