Why Digital Learning will Liberate Teachers

By 08/10/2011

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I spend a lot of time writing about how digital learning can transform our education system into a student-centric one. In my last blog, I wrote about why parents—of all stripes—matter for digital learning and make it fundamentally different from past “reform” movements. Digital learning should similarly be a game changer for teachers.

Teachers will be critical to our nation’s future in a world of digital learning. Of course, teachers’ jobs will also be quite different from the way they look today—and if we do this right, they should not just be different, but they should also be a whole lot better, as it liberates them in many exciting ways.

Today, teachers spend a significant amount of time engaged in what we call “monolithic” activities—one-size-fits-all, standardized activities that are designed to reach the mythical middle of a class of students. As documented in the book Delivering on the Promise: The Education Revolution, this includes such things as lecturing, managing classroom behavior, scoring papers and tests, preparing for state testing, updating grade books—and I’d add to the list such things as lesson planning for one-size-fits-none lessons (see Chapter 5 of Disrupting Class).

On top of this, there are a lot of demands made of teachers—bolstering student learning being the overriding one, but there’s a lot of administrative asks that go along with the job, too. And in the construct of today’s monolithic system with its limiting notion of factory-modeled classrooms with batches of students, there just isn’t the time or ability for most teachers to differentiate instruction meaningfully or respond to data, let alone enhance and extend the curriculum, spend significant chunks of time working in small groups or one-on-one with students who are struggling or need enrichment, and so forth. In other words, they can’t really focus on facilitating actual learning. In what is an incredibly noble field in which adults try to make a meaningful difference in the lives of their students, today’s system works against them doing so at every twist and turn.

In a world where digital learning becomes the platform for our education system, however, this whole notion should turn around. In a time-variable, learning constant competency-based (or mastery-based) system, much as the type Sal Khan has talked about, a teacher’s job will be richly rewarding around these types of activities.

My friend Alex Hernandez recently wrote about this in some depth, and my colleague Katherine Mackey and I have written about this a couple times before as well.

Without rehashing every point, in one example, as software increasingly handles direct instruction, this will create big opportunities for teachers to facilitate rich and rewarding project-based learning experiences for their students to apply their learning into different contexts and gain meaningful work in the so-called 21st-century skills. And as software increasingly simplifies administrative tasks and eliminates a significant need for lesson planning and delivering one-size-fits-none lessons, there will be significantly more time for teachers to work in the ways that motivated many of them to enter teaching originally—to work one-on-one and in small groups with students on the problems where they are in fact struggling.

There should also be opportunities to create a variety of differentiated roles for teachers—so that they can pursue their strengths and don’t have to be frustrated by their weaknesses (much as happens in other fields)—as well as increasingly creative opportunities for team teaching, both in a school environment as well as virtually across geographies, to make teaching far less isolating and provide far more opportunities for recognition among one’s peers. Some of the different roles may range from content expert to learning facilitator and from mentor or motivator to caseworker, as well as roles like content creator or assessment professional. Teachers in the field may have other ideas for these as well, and undoubtedly there will continue to be significant evolution.

The bottom line? Digital learning should liberate teachers’ lives by making the opportunities for success far more frequent, and the opportunities for teachers to pursue what they like and their passions about the teaching profession far more possible. And for those that have liked doing some of everything—there probably will continue to be a fair amount of that, too.

– Michael B. Horn

Comment on this article
  • Jeffrey Pflaum says:

    Hi Mike,

    Your column about digital learning envisions the future of teaching and education. There’s a whole lot of individualization that can be created via computer software. (However, do not throw out whole-class lessons, and it’s not really one-size-fits-all, because I worked with this approach and small groups for 34 years as an inner-city elementary school teacher with extreme positive success. ) Kids can get out there and learn independently (if that’s their forte), within a small group of 4 to 6 kids, as well as a whole class. I started teaching in the late 60’s and retired in 2001 and I remember when computers first came into our school (as a cluster program) for the children. The problem was that the software programs were taken from various core subject workbooks. I only bring up this issue because one key question about digital learning, my bottom line if you will, is: What software programs will be created? (I have created many original projects in reading, writing, thinking, creativity, poetry, vocabulary expansion, concentration, and EI which can work as computer software programs, and more importantly, according to your thesis, can function with students working individually, of course, with a little help from a student’s best friend, her teacher, parent, or even a classmate.) Another idea connected to this thought is the incredible video and computer games that are out there. If they can produce virtual game realities, why can’t the same be done in education? Let the great classroom teachers, computer programmers, software and creative artists collaborate to build the digital learning you’re advocating in the post.

  • Jessica H. says:

    “Freeing teachers” is highly likely to actually mean “firing teachers” in today’s climate, and we all know that. A huge part of school as we have utilized it in the past and at present is about teaching social skills, appropriate interaction, communication, community values, etc. While these have shifted due to online social interaction and communication, it is a huge mistake for our society to do away with “in real time” learning and practice almost entirely, which many districts will be sorely tempted to do for cost effective reasons. Online learning programs may hasten the demise of our society if not approached with care and attention to these details. I am not sure that we can trust our educational systems in the US to do this.

    In large part, content even for online universities amounts to droning lecture, perhaps supplemented by only fair power point presentations, and so “dynamic content” (and thus unintended curriculum) is developed primarily for commercial games.
    I certainly appreciate the idea of being able to create dynamic small-group lab, workshop and learning situations in and outside of the classroom, free from the direct instruction/lecture model which could be handled primarily online, and supplemented by interactive models/practice, also online. However, I fear the reality is that due to cost constraints, in all likelihood the model will be 100 students crammed into a room, plugged in and watching with little real interaction with one another or the curriculum content, and one bored teacher, acting as facilitator, monitor, what have you…the rest of the teachers will likely have been “freed”.
    When comparing today’s classrooms to any “digital learning reform” it makes more sense to look at the reality of what reform might look like, not just the best-case-scenario ideal. In discussions I have had with teachers from city high schools experimenting with digital learning reform today, it appears much closer to what I have just described than to what was described by the author of this post. Please go and observe them for yourself prior to passing judgement on this issue.

  • Prof Daniele Pauletto says:

    It’s changing the mode of access to technological consumption. It changes the way young people communicate … Young people do not perceive themselves as passive subjects of the computer world, but as active participants of the content production to exchange and share: sharing participation and thus become the new “rules” of network usage “… They share thoughts and also share files ( file sharing )… They anticipate new way to use the technology, which then with time – settling – become customary for all ….
    And the teachers?
    Some try to get busy, some are frightened by new technology, others refuse … The student today needs to participate in a learning process based on the possibility of combining different methods of learning.
    Teachers have the task of changing their role from dispensers of information to the generators of knowledge … This change of role transition creates a situation of difficulty or crisis.
    Need an evolution toward digital modes of thought more appropriate that the new generations (digital natives).
    And the biggest challenge comes from the fact that teachers, mostly digital immigrants, who need to interact with the digital generation “mistress” in the world of new technologies …. experiment and innovate new forms of learning, here’s the bet.
    The traditional education has seen few innovations in the origin of the schools and universities today …

    E-learning and online training is not the answer, but a help.
    The classical formula of online learning is a little tough, does not work with new generations of studenti…L ‘education 1.0 is weak in terms of dell’interattivà and collaboration, too rigid roles of teacher , student and tutor.

    Learning can benefit from sharing and re-working ‘flat’ content typical of the new frontiers of the Web, the Web 2.0…
    The center of the training must be the learner (student-centered learning) and not
    the trainer / teacher or tutor.
    The use of socianetwork, wikis, video blogs, tagging, mash-up tools, and Ajax technologies, are the new “books”, pencils, pens, rulers, compasses, scissors and glue of “NetSchool”…
    new knowledge , new forms of interaction in the network… And ‘the transition from online learning community open to horizontal groups, groups for collaboration.

  • Michael B. Horn says:

    Thanks for your post. We’ve actually profiled and looked at many of these — and there are many exciting things going on, some less so, as you stated. Check out our report that profiles many of these though: http://www.innosightinstitute.org/media-room/publications/blended-learning/

    Our goal is to create policy that encourages the good and closes the bad as quickly as possible, to your point.

  • Hy Schlieve says:

    As an administrator of a small school district, I am looking at embracing online learning for a number of reasons. First, finding “highly qualified” teachers has become an issue in the rural world. I view online learning as a way we can provide quality curriculum to our students without the need to “fit” some prescribed schedule.
    Secondly, however, I see “online” as the world were our students live. Having conducted an experience in a previous life, I found something interesting. When students are in a classroom with interactive television, the students with the teacher directly in front of them watched the teacher on the monitor rather than focusing on the “real mccoy”. The students of today live in a world of monitors and technology and seem to respond more attentively to it.
    Finally, though, I wish I had had access to the technology that our teachers and students have at their disposal today. I would probably still be in the classroom. I could envision a “flipped” model of instruction where the homework is to view the “lecture” and the classroom time is devoted to working on the material either individually or in small groups.

  • Susan Vallance says:

    While we have no choice but to embrace digital learning as a part of the 21st century learner, we DO have a choice to preserve the time spent building relationships and practicing problem-solving skills eyeball-to-eyeball. The human factor is of prime importance, and no clod computer can provide that!

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