Like peanut butter and chocolate: Digital learning and excellent teachers go well together

Bryan Hassel and Emily Ayscue Hassel

We don’t doubt that the digital future will transform
education—along with practically everything else. But rather than seeing it as
a painful (and politically volatile) trade-off between technology and teachers,
we propose that digital education needs excellent teachers and that a
first-rate teaching profession needs digital education. Schools will not require
as many conventional teachers as they did yesterday, but those they need will
be crucial—and will be able to tap top-notch technology and instructional
support teams to achieve excellence at scale. These teachers will get paid
more, too, potentially a lot more. And all this can be done within tight
budgets so long as education systems judiciously blend technology and people.

Digital learning has the potential to transform the teaching
profession in three major ways:

  • Extending
    the reach of excellent teachers to more students.
  • Attracting
    and retaining more excellent teachers.
  • Boosting
    effectiveness and job options for average teachers.

Extending the reach
of the best.
In the digital future, teacher effectiveness will matter even more than today. As digital learning
spreads, students worldwide will gain access to core knowledge and skills
instruction. What will increasingly differentiate outcomes for schools, states,
and nations is how well responsible adults carry out the more complex
instructional tasks: motivating students to go the extra mile, teaching them
time management, addressing social and emotional issues that affect their
learning, and diagnosing problems and making the right changes when learning
stalls.

The top 20 or 25 percent of teachers already meet these challenges.
But in traditional classrooms, they only reach 20 to 25 percent of students.
That’s where digital learning can help.

Digital technology, along with changes in teacher roles and
schedules, should make it possible for top teachers to assume responsibility
for all students, not just a fraction
of them.

America’s education leaders will need
courage to make bold changes in a profession that has remained static as
other enterprises have advanced.

 
   
 

For example, by replacing a quarter to a half of initial
instruction and practice in some subjects, digital instruction can free
excellent teachers’ time, enabling them to take responsibility for more
students—while keeping similar class sizes and
gaining planning time. These “time-technology swaps” are already used in
top-performing schools that combine digital learning with excellent teachers to
boost results.

Digital tools can also connect excellent teachers working
live with students across the hall, state, or nation—using web cameras and
email. Shy instructional masters can help design smart software to personalize
learning. Star-performing content masters can go viral on digital video, and
someday holograms, to millions of students anywhere, who, with excellent
teachers, can convert that access into stellar learning.

Attracting and
retaining the best.
Digital learning will also transform career
opportunities for excellent teachers. As they reach more students, they should
earn more out of the per-pupil funds generated by the expanded number of
students. Greater opportunities for advancement and  pay will, in turn, make the profession a more
attractive long-term career for top performers, wooing unfulfilled engineers
and lawyers into a better life.

Boosting
effectiveness and job options for average teachers
. Digital tools will also
help average teachers by freeing their time, providing frequent data about
their students, serving up tailored professional development, and letting them
play focused roles tapping their strengths. They’ll be able to join teams that
support fully accountable excellent teachers, with the chance to develop and
become excellent instructors themselves.

Of course, not all of today’s teachers will benefit from
these transformations. As we require fewer lead teachers per pupil, schools
will be able to shed their least effective teachers. Some of today’s full
teaching jobs will be replaced by new roles, such as digital lab monitors,
tutors, and positions performing non-instructional duties. Such positions will
likely have shorter hours but lower pay. The net effect will be a smaller but
much stronger and better paid teacher workforce supported by an array of
support staff and digital tools, just as we see in most other professions.

Employing technology to transform the teaching profession in
ways that benefit students holds enormous promise. That promise will go
unrealized, however, without significant changes in policies and management
systems, in the allocation of funds, in technology infrastructure, and, perhaps
most importantly, in the demand for better outcomes.

America’s education leaders will need courage to make
bold changes in a profession that has remained static as other enterprises have
advanced. Without that, our children—and our teachers—will forfeit the enormous
opportunities made possible by digital technology while other nations seize them
and soar beyond us.

Click to play

Click to listen to commentary on teachers and financing in the digital-education future from the Education Gadfly Show Podcast.

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