Why even our global, online world needs teachers

Tech has promised to revolutionise education – but, in the end, nothing can replace a teacher, says Gwen Byrom

Gwen Byrom

Following a visit to the Bett Show at the end of last month, I found myself reminiscing about the waves of technology use I have seen in the classroom. We have learned, sometimes through expensive mistakes, that unless there is a plan behind the implementation of a particular technology in schools, it’s likely to be relegated to a cupboard in fairly short order.

Does anyone else remember the BBC microcomputer appearing in their school, only for it to sit on a side-bench, forlornly, while teachers got on with the business of teaching? What about (for the scientists) racks of dataloggers that never worked? I would like to think that, as a result of past experience, we are now past the approach of "add technology to a classroom and watch standards magically rise".

This is not to demonise the use of any technology, be it “bring your own device”, iPads for all or Lego WeDo: with effective planning, all these initiatives can enhance the experience for students.

Amongst the keynote speakers at Bett was Sugata Mitra, famous for his “Hole in the Wall” experiments in deprived areas of India. His talk, which I must point out was not on this aspect of his research, did get me thinking about how we perceive technology in the context of global education.

Setting aside the use of hardware in schools, I began to think about the rise of the online classroom, from the Open University through to massive open online courses (MOOCs) and into specific learning platforms, and their use in remote and deprived areas of the globe as a means of raising aspirations and standards.

Robots can't replace teachers

Professor Mitra’s controversial premise with his ‘Hole in the Wall’ experiments was that if students had access to the internet, they could make educational progress by organising their own learning in the absence of a teacher.  Students with such access become self-directed learners who cooperate to solve problems, and by developing their skills in posing the right questions and synthesising information from different online sources, they can develop innovative solutions. In a world facing climate change and where authors such as Matthew Syed advocate the power of thinking differently about ingrained problems, Mitra’s work is a compelling vision about how a different approach to education could change the world.

Mitra is not without his critics, however, such as Donald Clark, who suggests that his work has ongoing issues. For example, self-organising students tend to organise into hierarchical groups, with older boys dominating computer access at the expense of girls and younger children. In addition, unsupervised access leads to problems with vandalism and use of the internet connection for purposes other than education, such as gaming.

So, if unfettered access to the online world is not the solution, what about online learning platforms such as MOOCs, the Open University and the many school-level equivalents? This is an area of rapid growth with more investors considering it a profitable, scalable and globally-applicable product. In these platforms there is more structure in terms of the journey through a course, carefully curated resource banks and access to online support. Is this, then, the solution for children and adults in geographically remote or deprived areas and where it is difficult to recruit teachers with the expertise and experience? 

Perhaps not: online learning platforms have been shown to suffer from huge drop-off rates, with less than 4 per cent of MOOC courses completed, according to recent studies. In addition, analysis of the demographics of MOOCs indicates that those who join higher education courses are largely from developed areas of the world, and those who are subsequently successful tend to be those who are self-directed, motivated and organised learners – who are likely to succeed anyway, online course notwithstanding.

Then there’s the problem of desirable difficulty and its relationship with online learning. Here, success down the line is enhanced by the need to struggle with the concepts in front of you now. As counterintuitive as it may seem, current performance that indicates a degree of struggle to comprehend concepts (shown, for example, by lower scores in tests and assignments) leads to better outcomes in the future because learning is at a deeper level. Yet this desirable difficulty can lead to even higher dropout rates from online courses, because as learners we all like to feel we are doing well and understanding the material we are learning. Therefore, if online education is to succeed, the support given to students to embrace the challenge is essential. 

As a former consumer of distance learning, I would argue that building this support into an online platform itself is of limited use. When talking to a tutor in a chatroom or an online tutorial, the barriers to "reading" the response of the other party inherent in the system itself result in a more superficial personal connection. Nuance is missed, body language is hard to read. This superficiality is particularly challenging when dealing with education at the secondary level, where I would argue that online tutoring is simply too remote from the individual and can fail to understand their needs and motivations when the going gets tough.

Students, regardless of where they are in the world, need committed teachers with whom they have a genuine relationship, who can motivate them when all they want to do is give up. Teachers who can ignite in them a real passion for learning. There is no substitute for a teacher who really knows their subject, cares about their students and understands each of them as an individual. Technology in all its forms can support what happens in the classroom, but it can’t be a replacement for the human interaction that inspires a love of learning for its own sake.

Gwen Byrom is director of education strategy at NLCS International

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