Questions About Teacherless Online Classes

Lynn ZimmermannBy Lynn Zimmerman
Editor, Teacher Education

Science fiction has often used human interaction with the all-knowing computer as a plot device. Generally, computers have been portrayed in the genre as either evil masters of the world or the benevolent caretakers of the human race. These stories immediately came to mind when I read the NY Times story that Academic Earth linked to on its Facebook page. It examines the notion of the thinking computer that completely takes the place of the human teacher.

The article, “Online Courses, Still Lacking That Third Dimension,”* written by Randall Stross, was published on February 5, 2011. He states, “WHEN colleges and universities finally decide to make full use of the Internet, most professors will lose their jobs… A genuine online course would be nothing but the software and would handle all the grading, too. No living, breathing instructor would be needed for oversight.” He then goes on to explain how at this point in time this type of totally computer-run course is not generally feasible in most programs. He also goes on to explain how certain types of courses may lend themselves to such a model, while others do not.

Stross first discusses the financial difficulties of designing and then implementing such programs. Then he wrote that even programs and courses, such as those developed by Carnegie Mellon at great expense, are not totally computer-led. He says that they do not dare “to use them without having a human instructor, too.” The director of Carnegie Mellon’s program asserts that student persistence in a course often requires human interaction between instructor and students and between students and students.

I think this article raises several interesting questions about course design, in general, and student-teacher expectations. In my earlier article, Critical Importance of Social Interaction in Online Courses, I addressed some of the issues related to group dynamics and learning. If we want to design courses that do not have human teachers, does a relationship still need to develop between the students and their computer-teacher? What form should/will this relationship take? As we move toward increased technology use, will students automatically begin to expect less interaction? What form will the interaction take? How will students develop the necessary self-motivation and self-direction skills that Tom Preskett wrote about in The Issue of Self-Motivation in F2F and Online Learning?

I agree with Stross; I don’t think my job is in immediate jeopardy. However, we cannot ignore these trends. I for one would like to see students have a choice among a variety of delivery methods. I would also like to know that each choice, whether face-to-face, hybrid, online taught by a computer-teacher or a human teacher, is equally pedagogically sound and an equally rich learning experience for the students.
* WebCite alternative.

4 Responses

  1. I respond to this article with the same shaking of my head that accompanied my response to the earlier notion of the great breakthrough that would occur when the lectures from the best teachers are made available to everyone. I said then that making the lectures from the best teachers freely available was like making the corn dogs from world’s best chefs freely available. The best teachers aren’t lecturing, and the best chefs aren’t making corn dogs.

    The article holds Plato up as if it were still a model for the future, whereas all the best online teaching theorists I know hold it up to scorn and ridicule.

    The article still seems locked into the notion that the purpose of education is to transmit data from someone who has it already to people who don’t. If that is the goal of education, then teacherless courses are indeed not only possible but desirable. It reminds me, as I have said before, that B.F. Skinner said that any teacher who can be replaced by a machine SHOULD be replaced by a machine.

    It also reminds me of a joke I used to use in teacher education. An advanced alien civilization comes to Earth to observe our culture. The report from the alien sent to observe our educational processes says that put a hole bunch of people in a room, and they all watch somebody work.

    The article does see a place for interaction:

    “Candace Thille, the director of Carnegie Mellon’s program, put it this way: ‘There is something motivating about the student’s relationship with the instructor — and with the student’s relationship with other students in the class — that would be absent if each took the course in a software-only environment.’

    Those relationships — with humans in the flesh — help students to persevere. Online courses are notorious for high dropout rates.”

    I would say that this is an oh-so-20th-century concept, except in the circles I traveled it expired well before the 20th century ended. Sure, those relationships do exactly what is described, but there is another reason for them. They are a part of the curriculum–those relationship skills are what is being taught.

    “America’s Lab Report,” a powerful study by the National Research Council, pointed out that scientists work in teams today, and learning how to work in teams must be an important part of a science curriculum. It also argued that scientists must learn to analyze their errors and draw conclusions from data. All of this demands interaction. The interaction itself is a skill that must be taught, and it is thus a goal of the educational process, not just a part of the process itself.

    So, as long as people saw transmission of data as the only goal of education, then teacherless courses are a real threat to replace them.

    Thank goodness.

  2. This teacherless classroom scare is old — as old as the scare about rampant cheating in online classes. The purpose is old, too. We hear this and similar warnings over and over again from those who would rely on fear rather than logic or evidence, and their purpose is as old as history: to maintain the status quo.

    I can’t think of any noteworthy online educator who proposes teacherless courses as best practice or a desired goal. The fear mongers aren’t reaching out to those who are savvy about online education. Instead, they’re aiming at an audience that is grasping for any excuse, however poor, to oppose change.

    Evidence for continued and even increased reliance on instructor-led pedagogy for online education is all around us. All one needs to do is type in a few key terms in a search engine such as Google to review them.

    There’s no denying that some people advocate teacherless courses as a means to save money and increase profits, but these are usually for-profits that are guided by greed rather than the student’s best interest.

    There’s also no denying that some aspects of learning can be managed without teachers, but this option is not new and has always been present. In the online learning setting, best practice demands that these teacherless activities are overseen by a teacher.

    The fact that education is moving online doesn’t necessarily mean that teachers will be eliminated. That’s a non sequitur. In fact, the teacher’s role becomes increasingly important as instruction moves into the virtual world.

    But just as the medium changes the message, the teacher’s — as well as the student’s — role will change. My guess is that “teacher” will be unbundled. That is, “teacher” in the traditional instructional model is really a collection of different functions, many of which are defined and determined by the F2F classroom environment.

    Unbundle the teacher-in-classroom package, rebundle the teacher in a virtual educational environment, and we begin to see the potential for new and different roles for “teacher.”

    The online teaching and learning environment is different. It requires different pedagogy — different functions for instructors and learners. My guess is that we’ll see “teacher” expanded to include numerous specialties, and the traditional classroom teacher will increasingly be seen as a general practitioner. GPs will work with countless specialists and aides to provide learning environments that we can’t begin to imagine.

    “Teacher” will evolve into a manager of learning, and her/his effectiveness will be dependent on, as John Adsit says, her ability to work collaboratively with a wide range of professionals to give her students the best possible education.

    If anything, online education in the future will demand even more “teachers,” and the cost will be offset by the elimination of resources such as campuses and buildings, classrooms and offices that are irrelevant in the virtual environment. The new educators will play many different roles, and none will be exactly like the role of teacher in 19th-20th century F2F classrooms.

    The elimination of walls, campuses, borders will mean an almost infinite range of collaborative options and possibilities, limited only by the imagination of tomorrow’s learning managers. And the ultimate winner will be the student, who won’t be locked into one teacher for all her learning on a given module. -Jim S

  3. The very concept of teacherless courses would be ludicrous were it not for so many advocating for it. The computing advances required are nowhere near here and won’t be for a very long time.

    That’s not to say that it’s impossible. Let me take one example. My daughter, an MIT graduate in chemical engineering, decided that she’d like to learn computer programming — at least at the novice level. She found the MIT open courseware course here: She’s been doing it very nicely.

    For a limited range of courses and a limited body of potential students, you can do this today. In the case above, there’s not artificial intelligence. There’s just one talented professor explaining the hard stuff so an MIT grad can understand it.

    You can get away with some of this stuff at the university level. Novice computer programming has few nuances, after all. Advanced computer programming is another thing entirely and almost, or maybe definitely, requires an apprenticeship to achieve.

    The personality of the expert (teacher, professor, instructor) has lots to do with how well the course educates. Until computers have personalities, we have little to worry about other than those who would turn us all into computers.

    Fight back!

  4. There are some instances where teacher-less courses work, as mentioned by Harry. In business it’s called on demand learning or real time learning. In general they are used for continuing education– building on a skill already learned, not foundational education. I’ve seen them work well and I’ve seen them work not so well. It depends almost entirely on the motivation of the learner and how well the course material is tied to the assessment and hence to the creation of a certificate of completion.

    However, in most of the recent reports, for example, Class Connections: High School and the Role of Online Learning ( and The National Education Technology Plan 2010 ( retention is a concern with online learning. According to the reports, the ‘fix’ for that concern is good teacher training. Teacher is the operative word. College after college has reported the need for good online teacher training to influence retention and outcomes.

    There is a story in a recent US News and World Report about a college that increased retention in their online programs from 68% to 89% with required teacher training. I think many in this country would give up the technology before they give up the teachers, and we don’t want either to happen!

    Even Bill Gates says that, “Technology is just a tool. In terms of getting the kids working together and motivating them, the teacher is the most important.”

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