Recently a colleague shared an article from the 50s that promised a computerized chair would replace teachers and schools. Science fiction is full of examples of how technology will negate the need to actively learn. Brain implants or sleep machines will simply download all the information we desire without the need to read, write, or even think about, a word. Computers have been around for 70 years now, so why haven’t any of these technophilic dreams come true, even just a little bit? Putting aside the technological arguments for why such advances have not been made, what is it about human teachers that will always trump technology?
There is no denying technology can enhance learning and it is imperative in this techno-saturated world that students learn to be aware and informed users. There is also mounting evidence however, that technology in the classroom, laptops, smartphones and the like, can, if not managed, hinder learning.
A few years ago MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) were heralded as the next big thing in education, but research is showing they are perhaps not the democratizing, teacher-eliminating force they were expected to be. Huge numbers of students flocked to this so-called revolutionary online learning space, but investigation into student habits has shown that not many persist past the first day. Our own experience at RMIT Vietnam of linking students and teachers across locations has shown that even if you can get the technology to work, human interaction is crucial to the learning experience.
So what do teachers bring to learning that is hard for technology to emulate? Well, for a start, computer-generated enthusiasm is not particularly credible or influential. A teacher’s love for a subject is a strong source of motivation and one that shouldn’t be underestimated. Enthusiasm for learning and for students is also important and more palatable coming from a human. Feedback is another vital part of learning and although a computer can (when set up by a human) provide feedback along the lines of whether an answer was correct or not, it will lack the nuances that can be achieved by a living, breathing teacher.
Teachers also have life experiences that a computer just can’t touch. Beyond teaching course content, teachers at all levels are expected to develop students’ life skills. Attributes and soft skills like communication, empathy and teamwork require not only the teacher’s guidance but also contact with fellow students. Certainly technology can facilitate some of this and learning to build a team online is an important skill these days, but you can’t achieve any of it without the human component. In university, industry experience is gold when trying to convince students they need to learn course material to make it in the ‘real world’ (because obviously university is fantasy land!)
Technology has and certainly will continue to change learning and teaching. Teachers that try to ignore it or keep it out of their classroom risk going the way of the dodo. The question to ask is, as always, does this technology aid and enhance learning, or is it a smokescreen for poor pedagogy? Where is the balance between becoming au fait with the technology that makes us efficient and effective, and the need to learn how to be best humans we can be?