Can Technology Replace Teachers?

How Khan Academy and other advances in educational technology are changing the role of teachers.

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After I asked in my last blog post if technology is making us lazy, I received a lot of comments about how technology has evolved in the learning industry. Someone even asked if technology is evolving so much that it will actually replace the need for teachers one day!  This reminded me of a special American news report which aired in 2012, where some argued that Khan Academy and its approach was the future of education.

The premise behind Khan Academy is to build online learning videos for kids with simple exercises. Today, Khan has over 3,000 videos, ranging over a variety of topics. All of the videos are short, they are on-demand, and they provide a simple assessment at the end.  On the surface, you could argue that this is changing the face of education.  But some go further and argue that this is actually leading to the tipping point of technology and tools versus teachers, where teachers will no longer be needed.

Khan Academy and other similar approaches using technology in education, like Massively Open Online Courses (MOOC), are certainly innovative and moving the spectrum of what tools and technologies can provide to a student.  But they should be used as a way to reach people who do not have access to teachers, or as a way to supplement the learning for those that do have teachers.  Can these approaches eventually replace teachers altogether?  I think that’s very unlikely.  Here’s why.

Teachers have always used tools, and then technology, to facilitate learning. The classroom environment has included bulletin boards and white boards, documents including textbooks, manuals, and handouts - even videos have been used for a long time (all the way back to VHS, Beta, or even on spinning reels).   Today, with the evolution of technology, a teacher’s toolbox includes online self-paced learning content.  And, with that, some of the tasks that could only be done before by the teacher, can now be accomplished by leveraging these online learning tools.

Does this mean that teachers are now obsolete, or just there to manage the class and facilitate the learning? Not at all.  What it means is that teachers now have more time to devote to their other responsibilities. These include leveraging their expertise as a respected authority on a subject matter, managing social interactions (answering students questions and asking leading questions to the students), and – this is key - acting as a motivating influence.

One interesting additional layer to this debate is that children and adults learn very differently. So, would my answer to this question be the same when talking specifically about teachers who teach children?  Even more so, and here’s why. 

One of the more popular learning theories, especially for child learners, is called Constructivism.  This means that children cannot just sit and watch a video and be enabled on their own. Learning for children is not just about solving a specific problem- which is what Khan Academy would teach them. It’s being able to use that learning to internalize the concepts and then formulate new problems.  Children do not have a vision of the world yet. Their life experiences are typically very limited.  This is why it is difficult, and near impossible for them to learn by viewing a video on their own and doing a simple activity by themselves. They need to go through the gambit of the entire learning process, starting with interactive exercises and overcoming hurdles to get to where they need and want to be.  And who do they need to help with all of this? You guessed it: the teacher.

So I would argue that Khan needs the teachers to help motivate students (and not just use a dashboard to track progress).  The videos can help reinforce concepts or be watched first, say in place of the textbook, but then a teacher can apply those problems and concepts to a bigger idea. This would give the students what they need to solve open-ended problems that will come their way in life.  In addition, having other students learning at the same time in the same place will help with the social and collaborative aspect of learning.

And what about the adult learners?  They can also benefit from that model.  While adults have a vision of the world and life experience to draw on, they are also faced with technology that is constantly changing, and knowledge that is continuously expanding.  Constructivist learning can help them bridge the gap between their experiences and the unknown.  Online learning is a great example: it takes a student through the entire learning process, overcoming hurdles, learning to solve problems, and being able to come up with new problems and solutions. And here’s the twist: in this case, the student also becomes the teacher.

So, to come back to the original question: can technology replace teachers? The short answer: not quite.  While the need may differ between adult and children learners, I think everyone can benefit from the right mix of teacher and technology.  What that right mix is will differ for each individual student, depending upon their learning style.

Teacher and Tools Scale 

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