How technology displaces teachers’ jobs

By:

Nov 19, 2014

Some of my most memorable moments from high school were learning to drive my parents’ Ford F-150. As it is with learning anything new, it took me a few months of practice before I felt comfortable changing lanes to cut across traffic, accelerating onto busy freeways, or parallel parking on congested downtown streets. Yet the biggest challenge of learning how to drive my parents’ truck came from the fact that the truck had a manual transmission. To this day, I can clearly recall how as I drove across our neighborhood and had to resume motion after stopping at each stop sign, the truck would lurch forward, banging the heads of any passengers against the rear window. There also were a handful of nerve-wracking moments, such as when I was driving up a steep hill on the way to a camping trip, the engine stalled, the car started to roll backwards, and my sister started screaming.

Years later when I bought my first car and it happened to have an automatic transmission, the experience turned out to be bittersweet. Although it had been hard to learn to drive with a manual transmission, it was also incredibly satisfying. I enjoyed the exhilarating feeling that came from popping the transmission from one gear to the next while accelerating. I felt independent and self-reliant when the alternator went out and yet I could still start the truck without having to ask for a jump by pushing it until I got it rolling and then letting out the clutch. Moreover, I felt a great sense of pride and expertise from my ability to smoothly and effortlessly drive a car that many of my peers couldn’t even pull out of a parking stall.

Over time, however, I’ve come to appreciate having automatic transmission. It’s nice to be able to sip a smoothie during stop-and-go traffic without having to put it down every few seconds to change gears. When my kids are being cranky in the back seat, I’m glad to have my right hand free to hand them their toys or to find the song they’re demanding on the CD player. A manual transmission vehicle would still be fun for occasions such as driving up the Pacific Coast Highway or through the redwood-covered Santa Cruz Mountains. But when it comes to commuting to work or driving my family around town, it’s nice to have an automatic transmission that can free up one of my hands and eliminate one task from my cognitive load.

I welcome innovations that make driving more effortless. The GPS in my phone makes it easy to drive around new cities with which I am unfamiliar. The assisted driving sensors in many of today’s newest cars warn you when the car in front of you is breaking or when you are drifting out of your lane. I can’t wait for Google to get its driverless car technology to the mainstream market so that I can reclaim the hours I currently have to spend each week doing nothing other than driving.

So why have I written this personal narrative about driving on a blog about education? Because the experience I had shifting from manual to automatic transmission has some similarities to the experiences teachers may have as they shift from traditional teaching roles to teaching in a blended learning setting.

Technology is not going to replace teachers, and many teaching skills are relevant in both traditional and blended settings. But as schools adopt blended learning, there will be some significant changes in the ways many teachers do their work. For example, technology will automate tasks such as taking attendance, handing back assignments, and checking multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank answers on tests and quizzes. Teachers will also change how they plan curriculum, units, and lessons as software takes care of some basic instruction and gives them real-time data for tailoring lessons to student needs. Classroom management and instructional techniques will also change as personalization places more ownership for learning back on students and as teaching focuses more on individual and small group instruction than on managing large classes.

As these shifts happen, some teachers are likely to feel a sense of loss as certain elements of their hard-earned expertise become less relevant. But just as automated car features free up drivers to spend more of their time and mental energy on more important things, technology will make the most valuable aspects of teachers’ jobs even more relevant. For example, teachers in blended-learning settings will likely focus more of their time on giving rigorous, expert feedback on students’ projects, presentations, and written works. They will also have more time to focus on building strong relationships with students and their families in order to better mentor and coach their students.

So will technology displace teachers’ jobs? The real answer is yes, and no. Technology is not going to eliminate the need for teachers. But if we define teaching as the jobs teachers perform in a traditional teaching setting, then there are many of those jobs that will be replaced. In order for today’s teachers to successfully transition to blended learning, they will need to take an active role in designing the blended learning implementations at their schools so that blended learning augments the roles and skills that make them most valuable to their students.

Thomas Arnett is a senior research fellow in education for the Clayton Christensen Institute. His work focuses on studying innovations that amplify educator capacity, documenting barriers to K-12 innovation, and identifying disruptive innovations in education. Thomas previously served as a trustee and board president for the Morgan Hill Unified School District in Morgan Hill, California, worked as an Education Pioneers fellow with the Achievement First Public Charter Schools, and taught middle school math as a Teach For America teacher in Kansas City Public Schools. Thomas received a BS in Economics from Brigham Young University and an MBA from the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University.