Will Technology Make Face To Face Learning Redundant?

By Bronwyn Stubbs.

A student and his father sit at the table, each with a laptop. The father is doing some work, and the student has maths homework. The father is struggling, and the student is bored. The student takes his father’s laptop and slides his to his father. The student rapidly produces a sales chart for his father. His father is pondering the maths work. The student clearly has a much greater capacity in the digital world than his father. This scenario is played out in a computer advertisement, but perhaps reflects much of the state of education in our schools. The maths task in the scenario is low level and the computer screen is merely an exchange for paper.

Many of our current classrooms retain the key elements of the mass education model. Most schools are organised around teachers and facilities. Timetables drive student movement and students are expected to turn on, and off, to learning on the command of a bell. In most schools the teacher controls what and how learning takes place. The capacity of students to follow a passion is generally not fostered by these structures.

Prior to a society with ready access to all sorts of information and opinion, the teacher was the ‘font of all knowledge’. Schools held resources not readily available to the community and provided support for acquiring the content. If the teacher is the source of the knowledge, then students can never be better than their teacher.

Compare this to the world of today, in which students operate outside of the constraints of the school. For most young people, the smartphone is a must. Why do we then need a mathematics teacher when they can log on to the Khan Academy for instruction in any facet of mathematics? Images, maps, advice, definitions, instructions are all there after a few clicks or touches through search engines, phone apps and websites. Subject matter expertise has been replaced by a search engine. Content is freely and readily available.

The advent of an information rich society enables us to ask “What is the point of the classroom?” What role should the teacher take now that they are not the information providers?

In a conference on innovation in Melbourne in 2011, Charles Leadbeater succinctly described the problem: Schools are delivering an education to students, at students and for students. He contends that students must do the learning themselves, with other people, and that the deliver to, at and for approach must be superseded.

Technology based learning can come in a variety of forms. However, the essential element is that the tasks, learning framework and support materials are online. In education, there lurks the unsubstantiated view that online learning is not as good as face-to-face structures. 2009 data from the US shows that higher education students who took all or part of their instruction online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through face-to-face instruction. What’s more, those who took ‘blended’ courses – those that combine elements of online learning and face-to-face instruction – appeared to do best of all. While the study was not conclusive for primary and secondary level, the results were consistent with those at the tertiary level.

The classroom is a very complex social environment, particularly at the secondary level. Much of the social complexity relates to the development of personal identity and meeting peer perceptions. Students bring a wide range of capabilities to the classroom, creating difficulties for teachers in catering to each individual’s needs. Teachers spend large proportions of their time on student management rather than focussed on learning and supporting learning.

Schools are intended to provide students with the skills to successfully navigate the future beyond the classroom. There are also different needs for today’s generation of learners than those of the past. A 2009 High School engagement survey in New South Wales showed:

  • Ninety-eight percent of students were bored at some stage in school that year,
  • One third of students reported that they were bored every day in the survey period and
  • One quarter of students reported they were bored every single lesson.

Bored students are clearly not engaged. They are therefore not effective learners.

The workplace is continuously changing in response to improved technology. Many of the jobs that today’s students will take up have yet to be created. These jobs will be created as new technologies are developed or innovative combinations of current technologies evolve. If the school does not use technology, can we reasonably suggest that it is not meeting its responsibility for preparing students?

The ‘Hole in the Wall’ experiments of Sugata Mitra2 show that students can learn to resolve high order complex tasks without teachers or any background to the learning. His ‘Granny In The Cloud’ work also established that, with non-trained supporters/motivators, the students could achieve even higher rates of learning without teachers.

Technology based learning provides many benefits:

  • Technology can be addictive, as many parents can attest. Technology motivates through extrinsic and intrinsic means providing a platform for engagement of students.
  • Teachers need to be facilitators of learning and creators of engaging learning experiences that are scaffolded to support a student’s skill development.
  • In the technology based learning environment, the focus is upon learning. We know this because the student has made an active choice to engage by logging on. When students engage with the online learning environment, they are ready and focussed.
  • The pace of learning is determined by the learner, they can spend as much or as little time as they need. Videos and other resources can be replayed until the student is ready to move on. The student may choose a variety of resources that provide the learning in the manner in which the students can best learn.
  • Students can learn when they are ready. They do not need to respond to the Pavlovian stimulus of the school bell and timetable. Data of logon times, from the Distance Education Centre Victoria, shows that the majority of adolescents log on mid- afternoon at the earliest.
  • All students can work at the same time. All students can ‘talk’ at the same time when posting online. Quieter, less confident students can also be heard. They can work and rework their thoughts until they are comfortable to post. The cool kid can lose this persona in an online world; the ‘nerd’, become included.
  • In the online world, students can choose a learning strategy that suits them. In the classroom, you get the teacher that you have been given for 12 months. Frequently, in schools, students choose electives based on the teacher rather than their interest in the area of study.
  • In schools we often talk about the importance of peer learning. However, the literature suggests peer learning is best organised with ‘near peers’. The online environment enables students to connect with near peers and those with similar interests regardless of school size or location.
  • Online learning environments enable students to become autonomous learners. If the teacher is free from ‘managing’ the class, they have time to provide supports to learners.
  • Learning needs to be contextual and timely. The online environment makes it available when students are ready.
  • Students can learn by themselves if they are engaged and appropriately challenged, and if the learning is supported.

We therefore return to the original contention: Face-to-face learning is redundant unless teachers relinquish the industrial model, reconceptualise their role and restructure learning. Teachers need to embrace the technology, free themselves from the teacher driven classroom. Should we do away with the classroom? No! Students need support, mentoring, motivation, questioning. These attributes are best provided in real time by teachers. Another key teacher skill is picking up the non-verbal cues and recognising when students do not understand. This is not readily achievable in the online environment. Social connection is also important, and there is power in peer learning as long as it is focused on the learning. This is most readily achieved in a face-to-face context.

If schools are interested in adopting a technology based education model they might begin by asking students some key questions: What do you need the teacher for? When do you want to work? When does having other students around distract you from learning? Teachers and schools need to consider how they should organise the learning, what parts of learning require face-to-face contact and where collaboration with students  is important, but the social context of the classroom gets in the way.

We must also remember that just because it is online, does not mean that it is necessarily good teaching or engaging. However, there is a capability that provides greater opportunities than the face-to-face classroom by itself. The problem is not the classroom, but the practice. Schools will make themselves redundant unless the education that they provide is relevant, engaging and prepares students for life outside of school.


1. Inside Higher Ed

2. www.ted.com/speakers/sugata_mitra.html

Bronwyn Stubbs is  the Principal of Distance Education Centre Victoria and President of the Australasian Association of Distance Education Schools. She developed an interest in technology for learning with the advent of the PC. Her current school has been experimenting with virtual worlds, web 2.0 technologies and the pedagogical practice for student learning.

Bronwyn can be contacted at: bstubbs@distance.vic.edu.au

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Education Technology Solutions has been created to inspire and encourage the use of technology in education. Through its content, Education Technology Solutions seeks to showcase cutting edge products and practices with a view to expanding the boundaries and raising the standards of education curricula. It introduces teachers and IT staff to the latest products, services and developments in education technology with a view to providing practical how-to guidance designed to facilitate the integration of those products and services into the school environment in the most productive and beneficial manner possible.

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