Teaching's been going out of business for ever

8th May 2009 at 01:00

Back in the days of the ancient Egyptians .

College lecturer grade 1: "So let me get this right. You draw that little picture thing ."

College lecturer grade 2: "It's called a hieroglyph."

"Whatever it's called, you draw it on that beige bendy stuff ."

"On the papyrus, yes. And the picture represents a sound, a word ."

"So you can write everything down for other people to read?"

"Yes. It'll do wonders for our students, won't it?"

"But what about us?"

"True, it could be the end of the teacher as we know him."

Moving forward in time, we are in a mechanics' institute. Two ragged- trousered philanthropists, otherwise known as instructors, are examining a rectangular piece of slate set in a wooden frame.

Instructor 1: "Amazing, isn't it? You scratch the surface with this special pencil and letters appear."

Instructor 2: "It's not very big, is it? What happens when it's full?"

"That's the clever part. You rub over it and the letters disappear."

"So you wipe the slate clean?"

"You could say that."

"But if every student is going to have one to write on, what about us?"

"Good point. Looks like we're going to be surplus to requirements."

It is 1922 and all is quiet in the senior common room at Milltown Tech for the first broadcast of the newly formed British Broadcasting Company. One man is wearing earphones attached to a tiny crystal radio and is relaying what he is hearing to his colleagues.

"It's the top man, John Reith. He says they're going to start putting out regular broadcasts across the whole country. Their aim is to educate, inform and entertain."

He shuts down the set and takes off the earphones. There is a stunned silence in the room.

"He said educate, didn't he?" someone says at last. "Looks like we're all goners!"

Half a century on, the man on the television screen appears to be wearing fancy dress, but in 1971 tank tops and flares were what every self- respecting Open University lecturer was wearing - at least, the men were. It seems like half the nation sits up until 3am to watch the grainy images of foundation physics and What is Sociology? Chief among the enthusiasts are teachers, who see it as a way to upgrade their qualifications and earn more.

At the same time, they are wary about this new application of the nation's favourite entertainment medium. If degree students can be taught in their tens of thousands by a few enthusiastic performers, how many school teachers, how many further education lecturers, are going to have jobs in another five or 10 years?

"Computers `to replace teachers'" reads The Daily Telegraph headline in January 2002.

"Pupils will teach themselves in the school of the future, making teacher shortages a thing of the past, according to a `vision' outlined yesterday by the Department for Education and Skills," writes John Clare, the education editor.

"It said computers would transform classrooms by offering pupils `exciting new opportunities' to personalise their learning. At the same time, teachers would be `liberated from their traditional role as the fount of all knowledge'."

In a college canteen a few years ago, a lecturer turns to her curriculum manager and says: "So let me get this right. With this new college intranet, I put all my materials online, so my students can have free access to them?"

"That's right. And everyone else's students, if they want to."

"But if all my stuff is out on open access, what role does that leave for me in the process?"

"Good point. It could be the end of the teacher as we know her."

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