Addressing teachers’ concerns about online learning


May 26, 2014

One of the great parts about working in education technology is the conversations it leads to in social settings outside of work. The subject of education is naturally interesting to most people because almost everyone has spent a significant portion of their life going through the education system. Given the common interest in education, it is exciting to tell people about the ways in which blended learning is enabling personalized instruction and fixing many of the aspects of school that people find frustrating. Interestingly, while most non-educators find these ideas immediately appealing, the reactions I get from current and former teachers can range anywhere from enthusiasm to skepticism to outright opposition. In my conversations with teachers, I’ve noticed some common concerns that are worth addressing.

One concern is that technology is just an expensive distraction from the real work and real challenges of teaching. Given education technology’s track record, this is a legitimate and important concern. Schools and districts have often purchased technology with the naïve hope that if they just get these amazing devices in the hands of teachers and students then magical things will happen. What happens instead is that the technology becomes an expensive set of gadgets that teachers have to manage and troubleshoot. At the end of the day, the technology just complicates teacher’s lives and doesn’t really solve their problems. The technology we use in schools will never be more than a fancy bell or whistle if our approach is just to layer it on to traditional classroom instruction. For technology to have a truly transformative impact on education, we need to use it to rethink our instructional models (link to hybrid paper). Schools realize the true power of educational technology when they use it to transform their instructional model to offer personalized, competency-based instruction. This kind of transformation starts by creating a plan to address specific educational goals and then finding ways to leverage technology to meet those goals, rather than starting with devices and software and then trying to figure out what to do with them.

A second common concern is that technology is being used to replace teachers. As I’ve written in the past, this argument stems from a false dichotomy that frames technology as a low-cost substitute for excellent teaching. In reality, there will always be a human element to teaching and learning that cannot be taken over by machines. That being said, many of the roles and responsibilities of teachers are going to change, and many aspects of traditional teaching will be subsumed by technology. For example, the teachers in many of the leading blended learning schools spend very little time planning and delivering lessons for whole-class instruction. Instead, their work focuses more on mentoring individual students, working with small groups, and managing student projects.

The last concern I’ve often heard is that online learning will undermine teachers’ professional judgment. The teachers who voice this concern often picture an environment where their work consists only of grading assignments as students spend all their time working through a rigid online curriculum. As with the prior examples, there is some legitimacy to this concern. When online learning is used as the primary driver of instruction, teachers inevitably give up control over many aspects of curriculum planning and lesson delivery; and in low-quality implementations of blended learning, the teacher’s professional judgment ends there. But in high-quality blended learning environments, teachers’ professional judgment expands when it comes to helping students set goals, providing them with coaching and mentorship, and giving expert feedback on writing assignments, presentations, and projects. Furthermore, the classroom culture that teachers create is what gives real-world relevance and value to what students are learning online. A teachers’ professional judgment is critical to establishing such a culture.

As more and more schools adopt blended learning in the years to come, the nature of teaching is going to change. Many teachers who have spent their careers working in traditional classrooms may find that teach in a blended learning environment is a difficult adjustment. But on the bright side, many teachers find that blended learning gives them the opportunities to do more of the things that attracted them to teaching in the first place.f

Thomas Arnett

Thomas’ research focuses on the changing roles of teachers in blended-learning environments and other innovative educational models. He also examines how teacher education and professional development are shifting to support the evolving needs of teachers and school systems.

  • Teachers should start by understanding their own evolution. Before printed books were widely available, note taking during lectures, with or without understanding the material, was a means of gathering information. Lectures became widespread in the 1700s when the Kingdom of Prussia launched an 8-year basic education program to prepare the masses for a growing industrial workforce. Printed books freed up time for teachers to dictate less, inform more and use the printed book as the bible of knowledge. This model of passive teaching remains largely intact due to habit, resistance to change, and fear of the alternatives.

    So what is the alternative? Simply put, active learning of any form outperforms passive teaching. Unlike blended learning (which implies the co-existence of a human teacher and a device teacher) active learning does not imply use of gadgets and ipads in the classroom. For example schools in Singapore (the tiny country that spawned the now widely accepted Singapore Math Method) students learn before coming to class through online materials and lectures. They first take a short written or verbal test, sit through a short power lecture of 15 minutes and then retake the test. They then apply the knowledge to solve problems in small teams. Often quick learners help their fellow students individually. Slow learners are encouraged to hand-write their understanding of concepts.

    Teachers would do well to heed the observation that, “one must learn by doing the thing, for though you think you know it, you have no certainty until you try.”

  • Beth Connelly

    The changing role of the teacher is described well here- certainly the invested teacher will be more challenged and more excited about her/his field.