Last year, our principal posed this question to our faculty: “Can we be rendered obsolete by online learning?”
The Khan Academy was receiving widespread attention for propagating the idea of an online learning experience for younger students. There was a general fear among school administrators and teachers in the K-12 education community that this could become an exclusively online learning system; that a computer could replace a teacher, and an “online learning environment” could replace a classroom.
Could an online learning system replace a classroom? Yes, it could. Will it? Most definitely not.
The skills that are valued in education today, as opposed to ten years ago, require students to be able to do something with raw information. Students, in order to compete in this highly dynamic world, should be able to collaborate with others in order to create, synthesize, interpret, and evaluate information. These skills are not taught by rote learning alone, but rather are learned through discovery, inquiry, and exploration. Many of these skills cannot be successfully taught through an application or website, but must be experienced in class and facilitated by a teacher.
The Internet has changed society’s definition of a knowledgeable person. As recently as t he beginning of the 21st century, educated people were those who knew a great deal of information about one or many subjects. Now, many of us carry smartphones in our pockets. The actual worth of being full of information has, as a result of this accessibility, gone down a great deal. In this “Age of Information,” access to facts and data is no longer available only to the educated elite, but is available to anyone with an Internet connection. So, as a society, what is an “educated person”? What value does that person have? What information really matters, and what has been reduced to the level of trivia?
This is where the classroom comes in. A classroom is not a virtual dictionary or lecture hall where students can receive isolated pieces of information, but rather a place where students can learn how to distill and discern the value of the information they find on the Internet, as well as analyze bias, evaluate content, and construct their own knowledge.
Students need to be able to work with other students to come to these new understandings. In the classroom, the collaborative process is preparing our students to contribute to our economy that is now based more on service and face-to-face interactions than the manufacture of goods (as was the case fifty years ago.) This is the case regardless of the socioeconomic level of the school and its ability to access technology. Because of this shift, in today’s world we have to be literate in the collaborative process.
While online learning has become prevalent in college environments, for K-12 education, it is simply not sufficient. As John Dewey (2002) states, “When the school introduces and trains each child of society into membership within such a little community...we shall have the deepest and best guaranty of a larger society which is worthy, lovely, and harmonious.” (p.124) Online learning has created more opportunities for colleges to convey information to students, but the education of younger students requires much more than the conveyance of information. Instead this burden of education includes the preparation of the student for interaction in our larger society.
Just like many other online learning tools, this exclusively online classroom idea can have its place. When Wikipedia first became commonly used, there was concern that it would be an academically unreliable source, and many educators banned its use by students. There is value to Wikipedia: it is a helpful tool in research as a jumping-off point to obtain further information. Similarly, we would be imprudent in completely discounting the value of learning sites like Khan Academy. When students need to reinforce certain skills, these online learning tools can be very helpful. Proponents of Khan Academy laud it for its ability to ensure that each student is held accountable for their own learning, and that certain skill reinforcement is not overlooked in the efforts of keeping up with the pace of the class. If education was simply about skill reinforcement, then this model might actually be a substitute for the traditional classroom; we as teachers know that skills are simply one facet of a well-rounded education.
While technology cannot replace a classroom, teachers would be remiss if they did not take advantage of the multitude of ways in which technological advances can help them further improve their craft. Now, teachers do not have to spend as much time teaching their students facts to memorize, and can devote more precious class time to engaging with the material on a level that requires students to think critically. Technology is a vehicle that makes this possible.
Effective teachers have been guiding students toward reaching deep and meaningful understandings of content for generations; teachers and their contributions are an invaluable part of the education system. It would be just as misguided to assume that teachers can be replaced by technology as it would be to assume that in today’s world, teaching can exist without technology. These ideas are not, and should not be, mutually exclusive. In the classroom, there must be a marriage of interaction, collaboration, and technology.
For example, our students used Skype to speak with a state assemblyman; though this face-to-face interaction occurred through a computer screen, students were able to have an educational experience that would not have been possible otherwise. The alternative, letter-writing, would not have as much of an impact on the students. While all interactions should not be conducted by means of technology, its purposeful supplemental use can revolutionize learning experiences without sacrificing that which we hold dear about education.
Teachers’ skills must improve along with technological advances. While every year, new technologies are touted as indispensable classroom tools, only some will be worthwhile for actual use in the classroom. We teach our students critical thinking and evaluative skills; we need to apply those discerning skills to the multitude of technological tools we have the option of implementing in our classrooms.
Just because an educational tool isn’t perfect does not mean it should be disregarded. Just because an online classroom does not replace the role of a teacher doesn’t mean that this learning tool has no educational merit. Though there are thousands of technological tools that help enhance instruction, it doesn’t mean that teachers will be rendered obsolete.
Dewey, J. (2002). The school and society: The child and the curriculum. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press. (Originally published 1915)
Earlier version of this article was originally published at Ed Tech Blog