Blog Post

If We (Profs, Teachers) Can Be Replaced by a Computer Screen, We Should Be!

It's meant as a challenge, not a prescription:   "If We (Profs) Can Be Replaced by a Computer Screen, We Should Be!   I am amazed at how often my pronouncement, made most recently at the Harvard Innovations in Learning and Teaching (HILT) Symposium, is interpreted to mean "All profs should be replaced by computer screens."   Not at all.   What I mean is that, given how sophisticated online technologies are becoming, given how many people around the world are clamoring for quality and low-cost education, given how seriously people in the online educational business (like Kahn Academy) are studying how people learn and what kind of help and interaction they need to learn, given all that, then, if we profs are adding no other value to our teaching but that which could be replicated on line, then, well, turn on the computers and get the over-priced profs out of the classrooms now.


But do I think what great teachers (great ones) do can be replicated by online educational forms?  Not at all.  Do I think great teachers are over-priced?  Not on your life.  We're a bargain.   But we have to take seriously that subjunctive "if" and we have to take seriously what it means to redesign learning for the 21st century, a world where, indeed, we and, more importantly, our students are constantly competing in a world of outsourcing and mechanizing.  If we are not understanding this workd and adding something that only great teachers can add, we should be replaced.


What is the case for face to face teaching?   First, it is precisely the condition of being face to face.  Great teachers know how to take the temperature in the room, and see how to take the experience of a diverse group of students learning together and transform it into something magical (at its best) and irreproducible mechanically.    There is a quality of the human and aspirational and inspirational that defines teaching and that is something that happens when I am in the same room with you.   Great teachers understand how precious face-to-face communication is and find ways to make the most of our very special time together.  Great teachers understand the intimacy and responsibility of great learning, of how charged and fraught and precious the role model and mentor are.   They treat that human relationship with the utmost respect and care.  


More than one person has said the really important 3 R's are "rigor, relevance, and relationship."   A great teacher does all three, setting the standards sky high, making sure that the learner understands how all that hard work will translate into life-forming knowledge or values (what Anthony Appiah recently called the most important aspect of learning, helping us to think about "how we want to live our lives"), and ensuring a personal connection that, in essence, models the way to translate that rigor and relevance into something intensely meaningful and motivating.


I'm not sure any of that can be replaced by a computer screen, at least no screen I've yet seen.


But how many of us take the injunction seriously?  In a world where lots of learning can be taught online, we better think seriously and carefully about our particular role in the classroom or we will be put out of business and perhaps we should be.   I've learned how to Moonwalk from an online tutorial.  I'm learning how to draw from online courses.   I'm learning Java Script on line.  I have a list of other things I'd like to learn.   Millions of others share my desire to learn when we can, in airports, on runways, on weekends, fit to my schedule.  If I am taking the time to schedule a class meeting, I want it to be meaningful.  No phone-ins, please!


Here's a method of "mixed" classroom instruction that feels right for now, and please note how little of it is about interaction, not just about content.   In the very best pedagogy that takes advantage of online instruction, the remarkable affordances and mechanics of learning online are coupled with individualized, creative, inspiring human instruction.  There is, for example, a marvelously interactive algebra program that is problem-based, not memory-based, where kids are given simple problems and, when they pass those, the online instructional program than gives you a slightly harder one or one with a twist.  If you pass two or three of those, it then takes you to the next level, constantly intermingling conceptual explanation with problems to be solved to get to the next part of the explanation, so the testing isn't extrinsic but actually incorporated into the learning process.   More to the point, for the teacher, there is no need for end-of-subject testing because, at a glance, the teacher can see how far a student has gotten on her own and where she's stumbled.   Classtime then is spent with very small clusters of students, each cluster chosen because of a problem, and with other clusters working together during that same time on a different problem that they are helping one another to learn.   When the teacher focuses on them, they can they show if they've solved it or not by talking about how they answered the next series of questions and on and on.


This is the opposite, conceptually, of "dumping technology in schools."  It is a thoughtful combination of the best forms of online and human teaching.  The combination of brilliant (and non-profit:  that is essential!!) online calibrated, challenging, fun problem-based learning, indvidualized instruction with embodied, personal, affective teacher attention, and with peer-group learning motivated by both the teacher and the technology seems to me to be an ideal model.  It's rather like chess master Kasparov saying "yes a computer can beat me now----but who can beat me playing with a computer I helped to program?  Bring on our competition!"


How do we learn best?  How do we teach best?   That's the question.   If we can be replaced by a computer screen, we should be.   If that statement worries you, well, maybe that's a good thing.   It's a challenge.   It's meant to provoke thought about what we can add, or how online learning can take care of certain basics but there are other, even more foundational basics, that require real, human, interactive, meaningful connection.   That's the point.  There's no one model, there's no right way.   But there are plenty of lazy, unthinking wrong ways.  That's the challenge.  That's the choice.    IF we can be replaced by a computer screen, we should be.



Cathy N. Davidson is co-founder of HASTAC, and author of The Future of Thinking:  Learning Institutions for a Digital Age (with HASTAC co-founder David Theo Goldberg), and  Now You See It:  How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (Viking Press). She is co-PI on the HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competitions.   NOTE:  The views expressed in Cat in the Stack blogs and in NOW YOU SEE IT are solely those of the author and not of HASTAC, nor of any institution or organization. Davidson also writes on her own author blog, [NYSI cover]



Keep saying it, please.

I meet an undergrad last week who was doing a study of the use of technology in the classroom at her university. She was about to graduate and she had this deep sense of despair about the future of higher education because of what she was seeing in the classrooms she visited. A business major, she reguarly studied with and through her project observed professors who clicked through powerpoint presentations provided by the publishers of the assigned textbooks. 

And then during parents' weekend, my eldest regaled me with tales of being assigned college-level reading and then, instead of discussing the reading in class, being frogmarched through slide-driven summaries that she could've grabbed herself off of SparkNotes.

The corollary to your statement about great teachers: if actually being physically present in class isn't central to the learning experience, then the course should be automated. 

The college tour reveals institution after institution recognizing the centrality of comfort and convenience to the undergrad experience--coze suites with covered walkways to the cafeterias, where the sous-chef is hard at work chopping up the next batch of locally-grown organic vegetables for the omelets made with free-range eggs. 

But the classrooms? The furniture is nicer, to be sure. And there are more electrical outlets. But the high end podiums with the HD projectors? 100K slide projectors for the most part. In other words, if the teacher in that space can't make that space special, then the students could be in any classroom or, more likely, will be physically present in the space, but their minds will drift off, disengaged.

Bad teaching didn't matter as long as the endless stream of students was guaranteed. But, now, the cost has so obviously outstripped the value of the *experience,* that the reasonable response, for those burdened with paying tuition, is to consider less costly alternatives. And, if the experience of being in class need not be entered into the calculation, then one is largely calculating the the pleasures of attending the Disney version of education, where you are forever enjoined to exit through the gift shop.



I addressed this issue from another point of view in "Could Faculty Go the Way of Kodak?" (22 January 2012) which I cross posted on HASTAC.  There I was concerned about professors who do not take advantage of the benefits of digital technologies.  However, as Richard Miller observed, it is the teacher that makes the classroom special; not the technology.


A few years ago I had an OPS (no benefits) position as an Instructional Designer at a State University in Florida.  I applied to a permanent position with the enginnering department. They were recording all of their professors in the classroom so that they could put them up online. Their demo was the bank of a professor writing on the blackboard. A student asked the professor, he did not even turn around. He dismissed the student and said they would talk about that latter. I was astonished that people actually felt that this was online learning.  This was a bad professor and did not engage his students either way. My head was swimming with ideas on how this class could be presented, but no one wanted to hear what I said. After all, I had just gotten my Masters, what did I know....

Years later....I have been looking for a job in the RTP area for almost 2 years. I have had interviews, but as I talk to people, whether a school or a business, they look at me like I am from Mars. All they want to know is if I can do Camtasia, or Articulate Presenter. Yes, I can... but that is just a part of engaging learners.  Needless to say...I am still unemployed, and I fear that so few are creating great online learning, that those with good ideas will never be heard and that online learning will just be hour long vidoes and powerpoints.




Linda, I can totally relate to your comments. I am starting to think that indeed there are two planets in the ed. tech world - and yes, we who talk about " a thoughtful combination of the best forms of online and human teaching." are left marooned on a distant planet while magnificiently large sums of money are spent on launching online initiatives that will basically continue the status quo in education. 

Ms. Davidson's point about understanding "the intimacy and responsibility of great learning" is critical. That elusive quality of empathy, of careful listening, thoughtful holding and guiding is what I am attending and aspiring to. Hopefully enough of us will continue to do that. Then I know that one day those who look at us as if we are from Mars, will realize that indeed there is a beautiful planet inhabited with thoughtful beings there, over there!

Until then, keep the faith!

And if I have to answer one more question about my "knowledge" of Camtasia why I'll go ahead and beam them a screencast.


Love the original posting, and appreciate the follow-up comments posted to date. 

Something to consider as ed-tech continues to evolve: our concepts of "face-to-face" are evolving (sometimes actually in positive ways) so that "face-to-face" can include those situations where technology, used by skilled facilitators, brings people "face to face" through high-end tools along the lines of Cisco's telepresence tools; less costly tools such as Blackboard Collaborate and Adobe Connect live sessions; and low-end tools including Skype and Google+ Hangouts. 

Colleagues and I first tried this successfully using Skype as a way of connecting an onsite group of learners (at a conference) with an offsite presenter in 2007:

Buffy Hamilton has documented numerous instances of using Skype to connect her high-school learners in Georgia to wonderful guest presenters who otherwise might not have been available to her learners:

Samantha Adams Becker (from the New Media Consortium) and I have had great success creating blended (onsite/online) learning opportunities, as documented in this post written and posted on May 17, 2014:

 The bottom line is consistent with what is in the original post: great learning facilitators doing what they do best (to the benefit of the learners they serve) should not be replaced by automated online learning. Technology remains the tool, not the driver of effective learning.