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Innovation

American educator and entrepreneur Salman Khan pictured in 2013. Khan, a former hedge fund analyst, launched his academy in 2008 to provide free classes to anyone, anywhere. The nonprofit provides free educational content globally in areas of math, finance, history and art. (Dario Lopez-Mills/AP)

Khan Academy, an educational website created in 2006 by a former hedge fund manager, currently provides free online lessons to over 10 million students per month. With access to over 5,000 videos and 100,000 practice problems, students receive instruction in virtually every subject, including history, literature, math, physics, economics, chemistry, and even cosmology and astronomy. The rapid growth of Khan Academy raises a serious question: If Khan Academy, just one of among many similar sites, can deliver personalized content in a faster, cheaper, and more effective manner than our current model, would the billions of dollars that states spend on teaching salaries each year be better used to equip each student in America with a brand new personal computer? To push even further, are teachers in brick-and-mortar schools even necessary?

Too often veteran educators dismiss such questions as the product of evil technocratic minds, too busy coding in their Silicon Valley cubicles to appreciate the vital role that teachers play in the classroom. As an educator myself, I think this defensiveness is misguided. Teachers cannot continue to pretend that new technologies do not represent existential threats to the profession. Only by coming to terms with the fact that traditional roles have been undermined will teachers discover new ways to fulfill a goal that all educators, both techies and non-techies alike, share — transforming the lives of students.

Teachers must concede that we are no longer the most important purveyors of information for students. This radical shift represents an unprecedented departure from long-established practices dating back to early medieval universities, where students depended upon their instructors, often versed in Greek and Latin, to transmit knowledge about the world around them. Up through most of the 20th century, students had no alternative but to get to school each day to receive instruction from their multiple subject teachers, who often taught using expensive textbooks few students could afford to purchase.

Teachers cannot continue to pretend that new technologies do not represent existential threats to the profession.

This monopoly on information is over. Now, due to alternatives like Khan Academy, the vast amount of high quality resources available through online education sites makes even the most knowledgeable of teachers look quite limited, not to mention boring. Students can choose any number of personalized interactive exercises online, often geared to a specific theme or real-world application, that automatically adjust the level of difficulty depending upon mistakes made. At no cost. This setup leads to an experience that is both more edifying and more engaging than listening to your old Algebra teacher lecture in front of a class for 45 minutes straight.

In light of this transformation that will only continue to intensify over the next decade as new technologies emerge, educators must reorient themselves in relation to their students. Teachers of the future must fulfill three main roles.  TWEET First, teachers should play the role of curator, helping students navigate the endless stream of information that inundates them every time they search the web, scan their Twitter feed, or tune into cable television. A computer can’t teach students the ability required to determine the difference between reasoned argument and impassioned polemic, a crucial distinction to grasp if our students are to become enlightened citizens. A computer can’t teach students that Wikipedia is not the ultimate arbiter of truth.

Secondly, teachers should play the role of facilitator, nurturing an environment in a classroom where students learn how to interact with those who may look, sound, or act differently than them. Shifting pedagogy away from lectures and towards class discussions is no longer just a simple strategy to vary class activities, but rather than an imperative in the era of online education. Students don’t need a lecture on Martin Luther King Jr. when they can watch hundreds of thought-provoking and illuminating videos about his life online. But they do need to know how to prepare for a debate about the effectiveness of civil disobedience.

In the Khan Academy era, content expertise can be outsourced to machines, but moral leadership cannot.

Finally and most importantly, teachers must continue to fulfill the one role that has remained constant since Socrates first engaged his Athenian interlocutors: acting as principled role models who model the civic virtues that we hope to instill in each of our students. This point may seem obvious to some or self-righteous to others, but it is worth reminding both teachers and non-teachers that students are constantly observing the actions of the adults whose ideas and perspectives they value. By demonstrating intellectual curiosity, empathy, and integrity, teachers can help students develop an ethical foundation that will guide them in a future age shaped by technologies that are impossible to even imagine. In the Khan Academy era, content expertise can be outsourced to machines, but moral leadership cannot.

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The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

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  • Ryan

    As an English teacher myself, this article seems like a clarion call that has largely been answered. I don’t see many courses being taught by lecture, and I certainly don’t rely on lecture in my classes. I lead and facilitate discussions, or at least interactions, with my students to help them arrive at some kind of richer understanding of what it is they’re doing, and why. My sense is that this is the general trend of education, and has been for the past 20 years. Khan Academy, and other technology-based resources, are incredibly useful tools. However, the interaction between a teacher and student that allows each the opportunity to enrich and deepen the other’s understanding of a problem or text or skill, cannot be replaced by something that doesn’t interact with, and adapt to, individuals. Until they do, I don’t see technology as posing any existential threat whatsoever–education is merely following a path it started down long before Khan Academy ever existed.

  • Jon Dreyer

    We have had the technology for students to teach themselves for over 500 years: books! Teachers have sent kids home for hundreds of years with the technology required for the kids to teach themselves, yet teachers are still necessary. The Kahn Academy videos, for example, which are generally not nearly as good as the math books most kids already have but don’t read, won’t change that.

    • jakedimare

      So teachers are essentially project managers for children?

      • Blair Hoover

        That’s exactly what teachers are!

  • callenwo

    I’m a college professor and have been teaching logic online for 5 years now. Anecdotally, I can say that my in-person logic classes average about 10 points higher on exams than my online classes with exactly the same content. The two main differences I can cite from one person’s experience are these:

    1) Structured interaction and exposure to material (I combine lecture with group work, discussion, going over exercises, etc.) in person guarantees that students confront the material incrementally and learn cumulatively. I run a mandatory online discussion board, but many online students fail to participate, even though they are graded on it. I also track my online students’ logins and many of them start a new module the day it is due rather than work 15–30 minutes a day, which I emphasis throughout the course.

    2) Online courses can encourage lack of commitment and intellectual passivity– my online students sit and read material, but don’t engage, ask questions, listen to others ask questions, push through by going back and forth with the professor when they are stumped, etc. In person I can see who’s confused and confront the issue and resolve it then and there. Online, I use technology for interaction, but it works only when they use it. And many of them refuse to, much to the detriment of their grades and their learning.

    My experience is pretty typical. Kalin fails to cite any research on effectiveness of online learning, probably because it fails to show that online learners do better than in-person ones do. If we want to look at the merits and drawbacks of online learning, we need to be good empiricists and examine systematically what actually happens in classrooms. The results, as far as the research shows so far, are mixed.

  • rickrabin

    It should also be noted that Sal Khan is affiliated with the right-wing Koch brothers and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and other wealthy individuals and foundations that support privitization of education and other public services.

    • SanfordA

      Emotions are mandatory for learning. When professors personally speak to students, there are emotions, for when people talk there are always emotions. Not true when people communicate via computers and such. Once there are no actual people involved, education suffers. See Teaching and Helping Students Think and Do Better.

      • Norm Wright

        My wife, Marsha, and I have discussed this many times. I as a technologist working in this on-line learning world and she as a specialist in early childhood education. Yes, technology is getting better and better at delivering content but as she points out it is not good at providing the “emotion” that critical to learning. Numerous scientific studies have proved that without an emotional context students cannot learn and remember even simple facts let alone complex concepts — that is how the mind works. The author of the article cites three roles for a teacher but misses this main/key role… to provide that emotional context. In a traditional teaching that context is all too often fear… fear of failing a test. In Montessori the emotional context is that of discovery. Montessori teachers light a desire in the students to understand themselves and their world.

    • nah_1009

      Really!! Any sources/links to confirm this broadside? Or is it some tripe hurled at the wall to see what sticks?

  • Nick Sophinos

    Probably not for journalism.

  • Pointpanic

    so should we reduce education to yet another market commodity? Sure Tech has a role to play but only a teacher can inspire and provoke students to think critically.

  • Maureen Devlin

    Curator. . .Facilitator. . .Role Model, and I’d add coach/mentor. Great article.

  • Linda

    Yes, curator, facilitator, role model and when in conferences with parents of my fourth and fifth grade students, I have made clear ‘a teacher’s role is to help children learn HOW to think, not WHAT to think. Well written article.

  • Ed

    Many problems with this article. For one thing, she left out a role of education that people aren’t always comfortable with: Evaluation. Schools don’t just teach, they offer evidence a student has learned. How can anyone know a doctor who learned everything online really learned it? There are standardized professional examinations…but people have complained about standardized tests for years. It seems odd that they would switch to that as the main way of measuring students.

    Also, one problem with these articles is people write articles like this based on a theoretical ideal of what a technology can do…but when people go to implement it, the result is shaped by historical accidents of funding and how it is utilized at home. Information technology is typically accessed via “multi-purpose” devices loaded with games…you need iron discipline to avoid distractions. Few adults have that discipline, let alone 6 year olds. I have a writer friend who purchased a dedicated word processor to avoid distractions. I find it easier to read on a kindle then a laptop.
    The “standard model” of online classes looks like someone threw up on a power point presentation…a distracting mess.

    I think the best use of technology in learning would be to convert “skill based” classes like math, chemistry and foreign languages into “video game” style exercises for the iPad…studies have shown that when you convert certain math problems where computers consistently outperform humans into games, humans perform better.

  • Paul Hoogeveen

    Kalin is discussing a pedagogical paradigm shift that was already well underway back in the late 1980’s when I was working on my M.Ed. Online resources such as Kahn Academy haven’t changed that paradigm shift much. Education is a process in which both students and teacher are engaged in exploration of any given subject matter. As such, it is crucial for teachers to consistently engage their students in meaningful exchanges. It isn’t enough for any resource (book, online content, teacher, parent) simply to impart information. A primary goal of education is for students to develop solid reasoning and critical thinking skills, but young minds that haven’t yet developed these skills are usually not capable of self-directing content absorption to the extent that a facilitator-only model requires. This is a primary factor in the deterioration in exactly these skill sets at the secondary level in recent years. Teachers need to be as involved in all aspects of the learning process as students are if they are to fulfill their roles as educators effectively and with the level of expertise and experience that students absolutely need.

  • Worterbuch

    A couple issues that I had with this article: first, teachers never claimed a “monopoly on knowledge,” especially knowledge as basic and widely available as k-12 content. Books, for example, have been around for a long time, for free, at the library. At my high school, we borrowed the books and so I never had to buy anything. There are also videos, tv courses, etc.

    So let’s get one thing straight – knowledge has been free and widely available for many many years. Can we stop accusing teachers of hiding knowledge? Can we accept that k-12 knowledge is already widely freely available? If yes, then the real argument is: does technology help students absorb more of that knowledge and become more educated individuals?

    I don’t know the answer to that. Perhaps it depends on the student and the technology. I used to assume the answer was YES, but I was shocked to find that I learn less when I try to use technology. I find internet videos mind numbingly boring and I can’t pay attention. I feel tempted to cheat. I’m easily distracted, and online stuff exposes me to FB, twitter, skype, email, news, etc. The internet is great at providing me with answer, but you know what? I don’t seem to remember that answer :(

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