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A Teacher’s Importance in Online Education


April 29, 2016 by admin

Sometimes I question a teacher’s importance when it comes to online education and hybrid courses, where I spend a lot of “upfront” time preparing materials, in particular videos that students can watch outside of class. In a flipped learning situation, for example, I sometimes find myself wandering around the classroom, unsure of my role, as students focus on an activity that I lectured about in a video they watched the night before. In such situations, I have felt a little lost. However, I have begun to recognize that instead of spending class time standing in front of the classroom lecturing, I can now become more of a coach, giving students more individual and small groups attention.

Coach in the Classroom

I admit that I never set out to be a coach in the classroom; a model with which I was heretofore unfamiliar. And, it is only over time and through trial and error that I have come to a new understanding of my role as an instructor. I know this song lyric has been reduced to cliché, but “the times they are a changin’”. And, according to the conclusions of a recently released final report from the MIT Online Education Policy Initiative, in online and hybrid courses, technology has not usurped the valuable role that teachers play.

MIT Online Education Report

The report titled, Online Education: A Catalyst for Higher Education Reforms, released in April 2016, reflects what I am experiencing on a personal level, that “Aided by technology, teachers can refocus their efforts on the aspects of learning that online tools cannot provide, including coaching and fostering reflection and creative thinking.” Well, that’s music to my ears, and I suspect yours’ too.

Resistance to Online Education

I think, perhaps, that some of the resistance to incorporating technology into teaching for both online and hybrid classes, stems from the feeling that technology will usurp the authority of the teacher. Other recent reports, including the recent Babson survey, suggest that faculty and administrators are skeptical of technology based online education. However, I think that everyone in the teaching profession can feel good about the findings in this report and the conclusion that “technology will not replace the unique contributions teachers make to education through their perception, judgment, creativity, expertise, situational awareness and personality.”

Learning Engineers May not be the Answer

The report does mention the position of “learning engineer” that is not without controversy. This term, that most of us will be unfamiliar with, is said to combine both an instructional designer and faculty member in one person. That’s not likely to happen, in my opinion. However, I do believe that if faculty can accept instructional designers as partners, and instructional designers have the good sense not to impose themselves on an instructor’s course content and focus on course design, that such a model will work. I know this, because it is the model we have adopted for graduate program in which I teach.

A Teacher’s Importance

The key take-away from the MIT report, I think, is that as modalities of teaching and learning become more distributive, that instructors are still central to the success of their classes. But with the introduction of new technologies, change is inevitable. For those of us who grasp the future, this makes for an easier shift, even though there will be bumps in the proverbial road. But for all instructors, when we all come to understand that technology is there to support teaching and learning and not usurp the role of the instructor or replace them, perhaps negative attitudes among some members of the faculty will change. To that end, online education is not going to take over the world as the dominant modality for teaching and learning. Rather, technology will continue to play an important role, along with good teaching.

Neil Alperstein, PhD



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