Friday, February 26, 2010

Education 2.0: What About The Teacher?

I have written about University model changing significantly and morphing into an User Network model, more akin to a library, where learners learn from each other. The reason behind imagining such transformation has obviously been the availability of technological options, and the social trends and imperatives of Lifelong Learning. One criticism I have received of such a visualization is that it pushes the teacher out of the equation, making her extinct and letting Learning Technologist take her place, or at least de-professionalizing teaching into some kind of technology assistant.


First of all, I accept the criticism as valid. In my enthusiasm in writing about the universities as user networks, I almost forgot about teaching, not mentioning this at all. This, however, came from my own background and bias, because my engagement with education was mostly from the administrative and business perspective, rather than teaching itself. Being largely self-taught, it was rather obvious for me to adopt an overtly constructivist position, where learners need some kind of mechanical guidance to put their knowledge in perspective to become educated. It is indeed rather important for me to acknowledge the bias and address it cogently.


The more I think about it, I know that teaching as a profession will not become extinct with the advent of modern learning technologies; if anything, it will become more important. However, teaching as a profession as experienced now will become largely irrelevant, even disruptive, in facilitation of learning in the lifelong learning and technology facilitated learning sector.


Let me explain. Teaching is professional work, and it is a mistake to undermine its necessity. I forgot to mention the teacher, however, because the current social technologies are mostly about democratization of power relationships and social construction of knowledge, and one way, teacher dominated classrooms are wholly in-congruent with such a concept. From this perspective, teaching is an element of oppression, a method of perpetuating the existing power equations, which hinder, rather than help, learning in the age of universal availability of knowledge resources.


However, as one of my teachers, Sue Cross, very coherently argued in her recent book, Adult Teaching and Learning, the learner-centric/ teacher-centric paradigms of education are better seen as a dualism, where two perspectives are equally possible, rather than a dialectic, where one or the other must prevail. She also points out that in certain circumstances, like driving instruction or a physical activity like Scuba Diving, it is best to follow the teacher rather than letting the learners experiment, which can lead to disaster. And, it is possible to see why, in the age of Google, learners are more likely to lose way than not, without the professional guidance of a teacher. It is wholly plausible to argue that self-teaching was far more practical in the age before Google, and teaching plays a critical, if different, part today in guiding the social construction of knowledge.


So, looking closely, there are two elements of the teaching profession that must somehow be de-linked. The first is the power perspective, which must evolve with age and become more democratic with more and more adult learners returning to education and technology facilitating a more levelled classroom setting. However, while the power issue is intrinsically linked to professionalization of training, it is not one and the same. I would argue a professional teacher operates with a more democratic, nearly sublime, assumption of power, which passes off under the label 'respect'. It is still professional teaching, but essentially constructed upon the learners' deference to the teachers' professional abilities rather than her professional title.


Of course, the power relationships are nowhere more apparent than in the assessment of learning. Here, a learner may justifiably feel that she is left to the teacher's mercy, especially in humanities and other similar areas, where so many alternative approaches could be equally plausible. Social requirements, particularly arising out of social funding of education, makes learner centric assessment completely out of question, and here, the teacher, more accurately, respective association of teachers, assumes a supreme power. This is the sort of bureaucratic power the modern technologies are assumed to destroy, and this is the sort of oppressive power of teaching profession that so many people argue against. There is also something self-defeatist about the system of peer review as implied in the usual systems of assessment, and one would imagine a number of innovations will take place in this area over the coming years.


To address the issue of assessment further, one would see the key role of assessment as one of measurement of social utility of the learning activity, particularly relevant when a social funding of learning is availed. The perspective, one can see, is self-evidently oppressive, and an element of conformance is demanded in the very nature of this activity. It is wholly implausible that a society would want to fund learning which will be directed against its own structure, and therefore, it must build a power structure, through the practise of teaching and imposed through a system of assessment and recognition, which must be aimed at preservation of existing social norms. This is exactly where the modern technology creates the tension: It makes some of the existing social norms untenable, and the information about non-conforming practises accessible. It helps expand the perspectives available to the learners, and invariably includes perspectives not certified by the society, and its teachers.


What I shall argue here is obvious: technology always wins. Marx observed the tensions between the means of production (technologies) and the relationships of production (social norms), and described how technology can progress independently outside the social sanctions, and eventually help shape the society itself. This is exactly what is happening in education. Here, teacher as a professional remains as relevant as ever, but the teacher as a preserver of status quo is swimming against the tide. I am arguing that the profession of teaching will not become irrelevant, but it will not remain the same. And, on that note, I would think I am on the same page with those who criticized my visualizations of a teacher-less world.

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