I’m often reminded that digital learning advocates should never tire of repeating that digital learning does not render teachers obsolete, that online content is usually used by teachers who are either online or in the physical classroom, and that the personal connection between students and mentors—whether teachers, or coaches, or other adults—is critical to the success of students.
A report by Maine Public Radio on Portland Public Schools opening an online program this fall doesn’t delve too deeply into the supposed impersonal nature of online learning, although one quote—and several of the questions that the reporter asked me—touch on this issue. In response to the reporter’s questions I explained the extent to which online courses use teachers, and how many online teachers say they know their online students better than the students they used to have in physical classrooms, because of the amount of and depth of online communications. I was reminded that in Maine online schools are new, and digital learning isn’t widely understood, so misunderstandings abound.
It’s not just in Maine, however, where people hold misconceptions about digital learning. A recent New York Times op-ed, Teaching Is Not a Business, suggests that education technology is inherently impersonal. Combining online learning advocates with education reformers who believe in competition, the author writes “Both camps share the belief that the solution resides in the impersonal, whether it’s the invisible hand of the market or the transformative power of technology.”
Of course technology can be impersonal, but it doesn’t have to be. Students today are communicating ever more via Facebook, texting, and other digital means—and they don’t consider those methods impersonal. What matters is how technology is implemented in education. Technology can foster personal relationships that are strengthened by digital communication, but technology can also be isolating if it is used without a teacher or mentor.
How advocates talk about digital learning also matters. While the New York Times article builds on an inaccurate premise, a recent Slate article is more reasoned. Bill Gates Is an Autodidact. You’re Probably Not discusses the extent to which many creators of education technology are self-taught, and the degree to which being self-taught is unusual.
“The experiences of ed tech creators and promoters are notably influential—and notably unusual. Most people are not autodidacts. In order to learn effectively, they need guidance provided by teachers. They need support provided by peers. And they need structure provided by institutions. Amid all the effusions about how ed tech will “change the way we learn,” however, these needs rarely merit a mention. Instead we hear about the individual and his app, the person and her platform, as if teachers, classmates and schools were unnecessary and unwelcome encumbrances.”
This statement strikes me as accurate, although more for ed tech “creators” than “promoters.” Plenty of digital learning advocates realize that students need teachers, classmates, and institutions, including the large majority of educators who are implementing technology within schools. But the media attention on the creators, and sometimes the creators and promoters themselves, lose sight of these facts. That is why digital learning advocates should never tire of repeating that digital learning does not make personal connections obsolete.