Online learning in the classroom cannot work without teachers

Psych 101. This was the class taught by that balding professor who lectured from the auditorium lectern. We could never forget his class on Pavlov where he summarized the famous experiment about the salivating dog and the bell. The professor paced back and forth across the stage. He had two cap guns in his hands. Intermittently, he would pause, shout, “CS!” and then fire the guns. Everyone in the auditorium would jump and then he would resume the lecture. The professor repeated this scenario several times until finally he shouted “CS” without firing the guns. Just like Pavlov’s dog, who had been conditioned to salivate at the sound of a bell, we all jumped. In twenty minutes we learned a lesson in conditioned response — and all these years later, we still remember it.

We would be hard pressed to say that an online learning program, no matter how attuned to the student user, could have the same lasting impact as our Psych 101 professor, or indeed any professor who employed creative pedagogy to teach an important idea. A producer of online learning materials would be wise to avoid making the claim that online content — even the protean cards we propose — could outshine a talented teacher. Beware of any online learning system that aggrandizes itself over the teacher. It will fail.

We’ll take that a step further: An online learning system that seeks to eliminate the teacher will imperil education. The last thing an online learning company should do is turn the classroom into an educational Disney World devoid of surprise, discovery and alternatives.

Teachers have legitimate concerns

Teachers and teachers unions understandably worry that technology will do to education what it already has done to journalism and the music business: “Disintermediate” the human beings who were the heart and soul of those industries. And losing their jobs is only one of the worries that teachers express when the subject of online learning comes up. Among the others:

+ Online learning will end the teacher’s role as subject matter expert.

+ Greater emphasis will be on the technology itself, ultimately placing time-consuming low-level demands on the teacher’s time.

+ Teacher input into curriculum and learning materials will diminish.

+ Fewer teachers will be needed for ever larger classrooms.

+ Salaries will shrink.

We do not dismiss any of these concerns. In fact, we are aware of the feeling today in many quarters that the Internet has become the destroyer of middle class jobs:

Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, economists at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, for example, argue in Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy, that Internet-based technologies have eliminated the need for jobs in everything from manufacturing to media; quashed median income in the U.S., and facilitated inequality throughout the economy and society.

Moshe Vardi, a professor of computer science at Rice University, argues that by 2045, machines will be driving our cars, looking after our elderly parents, delivering our packages, producing our food and checking out our groceries, to name a few tasks soon to be performed without the need for human intervention.

Peter Cappelli, a professor of management at The Wharton School, writes in Why Good People Can’t Get Jobs: The Skills Gap and What Companies Can Do About It, that employers are reluctant to hire because the available job seekers do not have the technical skills they are looking for.

These are all distinguished voices, and they observe a reality we are not foolish enough to dispute.

But as the political activists in the 1960s used to say, you’re either part of the solution or you’re part of the problem. We want to talk now about how McGraw Hill, working alongside teachers, are going to be part of the solution.

Data already point to the indispensable role of the teacher

We have discovered that online learning, combined with human instruction, is pointing to some promising outcomes. In so-called blended classrooms, students acquire math and reading skills via online systems while teachers serve as Socratic guides. Rocketship Education, a blended classroom network of five K-5 charter schools in San Jose, California, reports that students — 90 percent of whom are eligible for free or reduced lunch and 75 percent of whom are not native English speakers — have outperformed their peers across the state in reading and math. In 2012, four years after rolling out its “differentiated learning platform,” Rocketship students exceeded California’s statewide quality marker of 800 by 55 points.

We like Rocketship’s blended classroom, which operates by collecting data on student performance and then acting on it. The system’s “feedback loop” discerns what material students have mastered and what issues remain problematic. Teachers and their aides help students come up with their own Individual Learning Plan (ILP). According to the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank that has examined Rocketship’s results, “Data from standardized assessments is continuously updated from … classroom and learning lab work to refine each student’s ILP and guide teacher interventions and enrichment work.”

In a report that looks into four blended classroom projects, the Lexington Institute observes that Rocketship is “trying to elevate the role of the teacher: giving [teachers] more access to data, more ownership of their student results, and more ability to focus on higher-order thinking skills when providing direct instruction.” The report asserts that the blended learning model “seeks to empower the teacher.”

An Education Week op-ed by a teacher in a comparable blended learning classroom called Carpe Diem Meridian reaches the same conclusion: “Blended learning is not about replacing teachers with machines,” writes Indianapolis-based Josh Woodward. “Rather, it’s about leveraging technology to provide students and teachers with immediate feedback, holding each student accountable for his or her academic success, and personalizing coursework to best meet students exactly where they are.”

Admittedly, we need more data from online learning programs. But the message from the Lexington Institute and from Josh Woodward comes across strong: Without highly effective teachers and instruction, online learning cannot be successful or sustainable.

We’re going to be part of the solution

Our goal as a data-driven, customized learning company is to elevate teachers to the highest professional status. To make this a reality, we want to cite yet one more worried observer of the job-sapping Internet economy.

In Who Owns the Future, computer scientist Jaron Lanier writes that it isn’t too late to undo the damage wrought by an Internet economy that has made information free to “users” while simultaneously impoverishing journalists, musicians, book publishers and other “content providers.” He argues further that data-gathering “siren servers,” notably Facebook, collect and track user data without ever compensating people for supplying their valuable photos, restaurant and movie recommendations, etc. Lanier offers up a solution crafted by Ted Nelson, the creator of hypertext: Pay people for everything they produce and post online.

We got pretty excited when we came across Lanier’s book because our commitment to paying content creators and app developers dovetails with Nelson’s idea about compensating the creators of intellectual property through a system of micropayments: Every time somebody “touches” your work, be it a book or a paragraph, you get paid something for it.

Why bring content creators into a discussion about the role of the teacher in online learning? Because teachers are content creators as well as instructors. And as active participants in an online learning ecosystem, they will be working with content and app developers to help design curricula, textbooks, videos and other learning materials. Some teachers may even combine their teaching degrees with a degree in data science, a new discipline that will aid in analyzing and interpreting the mass of data that online learning systems will generate.

We do not want to leave you with the impression that the role of the teacher can remain exactly as it was in, say, 1960, or even in 2000. The Internet has made inroads into every aspect of our personal and professional lives. Neither teachers nor textbook publishers can hide from that reality.

At the same time, we recognize that teachers always will maintain supremacy over machines for reasons that Plato would appreciate:

+ Teachers are storytellers.

+ Teachers advance nuanced connections between content and ideas.

+ Teachers direct discussion and mediate disagreement.

+ Teachers serve as inspirational role models.

+ Teachers set the bar and raise it when appropriate.

+ Teachers delegate responsibility and hold students accountable.

We intend to help teachers navigate the learning technologies and technology infrastructure that will serve as their portal into subject matter and pedagogy. A society whose economy and social interactions are only becoming more dependent on technology will need teachers and classrooms to mediate that complicated course between content and truly creative thought.

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