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What if…my teacher was an app??? February 26, 2012

Posted by Editor21C in Directions in Education, Educational Leadership, Engaging Learning Environments, Primary Education, Secondary Education.
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from Associate Professor Susanne Gannon

Susanne Gannon writes on the increasing trend in schools towards online learning, and argues that teachers are very important in utilisng new technologies in education; indeed that “the teacher is the key”.

Last November the Wall Street Journal reported in ‘My teacher is an app’ on an increasing trend in the United States for high schooling to be delivered entirely online. In particular states, this phenomenon has been more marked than others. The article reports that Florida requires all public school students to take at least one class online, Idaho will soon require two, while Georgia allows public school students to take entire courses on their iphones or Blackberries. Entirely online high schools are proliferating. Partly these moves are justified by the respective authorities in terms of preparing students for the cyber university, but no doubt they are also partly responses to crises in education that see some states as performing particularly poorly in standardised testing, and to ongoing issues around recruitment and retention of quality teachers for disadvantaged students. While the affordances of connected classrooms and other networking technologies have proved very useful for Australian schools with small numbers of students in particular curriculum areas, or remote and rural schools, and for teacher professional learning, we are – thus far – untouched, as far as I know, by large scale relocations of learning from the ‘real’ to the virtual. The other insidious move that is apparent in the WSJ article is the corporate control of online learning, and through a sort of sleight-of-hand – by supplying services that under-resourced schools may be unable to deliver themselves – an incursion of for-profit companies into not-for-profit public schooling markets.

What about teachers in online schools? They are designers, presumably, of the learning materials that students are accessing on their various devices. At least the corporations are employing teachers, the article tells us. Teachers are built into the modules. One student reported that he listened to ‘most of’ an online lecture that ‘his’ English teacher was presenting, explaining the concept of a protagonist, to the 126 ninth graders who were logged for that session. I am unclear about when and where the teacher will be available to check their understanding and application of the concept to texts that they might be reading (except in a pre-prepared quiz or test) for that module. I suspect that next year’s students will hear the same voice and the same lecture that they hear this year. On the audio podcast there will be no signs of aging, no changes in mood, no changes in teacher. If the teacher is seconded to higher duties, takes leave or is hit by a bus, the students won’t suffer a casual or replacement who may not know them as well as their own teacher. But this teacher is unlikely to know them anyway. To give them their due however, some of the schools do offer email or phone support to students, though delays in response of up to three days are common, or ‘the occasional video conference’. Some offer field trips and live classrooms at a school building for students who prefer that – although most learning will still be online and self-directed. No doubt the profit margins are greatly enhanced when teacher salaries are minimised in the educational delivery equation. The article notes that one school district in Idaho sees the wholesale outsourcing of education to online providers as ‘a creative solution’ to the state’s budget crisis. Other inadvertent consequences of students, and the funding that follows them, shifting out of public schools includes the slashing of LOTE curriculum and cancellation of the school play. Results from these experiments in terms of improved student results are erratic.

It is clear that ICTs are transforming education. A recent mapping exercise we completed as part of the Strategic Secondary Education Research Program (SSERP) for Greater Western Sydney, a partnership between the University of Western Sydney and two large regions of the NSW Department of Education and Communities, found that ICTs and Web 2.0 technologies play ‘a fundamental role’ in planning, delivery and access to innovative educational programs. We plan to begin supporting a cluster of schools to research their practice in this area through 2012. These technologies were taken up within constructivist, collaborative, learning centred pedagogies, enabling new relationships between teachers and students, and extending teachers’ skills and knowledges. Teachers are not replaced by technologies but rather, effective and powerful use of technologies is reliant on teachers and how they are able to make best use of the affordances of technologies to enhance learning. My UWS colleague Jane Hunter’s recent blog entry on 21st Century Learning emphasises how innovative use of technologies is reliant on ‘imitable teachers’ – highly skilled, enthusiastic, imaginative, expert at integrating technologies seamlessly and purposively into classrooms – who can open up learning in classrooms. Jane’s research demonstrates that the teacher is the key.

I began writing this blog just as the new school year was beginning around Australia, and a day after watching the Four Corners program Revolution in the classroom. Anticipating the Gonski review of school funding, the program focused on school based management and drew comparisons between the relative autonomy experienced by private and public schools. However what struck me in the footage was, firstly, the uncompromising focus each school placed on teacher effectiveness and on student learning. Secondly, it was obvious that innovative leadership had created cultures of collaboration and critical reflexive practice in each of the schools, supported by coaching, mentoring and peer support programs for teachers at all stages of their careers and enabling teachers to research and evaluate their own practice. These were also characteristics of the innovative DEC secondary schools that we mapped in 2011 in Western and South Western Sydney, where many of these innovations were enabled by National Partnership funding. Finally, the other striking feature for me of the footage from each of the schools in the Four Corners program was the relationships that were evident between teachers and students. A year 9 student says that it is the ‘teacher-student relationship’ that has made all the difference: ‘it’s about the teacher understanding the student and the way they should be taught’. A year 12 student says that teachers ‘really care’, they’ve shown ‘massive support’ and have pushed and supported students to make sure that ‘you do the best that you can’. This is not a vague sort of ‘teacher-student relationship’ – although connection, respect, interest and engagement are all necessarily part of it – but it is a purposeful relationship that includes a focus on learning about each student and understanding their learning needs. Getting the best out of every student is the goal at each of the three schools that are profiled and this is premised on knowing each student not only through carefully analysed assessment strategies, that are then used to adjust pedagogy, but also on knowing the student as a particular and complex person. The focus on performance that was evident in the Four Corners program carries with it a risk, however, that the ‘tight coupling’ of education to teaching and learning outcomes that can be measured in mandated assessment and other data driven performance measures may reposition anything else as superfluous. The final scenes at the schools cut between the teacher calculating HSC bands and rankings relative to other schools to the warmth of her hug and ‘I’m so proud of you’ for the student who has transcended his ‘well below average’ record in English. An app will never do this.

The provocation of  ‘My teacher is an app…’ points to an ongoing need to maintain the emphasis on teacher quality as the crucial factor in student learning. Teacher quality is not an inherent characteristic of an individual, not a feature of personality, but an ongoing learning journey throughout a career. It is not solely an individual characteristic. Nor is it solely to do with cognitive domains. School leadership structures and an ethos of inquiry and collaboration that supports teachers to continue investigating and improving their practice alongside each other are crucial for this. Research I conducted in a sample of DEC English faculties in our region that had sustained good results in English Extension 2 indicated that strong and collaborative leadership with shared responsibility for improving student learning and teaching quality characterised these faculties. Interviews with high quality graduate English teachers in their first five years of teaching in a range of schools also suggested that the context of leadership in their school and faculty made the difference between their capacities to develop rapidly into effective and excellent teachers and to build the resilience and commitment to keep them within the profession. The most effective teachers are committed to their students as people and as learners and they are incorporating all sorts of technologies into the teaching and learning activities that they design for their students and they are opening spaces where students can surprise them with what they can do with technology. Despite the simulation of care that the voice of ‘Siri’ from an iphone might give, I don’t see any time soon when ‘My teacher is an app…’ will be any kind of solution to the complexities of contemporary education.

Susanne Gannon is an Associate Professor of Education at UWS. She is Director of Programs for Adult and Postgraduate Education and Academic Course Adviser for the Master of Education (Leadership). She loves her ipad and is a great fan of many apps including i-university, however she is increasingly annoyed by the spamming of her faculty by emails marketing poor quality apps for teacher education, and remains wary about the erratic quality of many educational apps. She is involved in a number of ICT innovations in teacher education, including the national Teaching Teachers for the Future Project and a laptop trial project at UWS. She is a member of the SSERP project team at UWS. She is also the current editor of the journal English in Australia, the next issue of which focuses on English teaching and new technologies (guest edited by Kelli McGraw and Scott Bulfin). The views expressed in this opinion piece are entirely personal and do not represent those of the School of Education at UWS.


1. What if…my teacher was an app??? « 21st Century Learning | 21st Century Learning | Scoop.it - March 5, 2012

This post was incorporated into Scoop.it.

Cath Grealy - March 19, 2012

I guess if you believe that learning is about a set of content to be mastered, then an app for a teacher would be fine. If,however, you believer that learning is about developing self awareness, then that can never be done on your own!

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