Let me make something clear: Teaching cannot be reduced to its tools.
Let me give you an example, though I doubt anyone reading this really needs one. One of the devices I use in the classroom is the lecture. It allows me to introduce information to students in an organized fashion. I cannot package my lectures, however, offering them as a substitute for what I do in the classroom. Why not? Because they are not a one-way transmittal but are, instead, a dynamic between me and the particular class. I constantly watch the students, changing pace, style and even subject depending on what I am seeing on their faces and in their actions. Make the lecture only an electronic residue of me, the teacher, and the real utility of the lecture as motivator and map is substantially reduced. The electronic residue cannot gauge student interest nor can it determine student starting points.
Face-to-face interaction is at the core of most learning, and it always has been. Yes, there are a few true autodidacts, but these are extremely rare. Most of us, even the brightest and most able of us, need that bounce that another person gives.
People whose lives are guided by print and electronic media often do not understand this, thinking that the interaction isn’t necessary, that only those things captured by a book or a video are really important–for teaching, that is. They don’t see that these are only tools.
Jonathan Chait, who (as far as I can tell) has never been a teacher, wrote last week that “designing a higher education system around maintaining living standards for college professors is an insane idea.” He is responding to comments by Jonathan Rees (who occasionally blogs here) and is trying to make the point that there needs to be opportunity for students who do not have the means to experience the nice campus education that Chait received.
Sure, but that opportunity is not afforded by a model of education stripped of its most important element, the interaction between student and teacher… and that’s what Chait is arguing for when he advocates for MOOCs and other aspects of the “new” digital educational possibilities as, essentially, replacements for teachers. He writes that:
insisting that’s the only way a student ought to be able to get a degree, in an economy where a college degree is necessary for a middle-class life, is to doom the children of non-affluent families to crushing college debt, or to lock them out of upward mobility altogether.
What he doesn’t see, perhaps because he knows so little about teaching, is that removing the teacher from the equation amounts to the same thing, locking students “out of upward mobility altogether.” Keep “real” education for the elite; give a version with human interaction strained out of it to everyone else. The result? The elite can keep congratulating itself on how well it has done, that the rest have had opportunity, too, but haven’t taken it. The problem is, the opportunity offered the rest is quite a bit weaker than that offered the elite.
Designing and maintaining an educational system that guarantees reasonable living standards for teachers is no insane idea. In fact, it is the only way that real education comes to pass.
Yes, education starts with the student… just a a crop starts with seeds. But without teachers and farmers who are present every step of the way, most of the students, like most of the crop, will be stunted or will fail. In both cases, machines can help, but they cannot replace the human involvement.
Anyone with even an ounce of sense should know that.