The role of the teacher in an ecology of open learning

Excerpted from a longer and well-linked article by Stephen Downes, who warns against the current trend of extreme teacher accountability, as it fails to see many other players:

” Though there may still be thousands of people employed today with the job title of “teacher” or “educator”, it is misleading to suggests that all, or even most, aspects of providing an education should, or could, be placed into the hands of these individuals.

Let me tell you how I know this. In recent years my colleagues and I have been involved in the emerging field of online learning through four sets of distinct activities: designing e-learning software, such as gRSShopper or Synergic3; offering a series of online courses, such as Connectivism, Critical Literacies, or Personal Learning Environments; theorizing around the ideas of connective knowledge, resource sharing and learning communities; and writing a daily newsletter, posting a blog, and offering conference presentations.

Each of these has contributed in one way or another to an overall approach not only to learning online but to learning generally. It’s not simply that I’ve adopted this approach; it’s that I and my colleagues have observed this approach emerging in the community generally.

It’s an approach that emphasizes open learning and learner autonomy. It’s an approach that argues that course content is merely a tool employed to stimulate and support learning — a McGuffin, as I’ve called it in various presentations, “a plot element that catches the viewers attention or drives the plot of a work of fiction” — rather than the object of learning itself. It’s an approach that promotes a pedagogy of learning by engagement and activity within an authentic learning community — a community of practitioners, where people practice the discipline, rather than merely just talk about it.

It’s an approach that emphasizes exercises involving those competencies rather than deliberate acts of memorization or rote, an approach that seeks to grow knowledge in a manner analogous to building muscles, rather than to transfer or construct knowledge through some sort of cognitive process.

It’s an approach that fosters a wider and often undefined set of competencies associated with a discipline, a recognition that knowing, say, physics, isn’t just to know the set of facts and theories related to physics, but rather to embody a wider set of values, beliefs, ways of observing and even mannerisms associated with being a physicist (it is the caricature of this wider set of competencies that makes The Big Bang Theory so funny).

Concordant with this approach has been the oft-repeated consensus that the role of the educator will change significantly. Most practitioners in the field are familiar with the admonishment that an educator will no longer be a “sage on the stage”. But that said, many others resist the characterization of an educator as merely a “guide by the side.” We continue to expect educators to play an active role in learning, but it has become more difficult to characterize exactly what that role may be.

In my own work, I have stated that the role of the teacher is to “model and demonstrate.” What I have tried to capture in this is the idea that students need prototypes on which to model their own work. Readers who have learned to program computers by copying and adapting code will know what I mean. But it’s also, I suppose, why I see the footprints of Raymond Chandler all through William Gibson’s writing. We begin by copying successful practice, and then begin to modify that practice to satisfy our own particular circumstances and needs.

In order for this to happen, the instructor must be more than just a presenter or lecturer. The instructor, in order to demonstrate practice, is required to take a more or less active role in the disciplinary or professional community itself, demonstrating by this activity successful tactics and techniques within that community, and modeling the approach, language and world view of a successful practitioner. This is something we see in medicine already, as students learn as interns working alongside doctors or nurse practitioners.

If we take this approach, though, it becomes quickly apparent that the role of the educator is expanding. In addition to being expert in the discipline of teaching and pedagogy, the educator is now expected to have up-to-date and relevant knowledge and experience in it. Even a teacher of basic disciplines such as science, history or mathematics must remain grounded, as no discipline has remained stable for very long, and all disciplines require a deeper insight in order to be taught effectively. What are the new subatomic particles? Is Gavin Menzies’s 1421 plausible? How are Fourier Transforms used in art?

Moreover, even the concept of the learning environment and learner support have begun to expand. Well before the computer age, teachers and professors began to be expected to use copy machines, slide and overhead projectors and intercom systems. Today’s school includes Smartboards and computer labs, the Internet and mobile phones, online encyclopedias and social network sites. While some educational systems respond by blocking these new technologies, for better or worse education is moving into the digital arena, and learning support involves understanding and applying at least some of these.

Indeed, it becomes apparent in such an environment that the continued focus on “the role of the educator” or teacher is misplaced. Attaching more and more capacity and responsibility to a single individual or role is misplaced. Even in traditional education, we have begun to see some specialization. From the early days, schools had librarians, custodial workers, guidance counselors and administrators. Today we have seen the rise of instructional technology and communications media specialists.

In my 1998 paper, The Future of Online Learning, I proposed that the role of the educator itself would become unbundled. Thinking mostly of the concept of distance learning, I described a concept current at the time called “the triad model” where student and instructor were located at a distance from each other and where a third person, a coach or facilitator, was co-located with the student to act as a mentor and advocate. I had seen this model work well in northern Alberta, at places like the Sunshine Project in Slave Lake.

As each part of the teaching task becomes more complex, and as we as educators seek to reach more specialized populations in more difficult circumstances, the need to understand, and where necessary unbundle, the varied roles of the educator becomes more pressing. A narrow focus on the idea of the teacher as “the purveyor of an education” is unhelpful and misleading.”

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