Trust the Artist, Not the Tool: Why Ed Tech Is No Replacement for Educators

Monday, August 5, 2019

There’s no question that the digital age has transformed the world of education. Educational technology that was once a novelty, such as blended learning and online classes, is now commonplace across much of the United States; in fact, according to the U.S. Department of Education, 48 states and the District of Columbia currently support online learning opportunities for their students. With open education resources—such as freely available digital libraries, virtual field trips, and online databases—accessible via internet connection, students in some states and districts can enroll in virtual schools instead of physical ones, which opens up the possibility of completing one's entire education online. Even within traditional classrooms, tech gadgets and software have shaped the way educators collect and compile data, monitor student progress, and even deliver class assignments.

No one is more aware of these changes to the education landscape than teachers themselves, leading many educators to wonder how their roles in the classroom are being affected. If students can complete assignments—and, in some cases, entire classes—on the computer, does that mean the teaching profession is becoming obsolete?

Nothing could be further from the truth. Just as an art studio filled to the brim with paints and brushes would be useless without an artist, effective edtech depends on educators. The learning process is an inherently complex, personal journey for every student, and it takes a human connection to guide that process—part of which involves choosing the tools that will help students along the way.

The human connection

While it's true that many traditional teaching tasks (for instance, grading, tracking student progress, and even providing appropriate next-step assignments) can now be automated, that isn’t to say the entirety of teaching can be relegated to machines. Instead, edtech tools free up educators' time and energy for the critical teaching tasks that computers can’t do. 

Thomas Arnett, senior research fellow in education at the Clayton Christensen Institute, created a Teacher and Technology Impact framework to demonstrate how edtech can be used to amplify educators’ work. As Arnett explained, “In most classrooms, technology serves primarily as an instructional resource for enhancing teachers’ lessons and assignments, but the greatest benefits of edtech, I would argue, come from saving teachers’ time and enabling new instructional models.” 

More specifically, Arnett’s framework pinpointed three ways in which technology can assist educators by:

  1. Enhancing teachers' effectiveness during lesson-planning and implementation;

  2. Accelerating how teachers manage their workloads; and

  3. Enabling teachers to compile new and more complex information.

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So, with edtech helping teachers run their classrooms more efficiently, what can educators do with their extra time? The one thing computers can never do: build relationships with students.

Writing for Edutopia, Stacey Goodman reflected on the importance of teaching through relationships, explaining that this approach “embeds formal knowledge in the world in which it actually belongs and from which it is born: that of the complex, historical, and social world of being human.” By connecting with their students, teachers go beyond merely dispensing information and assessing student progress by sharing their own passion for the topic, which both humanizes them as individuals and shows how the material is important in real life. Moreover, getting to know students' backgrounds, goals, and motivations gives teachers the ability to more effectively frame their lessons. It should not be the goal of edtech to replicate or replace those relationships, but rather to give teachers more time to do what they do best.

Educators are experts

While many tech tools are designed to support classroom teaching models, a selection of these have emerged as alternative schools in their own right, with some states and public school districts already offering online charter schools and virtual classrooms. 

 

However, these opportunities may not be as beneficial to students as they appear; in a national research study, the vast majority of students (78% of more than 1,000 respondents) thought it was easier to learn in classrooms than virtual settings. Although online schooling may be a more economic solution for many learners—particularly at the college level—the guidance and experience of a teacher are still indispensable resources. In fact, the Hechinger Report noted that five research studies have all demonstrated online courses at community colleges leave much to be desired. The latest of these— (a 2015 University of California, Davis study) found that Californian community college students were 11% less likely to complete and pass an online course than its traditional classroom counterpart. Online classes and virtual schools will doubtlessly continue to develop, yet educators remain crucial to student success.

Teaching is greater than tech

If anything, the development of edtech should serve as evidence that quality teaching practices must be supported, not replaced. According to Washington, D.C.-based research institute Brookings, even seemingly contradictory studies on blended learning revealed an inherent truth about the role of technology in education: Blended learning programs were successful only when technology was purposefully used to support good, evidence-based teaching practices. The mere existence of edtech tools does nothing to improve the learning environment; rather, it's how these technology tools are used that can make all the difference, and educators are best qualified to guide that implementation. Perhaps Brookings sums this up best: “When edtech is used in ways that support good teaching practices, both in digital and face-to-face environments, effective learning happens. When edtech is used in ways that propagate ineffective instructional strategies, learning is hindered.” 

As we continue to develop and explore new ways to use edtech, it’s important to remember that educators’ knowledge, experience, and the human connections they form with students will always hold a central place in the classroom. Learning is a highly individual and multifaceted process, and although edtech tools can provide additional resources, organization, and even automation, they cannot replace the intrinsically human art of teaching and learning. While the benefits of edtech are undeniable, smart educators, administrators, and edtech developers know that technological tools are only as good as the educators who wield them.

 
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