The Worst of All Possible Worlds – ISTE Coaching Standard 3 and the Dystopian Future of Education?

“In a world…”

And so begins the introduction to countless movie trailers.  We’ve seen them: psychological thrillers, sci-fi classics, action-packed blockbusters all use that famous three-word tag-line.  It’s become so ubiquitous that it’s become a parody of itself and is often used ironically or in satirical versions of these somewhat-esteemed genres.  And it’s a tag-line that immediately sprang into my head as I looked over my research for this week’s question regarding ISTE coaching standard #3, “How do we design, teach, and facilitate digital age learning environments for students and teachers that promote collaborative learning while maintaining effective classroom management practices?”  The journey from this digital education question to the ominous opening of a dystopian sci-fi movie is a strange one, but one worth taking.

The Question

The question regarding the role of teachers and teaching in the digital classroom is a logical one for an ISTE coaching standard. As coaches, our intent is to help facilitate teachers in this environment.  My specific question relative to this particular prompt regarded student autonomy (to research, study, and design their own learning) vs. the supervision and direction that must be supplied by the teacher in a digital classroom.  I was in search of any good resources for how to manage this delicate balance.  My question morphed a bit over time as I began to explore this tension. To me, it was an obvious question, but there didn’t seem to be much on this specific topic so I began to look more generally at the role of teachers in the digital classroom.  It was in the context of this query that I came across an article who’s subtitle begged the question, “When kids can get their lessons from the Internet, what’s left for classroom instructors to do?” (Godsey, 2016).  I found this question, despite it’s obvious bias, to be more compelling. I didn’t necessarily agree with the implication of what was being argued, but I did like the question, so I effectively adopted it as my own.

The Resource

Michael Godsey is a veteran high school English teacher who obviously loves teaching English – many of us who teach love our subjects – and he presents a grim forecast for the future of teaching as we know it.  His essay, “The Deconstruction of the K-12 Teacher” in The Atlantic presents a grim dystopian scenario worthy of any science fiction story. And just like the best writing in that genre, it is grounded in reality.  Godsey is correct in pointing out that education is changing – that the role of the teacher is changing.  His “guide-on-the-side” vs. “sage-on-the-stage” is something I’ve heard numerous times in my graduate studies in education.  “Teacher as facilitator” is another mantra I’ve heard repeated in the program. Other components like shared lesson plans, educational YouTube videos, companies like Kahn Academy and Edmodo all already exist. What Godsey does is take these realities to the extreme. But is his vision the “logical” conclusion of this evolution in education?

The Future (?)

In Godsey’s future, students learn in digital classrooms with a “fantastic” computer screen in the front of the class where a “super-teacher” (think John Green, TED Talks, etc.) delivers professionally produced, interesting, and engaging lessons to the students. The students then use their computers to play interactive games with a global student body and take formal assessments that will all be graded by the computer. The actual in-class supervision is handled by low-wage, uncertified (and one would assume non-union/non-NEA) “techs” who would look after the mundane details of basic technical maintenance and classroom management.  The implications are frightening.  Students screen-time would skyrocket as all learning and engaging and assessing would be done through the computer.  The outlook for teachers is also bleak as in this scenario as anyone short of a super-star, multi-media teacher is not needed in education. The profession would become the purview of a elite few.  Even beyond that, the teacher becomes the least important part of the educational equation as students take control and “masters of content” – aside from the “super teacher” on the screen, are not needed in education anyway.  Even the organization and management of educational content has already been monopolized by companies like Edmodo and the coincidentally-orwellian-sounding “Activate Instruction.”

It’s a bleak scenario Godsey paints for us, but one that is usually at odds with contemporary thoughts on education. Most scholars in the field are usually in favor of the current changes in education.  Godsey mentions several of these scholars in his essay and holds to his view that the ramifications of the current trends will mean the demise of the teaching profession (except for an elite few) and the establishment of schools dominated by the computer and online, impersonal learning.

The Hole in the Wall and the School in the Cloud

Godsey references this particular TED talk by “Hole in the Wall” computer pioneer Sugata Mitra.  I’ll be referencing this, and Godsey’s take on it, below.

 

 

Utopia or Dystopia?

Since Godsey’s approach is essentially dystopian, I’ll look at the argument from both sides: first addressing the potential negative aspects Godsey brings up related to the proposed changes in education (cases where the dystopian alarms should be heeded) and secondly looking at the more Utopian elements that technology brings to education that Godsey may be overlooking in his bleak scenario.

Dystopia
  1. Underlying assumption that all learning is about jobs.  To me this is the most troublesome and unquestioned assumption about education today: the purpose of education is to prepare someone for a job.  In the hurry to make education relevant and meaningful, we have lost sight of the greater purpose of education.  Maybe it’s because I teach government and there’s something about an educated electorate being necessary for the survival of the Republic, or maybe it’s just my liberal arts college background showing through, but if education is all about jobs, then no one should ever have to read the Great Gatsby or learn the periodic table of the elements or take an art class or learn just about anything in US history.  Students should just learn how to read, use computers, and do some math.  If knowledge is all about jobs then we just need to know our work.  Ironically, Mitra is critical of the imperial/industrial model of education because of it’s dehumanizing effects that turned people into clerks, but presents a model which is designed to essentially the same thing (produce good workers) with a different technology. I believe that our education is more than just about jobs – it is teaching us who we are and how we can be better as a people…not just as employees.  It is about understanding our world, ourselves, and celebrating our shared humanity – the art and culture and literature and history that makes us human.
  2. “Knowing is obsolete.” Godsey is not incorrect in worrying about this.  Mitra mentions this phrase specifically as a virtue in his TED talk and while it’s not without its veracity or merits, it’s a problematic mindset.  Technology has indeed changed what we need to know (I’ll deal with this below, but when was the last time you consciously tried to remember a phone number…other than your own?).  It has liberated us from a fair amount of mundane knowledge but it does not mean we need to know nothing.  I understand that necessary knowledge changes.  Several thousand years ago it was good if you could identify which berries were poisonous and which you could eat, but once we figured that out and made stores where you could buy your food we didn’t call it quits and say we were done knowing stuff.  New stuff came along for us to learn.  We have unprecedented, unfettered access to the accumulated knowledge of all mankind; that does not equal the repudiation of knowledge.  When we stop knowing things, we cease to understand who we are, where we are, and where we came from.
  3. “Grandma would make a good teacher.” Not an actual quote from Mitra’s talk, but one that I think belies his under-appreciation of what teachers do. At one point Mitra says that the teacher, “only raises the question.” Raising questions is a huge part of what we as teachers do, but that sort of oversimplification hurts his argument. It’s no wonder Godsey is skeptical of the changes in education and what they might mean for teachers.  Mitra blithely mentions several times that classrooms can/should be managed by “grandma’s” who have this kindly, home-spun, wisdom of the ages that would allow them to effectively guide the students on their quest for knowledge just like they guided their children to adulthood.  First, let me just say that I loved my grandmothers and I think grandmothers a great. I even think his project with grandmothers is interesting and worthwhile, but his contention that life experience is all that matters in education (and that’s essentially what he’s arguing), runs counter to almost everything the entire field of education stands for.   Not that experience doesn’t have its benefits, but if the future of education – the school in the sky – is all about grandmothers directing students on using the computer, Godsey is right to be worried.
  4. “Teachers can/will produce good original video content.” This dystopic vision is closely associated with the flipped-classroom concept and what it might mean for education.  The flipped classroom is key to Godsey’s argument and he discusses at length.  He’s concerned about the fact that teachers don’t really need to work hard to record and plan flipped classroom lessons because other teachers have already done it.  His extension of this idea is that schools will realize this and just use the best ones in the aforementioned video classrooms led by “super teachers.”  Not an unthinkable reality.  Recording lessons is hard work and while 16% of teachers say they regularly record lessons for their classes (Project Tomorrow & Flipped Learning Network, 2014), 19% report concern over the difficulty in making them (Yarbro, Arfstrom, McKnight, and McKnight, 2014).  Interestingly, that number was much higher in the previous report (27%) but declined substantially. Also noteworthy is the fact that the same report cited 25% of teachers worried about finding suitable videos for classroom use but that number subsequently dropped the following year to 1%.  Is it possible there is a connection between these two figures?  Could it be that as more teachers found outside videos to show for class, they didn’t need to worry about making their own? I have no evidence for this, but it’s an interesting correlation. One last point on this topic is relevance.  I’ve taken classes where the video content created by the instructors was out of date.  Not necessarily in terms of specific disciplinary content, but in terms of course material and requirements. Recycling old content can be devastating. If the intent is to engage and encourage students to learn, re-posting an old, outdated video which contains irrelevant or outright incorrect information achieves exactly the opposite. I’m currently making some videos for a class I am teaching and I am intentionally making them specific to the class I am teaching at the moment. I’m doing this because I know it will force me to re-record them if I teach this course again. If my students have to watch it, I feel like I owe it to them to make sure the material is up to date and personalized for them.
Utopia
  1. Technology is leveling the playing field for students. No matter how critical Godsey and others may be about technology, this fundamental truth still applies.  This is the beauty of Mitra’s message.  The democratization of information is perhaps one of the most transforming components of the digital age, and his “Hole in the Wall” experiment is a vivid testament to what technology can do. Godsey may be critical of the impact of educational change on teachers (and it’s probably not going to be the catastrophe he envisions), but for the overwhelming majority of the world’s students, the reality is that the technological changes that have accompanied education have greatly enhanced their educational opportunities.
  2. Technology is empowering students.  Much like point one, this component of technology and education has been overwhelmingly transformational and positive.  Godsey may lament the loss of his knowledge monopoly in the classroom, but I, for one, welcome it (mine, not his).  I like to know things – as much as the next person and maybe more so, but I  take genuine pleasure when a student in my classroom corrects me or wants to elaborate further on a point that I bring up.  I frequently throw out facts (usually non-essential, but interesting, minutia) that I think to be true and then casually inform the class that I’m not sure about it, but someone could look it up.  What follows is usually a flurry of cell-phone and/or laptop activity.  I won’t hazard a guess as to what % I’m right, but students love to fact-check me.  And I like too. It engages them and they feel a part of the process as we stumble towards the truth.  And that’s where Godsey is wrong. It’s not about us as teachers knowing everything – we can’t and we shouldn’t think we can; it’s about working with the students, nurturing their curiosity, and forming a relationship of learning where we are partners.  I believe technology has made that relationship easier to establish because it has empowered our students; and empowered students are more interested and more invested in what they learn.  It also empowers students in the areas of collaboration and publication, both of which also enhance the learning environment.
  3. Technology is helping teachers. Godsey walks an interesting line between praising technology and condemning it – or more precisely, condemning its impact on education.  The reality though, is that technology has made our jobs as teachers manifestly easier – not just for the reasons mentioned in issue #2 (although no longer having to be the fount of all knowledge is a relief), but for a host of reasons. Everything from taking attendance, communicating with parents, communicating with students, tracking student progress, providing supplemental material, finding lesson plans, finding tests, quizzes, review games, activities, etc. are all made easier by technology.  I’m old enough to remember when a computer in the classroom was a new thing (see previous posts); now, I can’t imagine doing my job without it. And Godsey acknowledges this reality too. The flaw in his argument is that he’s projecting out into the future.  He’s taking something that is essentially a good thing and creating a worst-case scenario where our technology essentially puts us out of a job. And there is some precedent for this. The first time a robot was introduced on the factory floor, I’m sure management told the workers it was going to make their jobs easier, not replace them (University of Phoenix just released an ad expressing this sentiment – where technology displaces a worker and then helps her get a new job. See below).  And this is where Mitra’s underestimation of what professional teachers actually do is dangerous because it feeds into this fear.  This is also where effective leaders in digital education are so very necessary.  Digital Ed leaders must not only train (and, in some cases, calm) this generation of teachers on how to effectively use digital technology in the classroom, they must also help shape the direction this educational change will take – steering it away from Godsey’s dystopian vision.  It’s not like Godsey is making crazy assumptions.  If the cost of education could be drastically cut by using technology and streaming some “super teachers” and running a few programs (at the expense of the entire teaching profession – and breaking the union to boot) is it so unreasonable to think government wouldn’t support such an effort?  Government leaders have a history of making educational decisions based on economic factors over educational ones. Godsey cannot be disregarded as a crank, but for his vision to come true we have to fail as Ed Tech leaders.
  4. Technology is changing what we know and what we need to know. This is a truism that Godsey would probably acknowledge.  However, this doesn’t mean we don’t have to know anything (Again, I think Mitra’s overstatement hurts his overarching argument here).  Our ways of thinking and understanding are all being changed by technology. There’s no changing that fact.  The trick now is for us to figure out what this new mode of thinking looks like and how we can effectively use it in education. Much of what we needed to know from rote memory is no longer essential.  Much of the grunt work in education can be simplified or eliminated just as knowing how to shoe a horse or sharpen a quill for writing is not essential today.  Once again this is the duty of digital education leadership.  The pioneers in this field are doing the research, publishing, and pushing an agenda where education and technology work hand-in-hand for the benefit of the student, the teacher, and the community.  It’s not a matter of eliminating all knowledge, but of refining the canon.

University of Phoenix Commercial: technology hurts and helps

Conclusion: “In THIS world…”

Does this movie turn out to be a teacher nightmare?  Are we going to end up with 500 students in a classroom all watching a super teacher on the computer?  Is the teaching profession destined for the dustbin of history, like the cobbler or the blacksmith or the town cryer?  Not likely. To be fair, I’m undoubtedly influenced by my own educational program and interests.  Pursing a digital education degree has exposed me to various theories on both sides, though primarily positive, but I like to think that I’m open-minded enough to reach a reasonable conclusion. Godsey is a critic and we need critics. He’s shouting a warning from the watchtower, but that doesn’t mean his vision will come to pass. Technology is changing education. That it is a reality and there can be no doubt, but where Godsey foresees apocalypse, I see hope. The future remains unwritten.  How exciting it will be for those who have a hand in it to write this next crucial chapter!

 

 

Godsey, Michael (March 25, 2015). “The Deconstruction of the K-12 Teacher: When kids can get their lessons from the Internet, what’s left for classroom instructors to do?” The Atlantic.  Retrieved from: https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/03/the-deconstruction-of-the-k-12-teacher/388631/

ISTE (2011). “ISTE Standards for Coaches.” International Society for Technology in Education. Retrieved from http://www.iste.org/standards/standards/standards-for-coaches

Project Tomorrow & Flipped Learning Network. Speak Up 2013 national research project findings: a second year review of flipped learning.  Retrieved from: http://www.tomorrow.org/speakup/2014_FlippedLearningReport.html

Rebora, Anthony (June 6, 2016). “Teachers Still Struggling to Use Tech to Transform Instruction, Survey Finds.” Educational Week. Retrieved from: http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2016/06/09/teachers-still-struggling-to-use-tech-to.html?tkn=SUNF3xA1W22FFtjNlbjUg5JOX4Y8vP7i4W5T&intc=es

Yarbro, J., Arfstrom, K., McKnight, K, and McKnight, P. (2014). Extension of a Review of Flipped Learning.  Retrieved from: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B5W5P9bQJ6q0ZEZELXFYTEg3Uk0/view