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Is the Instructor an Endangered Species?

Updated article originally published August 12, 2014.

Effective teaching and learning are a regular topic of pedagogical discourse, so it is reasonable that the role of the teacher is occasionally thrown into question. These discussions are fueled by developments in edtech, questions about student learning, and other advancements in the sphere of higher education. But how valid are predictions about instructors being superseded by technology?

The death of the teacher’s role in education remains largely overstated; we will always need instructors, and this becomes abundantly clear by looking at how similar threats to the existence of teachers have come and gone.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)

MOOCs–which came to prominence as a form of remote learning in the mid-2010s–operate with a simple premise based on a few core features: open-access online, diversified learning materials (pre-recorded videos, readings, and assessments), limitless enrollment, and importantly, no present-instructor. Typically, they are offered by universities or private companies and facilitated on a MOOC-specific platform, such as Coursera or edX.

Despite the original innovative concept and approach, the problems with MOOCs have been well documented. In sum, students drop out with alarming frequency; the most likely completers are those who already possess advanced degrees. Additionally, access to high-speed internet presents a challenge for rural and disadvantaged students interested in these open courses. And while free online content alongside traditional instruction tends to help students, it may be less effective on its own. This means that with no instructor, learning is less productive.

While there was a renewed interest and discourse surrounding MOOCs in light of increased remote learning in 2020, the same issues persist, meaning the ideas and promises of MOOCs continue to be unrealized.

EdTech

While teachers can easily be defended from the presence of MOOCs, edtech may, at times, appear more threatening. Software replacement has an array of seemingly game-changing innovations; most prominently the objective grading of standardized questions has gained some attention.

While the basic premise of automated grading can appear desirable, it does not provide the rich and formative feedback that is helpful for student learning. This is why instead of replacing teachers, most edtech is designed to work in conjunction with teachers as a means of assistance. Many forms of instructional software explicitly exist to direct teachers’ attention towards struggling students.

In this area, 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.

Edtech can also provide beyond-the-classroom resources to help struggling or disengaged students. For example, while artificial intelligence (AI) may appear threatening to the teaching profession, most educational AI applications exist as extra support for students.

Students Need Teachers

The teacher is alive and well, still serving as the central cog in pedagogy. The teacher is far more likely to be monitoring a computer’s activity than yielding to it in expertise. MOOCs could not compete with the incomparable value of a teacher’s personalized approach, and software is not aiming to get rid of instructors but rather help them in avenues such as identifying student struggles and grading efficiently. This synergy between human and machine has and will make education better. But it will continuously require increased attention to the types of software, technology, and training that would best serve an individual classroom.

Interested in more EdTech and innovative pedagogical developments?