I guess the question in the title of this blog contains a bit of hubris, since it implies that at least at some point my students did need me.
While it may be true that the best way to learn something is to teach it to yourself, as a teacher, I have always believed (hoped?) that what I do adds some value to the learning process.
But more and more I find myself questioning that belief. It’s not because I’ve become that old guy who doesn’t care anymore or that my students are coming to college so smart that there’s nothing left to teach them, it’s because of technology.
I will admit that as a college professor, I am spoiled by all the learning support made available through the textbook publishers. It’s gone way beyond just providing faculty with nicely made PowerPoint slides. There are software tools that allow me to assign homework problems, provide hints to students while they are doing the homework, and then automatically grade the homework. I can create quizzes and tests that are also automatically graded (at least for many types of questions).
So while automatic grading of homework and tests sounds good (particularly for the teacher!), don’t we still need someone to teach them the material? While still ignoring the issue about the effectiveness of self-teaching, there are software tools to help the students learn the material as well.
Such tools are highly interactive, containing videos, flash cards, direct links to a digital copy of the textbook, short quizzes in real-time while the students are learning the material, and mini-cases, to name a few.
And what I find most amazing about these tools is that they are adaptive.
If one student is having problem with the concept of sunk costs, the software can make sure it reinforces the idea by spending more time on that topic through such tools as the use of additional quiz questions or repeating a “flash card” on sunk costs a few times. If another student is having a problem with the concept of cost of goods sold, the software can show the student a step-by-step approach to how such a number is calculated. The software can then prompt the student to try it on his own, followed by instant feedback.
I couldn’t provide that level of individualized learning in a million years!
In addition to these technology advances in education, there has also been the rise of MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses. MOOCs, as the name implies, are courses that are offered 100% online, and are open to anyone who would like to sign up for the course. Three major providers of MOOCs have emerged over the past few years, Coursera, edX, and Udacity.
While MOOCs have had their issues over the past couple of years, I think most people believe that they are here to stay.
One of the advantages that MOOCs offer is providing access for thousands of students to a great teacher. Imagine the possibility of being taught songwriting by Bruce Springsteen, as opposed to a college professor with a PhD in literature, but has never written a song for publication. Or a course in Physics taught by a Nobel Prize winner who also happens to be an amazing teacher. Such scenarios would be hard for traditional universities and its faculty to compete with.
Another advantage is economies of scale. The scalability of a MOOC cannot be matched by a university-based course that is constrained by the size of its physical classroom. Udacity recently offered a course that had over 300,000 students enrolled in its Introduction to Computer Science class!
A variation of this approach could be used at a traditional university. Let’s assume Professor X is acknowledged by his colleagues and his students as the best calculus teacher at his college, a bona fide superstar. Professor X could be paid to develop an online course that features him as the lecturer, and then all students at that university would watch his lectures. When combined with the learning technologies noted above, this might mean that the university only needs one faculty member to teach Calculus, along with several teaching assistants to help with things like course administration, homework review, and testing.
So where does all this leave someone like me? Will I be replaced by educational technology and MOOCs? Is it time to look for another career?
I think we have all witnessed the job upheaval caused by technology in many industries. The number of travel agents, stockbrokers, and insurance agents, is dramatically less now that it was 10-15 years ago. There’s no reason to think that academia will be exempt from such creative destruction.
I think the biggest impact will be at the post-secondary level. There will always be a need for great pre-school teachers, since neither a MOOC nor advances in educational technology can put snow clothes on 12 four-year olds to take them sledding and then come back inside and offer a dramatic rendition of Corduroy.
Bu with tools like Connect from McGraw-Hill, and courses like CS101 from Udacity, I think the writing is on the wall. I see a future filled with superstar teachers teaching large numbers of students, using technology to customize the material and learning approach for each student.
I also see a role for professional course designers, and not just from a technology standpoint. Deciding what material to cover is just as critical as deciding how that material will be covered. Once the material is decided upon, then the best way to deliver it can be executed through the use of the superstar teachers and educational technology.
I think there is also a role in higher education for individuals who excel at motivating students to want to understand both the why and the how of what they are learning. Such individuals would also be tasked with getting the students excited about the idea of lifelong learning.
But perhaps the most important need that a teacher fills is the need for connection. The personal touches that a teacher brings to the learning process are not just limited to early childhood education. Offering congratulations to the student-athlete who has just won a race, or providing sympathy to a student whose father just died, are human interactions that can’t be replicated by MOOCs and software tools.
I am not sure how quickly these changes will take place, but I believe higher education will look quite different 5-10 years from now. I just hope I can adapt and survive and continue to provide value and a sense of connection to my students until my retirement about nine years from now.
And when that day arrives, I plan to be enrolled in Songwriting 101 by Bruce Springsteen.