Christine Comrie is information officer at Jisc

Not a week goes by without another news article on the rise of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and the availability of free online learning resources.

Access to education is being opened up by the internet and best of all there’s no cost to the learner. This coincides with a time of increasing tuition fees and may prompt you to ask - do we really need teachers anymore?

The Khan Academy has 4,300 video lectures available on YouTube and the 260 million lessons it claims to have delivered since its inception in 2006 seems to suggest that learning can happen without the teacher. I recently attended a Jisc conference where a learner suggested that he found a maths video tutorial on the website more helpful than his college tutor. Similarly, MOOC providers such as Udacity and Coursera provide a platform for hundreds of thousands of students to follow the same online course. Barriers of cost and accessibility are being broken down. The Brave New World we now have only requires people to signpost learners to these resources. But don’t we need to be taught in a traditional forum? Is this new online learning environment really the bed of roses it appears to be?

Critics say that the method encourages ‘shallow’ learning, staring at a screen, learning by rote, without active participation in the course. There are also high levels of learners not completing online courses, with one estimate suggesting only 10% of learners complete MOOCs and other research suggesting that MOOCs do not help underachieving, minority and disadvantaged learners.

At the Jisc conference, ‘Innovate, Create, Inspire’, these questions led to wider debate of what is meant by a teacher and what is learning. Beth Snowden, e-Learning trainer at Bradford College, described the rise of the MOOC as liberating, where the lack of traditional educational structure and hierarchy means that there is less of a distinction between learner and teacher. Put simply, we are all learners and online learning gives us all easier access to gaining new knowledge throughout life.

It also changes the way we view knowledge. Learning can be more social and experiential, rather than just acquisition from teacher to student and technology helps to facilitate that, connecting hundreds of thousands of learners across the globe, allowing access to endless resources and a variety of viewpoints.

Issues of attrition are a question of pedagogy and you don’t have to be using technology for surface learning to happen - where students simply aim to reproduce material in a test or exam rather than actually understand it. Beth goes so far as to say that you cannot be an effective teacher without the effective use of technology, quoting the paper, ‘Teacher Technology Change: How Knowledge, Confidence, Beliefs, and Culture Intersect’ by Peggy A. Ertmer and Anne T. Ottenbreit-Leftwich.

So are we all simply learners now, is there no need for hierarchy and the educational institution? Well, no, says Peter Shukie, programme leader of education studies at Blackburn College. There will always be people who aren’t self-motivated and need the support of the teacher. It’s still all about motivation, encouragement, engagement and creating new pathways that you can’t see for yourself. The role of the provider isn’t diminished, as the need for accreditation still exists and he points out that it’s these institutions that are creating most of the MOOC resources.

The difference is that using technology allows for different ways of working. The potential for technology, Peter says, is that it connects people that are otherwise isolated and that leads to deeper learning and deeper global consideration of how to advance human knowledge. Technology works at its best when it allows us to address the bigger questions, not the local questions of knowledge measurement and accreditation.

So the role of the teacher is evolving. Teachers must be learners as well, responding to changes and taking advantage of the opportunities that online connectedness brings. Instead of using technology to recreate what you’re already doing, we should be thinking about the opportunities for new ways of working. Peter Shukie compares it to The Jetsons - do we use technology to recreate what already exists, with the aerocar simply replacing the car (or the smartboard simply replacing the blackboard)? Or do we examine the implications of change and embrace new ways of working? Why commute when you can connect online...

Christine Comrie is information officer at Jisc Regional Support Centre, Yorkshire & Humber

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