We need to change the teacher vs. technology narrative


Aug 10, 2017

A recent chart from Bloomberg on the future of artificial intelligence and employment lends evidence to a point I have been making for years: teachers will not be replaced by machines. The chart compares a wide array of professions based on required education levels, average annual wages, and likelihood of automation. Sure enough, elementary and secondary teachers are among the most educated yet least paid professionals; and their likelihood of automation: practically zero. Yet the debate about machines replacing teachers rages on. Recent opinion pieces claim that teacher obsolescence is inevitable and something we should embrace. Fortunately, a recent article in the Economist gets the narrative right, pointing out that “the potential for edtech will be realised only if teachers embrace it.”

Research consistently shows that teachers are the most important school-level factor affecting student outcomes—and good teaching goes well beyond presenting information or grading assessments with discrete answers. But for teachers, the mountain of academic and non-academic tasks they must tackle each day often leaves them feeling like they can’t serve all of their students. Fortunately, the future of learning technology is not replacing teachers, but amplifying their ability to meet the learning needs of their students. My hope—and the focus of my recent paper on this topic—is to shift the narrative of “teachers vs. machines” toward a more productive conversation. We need to start talking more about the best ways to integrate technology and teaching in order to amplify teachers’ impact.

Along those lines, here are two areas where technology can amplify teaching.

Reallocating teachers’ scarcest asset: time

Teachers have an ever-increasing list of tasks they must complete each day that often require them to stay late at school or take their work home. Fortunately, technology is increasingly able to do some of these tasks, such as take attendance, administer and grade assessments, deliver basic instruction, streamline lesson planning, and track student progress. By offloading these tasks to technologies such as MasteryConnect, Khan Academy, and Gooru, educators should be able to focus on the aspects of teaching that have the greatest impact on students: providing mentorship and guidance, offering expert feedback on student work that cannot be graded by machines, and engaging students in critical and analytical thinking.

Targeting students’ individual learning needs

Traditional teaching constrains teachers to one-size-fits-all lessons and pacing that make it hard to meet students’ individual needs. As a result, some students fall behind as the class moves forward without them, while other students finish all their work and become bored and disengaged as they wait for everyone else to catch up. Fortunately, technology offers a new alternative to the traditional model. Software can help teachers gather student learning data, analyze that data to pinpoint the daily strengths and struggles of each student, and then deploy various online, teacher-led, independent, and peer-to-peer learning experiences to target students’ idiosyncratic learning needs. When implemented correctly, teachers and software work in tandem to support student learning.

Teachers are indispensable to high-quality education. They give students expert feedback on how to reason, design, compose, and find creative solutions to problems. They create classroom cultures where academic inquiry is exciting and achievement is a shared ambition. They provide students with social and emotional support and coach them on managing both their daily tasks and their long-term dreams. These are roles that machines are unlikely to substitute for anytime soon. Nonetheless, teachers need technology to help them meet the demands that stretch them to the limits of their human capacity.

Technology can do a great deal to support high-quality teaching. But we still have a way to go before technology significantly amplifies the impact of great teachers. The most important work in edtech over the next five to ten years will be figuring out how to design technology and redesign teaching so that technology and teaching become seamless complements in the work of serving students.

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 will not be replaced by machines”

    And yet we’re seeing blended learning and schooling models that are doing exactly this, no? I’m pretty sure that the Christensen Institute not only has spent a great deal of energy describing many of these models but also advocating for them…

    We will always need teachers. But there are going to be some portions – perhaps large portions – of teachers’ jobs that can be automated (or done by cheaper workers working on site or remotely), particularly if we persist with our traditional emphasis on transmission and regurgitation of low-level knowledge. It seems to me that the question isn’t whether teachers will be replaced or not but rather which aspects of teaching will be replaced.

    Your thoughts?

    • Dan McGuire

      Scott, you are absolutely correct that the Christensen Institute has done a lot to diminish the role of teachers. I pointed that out in my comments about their book years ago – http://developingprofessionalstaff-mpls.blogspot.com/2010/08/response-to-m-horns-comments.html Disrupting Class, focused almost exclusively on computer based instruction that substitutes or replaces teachers?

      There are certainly many aspects of teaching that can be enhanced with computers; let’s not confuse that with a misguided desire to reduce what we spend on good teaching.

      • Rob Wood

        They are not diminishing the role of job minded teachers. They are advocating professionalism in the trade that is quantified by end results not periodic tests. Students should be tracked at least 10 years past graduation of high school so the results can be observed. One of the Canadian colleges is doing this and their graduates are highly in demand because the College is accountable to their students future success, not employment of teachers for the sake of research and or staff employment.

    • Scott, thanks for taking the conversation to a more nuanced level.

      As you point out, although technology can’t replace teachers, it can do some of the tasks on teachers’ plates. Given this fact, there are definitely schools out there that use blended learning to offload teaching tasks to technology so they can increase student-to-teacher ratios and thereby lower operating costs.

      But schools focused on improving student learning and student outcomes would be foolish to use technology in this way. The load of responsibilities we expect teachers to take on is huge. Schools that are truly focused on student learning should use technology to take work off teachers’ plates so that teachers have more capacity to do the high-impact activities that often get crowded out of their schedules.

      I’ve been really impressed with how Innovations Early College High School in Salt Lake City uses blended learning to amplify teachers. At Innovations they use technology to free up teacher time that would normally be spent lecturing so that teachers have more time to work with students in small groups and to mentor students. The positive atmosphere in the school is palpable, and I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that students have a greater sense of security and belonging because they have stronger relationships with their teachers and the teachers have more time and capacity to support their students.

      The question of whether technology will replace teachers really depends on what schools hire technology to do. A school focused on cutting costs may very well use technology and blended learning to reduce the size of their teaching staff. But a school focused on improving student learning should realize that teachers are their most valuable asset and that they best improve student outcomes by first maintaining a robust teaching staff and then using technology to increase the capacity of their teachers.

      Like all technologies, blended and online learning can be used for good or ill. It’s up to us to decide which purposes we hire technology to fulfill.

      • Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Tom. So what about Rocketship? Using technology to save on FTE teachers, which then gets invested in other directions, no? And achievement supposedly went up… How many schools are (will be) thinking the same way, I wonder?

      • Dan McGuire

        From what I know (I have family in the area) of Innovations Early College High School in Salt Lake City I would agree that it is doing things mostly right. Do you know how their demographic data compares to the district and the state?

  • Rob Wood

    Exactly but in order to do so, we need Professional “Passionate” Creative education facilitators. Not teachers that just defaulted into it because they liked or were good at school or just dug some subject or maybe wanted a job with a retirement package that did not require them to be judged on outcome based performance. TED Talks has an excellent podcast titled Rethinking Education that offers a mix of passionate minded educators with excellent direction as to where we need to go. Education needs to totally embrace student specific mastery of subject matter. Not rote memorization based on some designated classroom time frame quantified by some archaic merit based system.

  • awake_canuck

    In the future teachers will evolve into learning facilitators. There will be no reason to teach anymore, the internet will be able to take care of that. Teachers will just wander the blended/flipped classroom to facilitate learning on a demand basis by self paced students.