Just when I finish linking the MOOC movement with societal and cultural movements working against teaching as a profession, I find a weeks-old Wall Street Journal article asking if teachers will be necessary in the future. The jist, as you could imagine, is that technology allows for lecture to be put online for others to see, so do we need all of these lecturers when we can just get some “star teachers” to record some HD video? Learning is the accrual of content, so why not get the well-known people to share the content?
My problem with this educational futures is it sits squarely opposed to conventional and contemporary learning theory. My first experience with teaching via HD video was Steve Martin on banjo. I don’t know how I found the video (and it is now behind a paywall for Tony Trischka’s School of Banjo), but I love Steve Martin and I think the banjo is neat, so I watched the video. Or, two minutes of it. He was trying to slowly discuss various terminology for the banjo, but I was lost 30 seconds in. By the time he was playing, I had to stop it…I was lost, and there was no way I would be able to come close to emulating him.
Music is a good place to think about online teaching, or teaching in general. It is not a subject taught in schools for core credit. It is not rigorously tested by the state department of education (or tested at all, for that matter). It is a subject people take mostly because they have an interest (on occasion, parents will push their children toward music because they read research linking musical aptitude to better academic performance). So, a barrier that most academic disciplines face, that of student interest, is mitigated. Yet interest is not the missing link in education; I have an interest in the banjo, but I gave up two minutes into watching one of my favorite individuals give me a tutorial.
When I watched the video, I lived in a 900 square foot condo with my wife who teaches yoga from home. I worked a full-time job, tutored on the side, and was enrolling in a graduate program for education. We had little time together, and little space for new ventures. The environment for my banjo success was compromised by all of these things…there was little time for me to invest, and I lacked a space and place to dedicate to the endeavor.
I see young musicians sitting on various accoutrements in various places, strumming their guitars. Do they need a teacher in-person to do this? No. They need time and interest.
Of course, for most people (not all), time and interest is not enough. I can sit and strum a guitar, and maybe be able to eventually work out Seven Nation Army’s refrain, but I can’t replicate it for other songs. I can learn something very rudimentary without knowing technique, without understanding chord progression, without having any of the nuance that comes with being a musician. That is where resources come in. Resources are obviously material to some extent, but in this situation I think of resources as human capital, or a community. And in most communities, there is an expert (see Wenger, Etienne). In formal education, we call that community a classroom; it is forced, so you lose the interest element in a lot of cases (multiplication, science, etc,), but you have the time and the community resources. In informal or non-formal education, you have chosen to be a part of that community, so you have the interest to an extent, as well as the resources (though perhaps not the time as much). The community can be a one-on-one relationship with an expert (or tutor), it can be a small group, it can be a larger group. I don’t necessarily think it can be a MOOC, but that is for a later discussion. In this community, students can interact with the various resources at their level, what Wenger would call legitimate peripheral participation and what Vygotsky would call a zone of proximal development. The expert can guide on a specific path for all, develop on as-needed bases, or scaffold and mentor. Now, must the expert be a certified, degreed professional? Not as much; those are signs and symbols we culturally provide to determine expertise. In receiving such signs and symbols, we note that said experts have gained not only an understanding of the content, but its relationship to context, which we hope can translate to others. In education, this is where pedagogy comes in…a teacher must be not only a content specialist but a context liaison.
I have firsthand experience with teaching/tutoring in a subject that does not “require” an expert. I spent six years working with assistive technology for learning disabled students. Often this meant extensive one-on-one development of skills, tools and approaches for students to master the content expected of them in mainstream schools. Sometimes, however, a family would want me to teach typing to their child. They would pay my hourly rate for this, a rate I received due to my expertise in assistive technologies and learning disabilities, as well as pedagogical approach. Their child could have used Mavis Beacon software, a free website, or bought a typing tutorial at Barnes & Noble. However, for the child something was lacking in the interest/resources/time triangle, and as an expert I was brought in to mitigate it. Now, for students with severe learning or physical disabilities, there are very specific approaches I can utilize to help work with a QWERTY keyboard, but for your run-of-the-mill student, it’s just getting a tutorial in front of them, encouraging practice, mitigating trouble and reminding them to not ignore their pinkies. But for those students, my presence solidified part of the interest/resources/time triangle in one or more ways: I kept them honest with their practice, I made it applicable by relating it to other things, I encouraged them, I helped them through dexterous issues, etc. All of these students learned home row typing to exceed the standards of their state. Did I do it? No. They did; I just helped glue a piece of the puzzle in.
To put this in an analogy with the future of teachers, we can have a world without teachers — it will just result in a lot of two-finger, hunt and peck, Columbus typists. The real thought should go into determining how we can keep the interest/time/resource triangle, strengthen it domestically and apply it internationally.