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Teacherless Classrooms: Can We?

Web 2.0 demonstrates conclusively, once again, that people love to talk to each other and that social connections are at our core. Humans, we educators must remind ourselves again and again, are social creatures. Learning is social; it is conversation. From conversation, comes knowledge and learning. We all seem to know this deeply and instinctively when we raise our children because we talk to our children all the time and our children try desperately to talk back, constantly improving their own conversational sophistication. Children learn all about the world by talking and listening, that is, through conversation.

This is true of us throughout life, not just as children: The conference business, even in this recession year, continues to do well and continues over the years to expand. We humans need to be in physical proximity, even as educated and engaged adults, to learn most deeply and transformatively. Physical proximity is a big factor in collaboration decisions: Educators collaborate with those with offices nearby in the same hall but are much less likely (about 20 times less likely) to do so with those across campus. We need to be in physical proximity for real things to happen: To develop trust for a planned collaboration, understand a complicated idea, grasp the importance of one idea over another, know if one possible professional direction is better than another, and on and on.

As the automobile spread us out from each other and isolated us in our metal cocoons in the 20th century (Aldous Huxley pictured hell as a place where people were constantly moving away from each other), now the Web and the Internet have brought us back together again: It is now a glue that helps heal our society from the devastation of the mass movements of the 20th century when the whole world seemed to be moving away from each other.

But, as one more example of how poorly understood the meaning of Web 2.0 is, we find an article published by The New York Times entitled “Virtual Classrooms Could Create a Marketplace for Knowledge” on November 6, 2009. In this article, the author, Anand Giridharadas, highlights the phrase “the teacherless classroom”: “Fate and technology have pummeled many professions since 1963 [when Popular Mechanics used the ‘teacherless classroom’ phrase], from bookseller to travel agent to auto worker. But teachers have resisted the powerful forces reorganizing industry. The dream of the teacherless classroom has remained just that.”

“Today the dream has returned,” the author says. Now we have “systems through which chunks of teaching can be ‘scaled up’ and beamed to hundreds of thousands worldwide.”

This is the FedEx or UPS view of learning; knowledge disconnected from the knower; knowledge with no social or cultural context; knowledge ripped from the conversation, its conversational threads torn and dangling; knowledge as a commodity. How far adrift have we gone that the idea of beaming “chunks of teaching” to hundreds of thousands worldwide could be called a “dream?” I thought we tried that with television, didn’t we?

Undoubtedly, many of you, like me, cringe to see this claim publicized once more, and it would be easy to stop reading this article right there. But there are some interesting twists as we proceed reading this ultimately clueless article. The author mentions MIT’s Open Courseware Consortium that includes “universities around the world.” He mentions that “iTunes offers lectures” online (ho hum), but then he mentions something I found absolutely and incredibly exciting: “[T]he new University of the People, founded by an Israeli entrepreneur, which provides tuition-free bachelor-level degrees through what it calls ‘peer to peer teaching’--students learning not from teachers but each other, trading questions and answers online.”

Ok, this is better than beaming chunks of knowledge by a long shot. Students active and engaged and doing the work on their own. And, hold on--I can guess what many of you are thinking, but the Web site for the University of the People gets to the heart of learning as social (and not performance nor solitary study): “UoPeople is inspired by the ‘learning by teaching’ or ‘peer-to-peer teaching' methodology. This approach helps people to analyze, discuss and learn on a level they can relate to and understand. The educational idea behind the project is that studying within communities is more motivating than just reading alone or listening to online lectures. The peer-to-peer method stimulates students, and they inspire and learn from one another." 

This method, by itself, is suspect--although intriguing--but, no matter what, the model is at least an antidote to the implication in most education that all the students in a class are equally uniformed about the subject. Nothing could be further from the truth, but the lecture approach, that still absolutely predominates in higher education, does not bring forth the varying expertise of students. It does not recognize that students have something to contribute except within the narrow confines of responses to questions the teacher poses (not real questions because the teacher knows the answer--in real life, the normal human response would be, “come on, you know the answer better than I do, so you tell me”).

So, on the one hand we have the FedEx or UPS model of delivery, which is not a “dream” at all but a delusion driven by the urge to monetize the knowledge of the faculty. On the other hand, we have the polar opposite of students teaching each other.

The educational “delivery” supporters would remind us that none of the students in the UoPeople course are disciplinary experts--why would they take the course if they were? So they will be unable to join the disciplinary conversation through their own joint scaffolding, even if the course were to continue for years and not just the 10 weeks allotted by UoPeople for each class.

But, the bottom-up supporters would argue that UoPeople students, who are responsible for their own education, may at least be more motivated and active in their learning than those participating in the passive top-down lecture mode. In fact, I might prefer to hire someone from UoPeople, who has had to teach herself and her peers, rather than someone who has experienced the delivery form of learning, earning a degree by passively sitting in various seats in different rooms over four years. The UoPeople students have had to find inventive ways to discover disciplinary knowledge, have had to take responsibility for their learning, have no one else to blame for not learning, and may in the end be better prepared to be life-long learners than the passive “delivery” students.

UoPeople can proclaim itself now, in this “open education” era and not be thought of as a hair-brained liberal fantasy: Knowledge and information are everywhere and instantly accessible. The only question is whether, without an expert pointing them to the right sources, can they can arrive at an understanding of the principles of the field. Without an expert in the learning conversation, will it just drift sideways?

But, our dilemma, in this period of digital disrupted equilibrium, is not whether students learn with or without teachers. Our dilemma is bigger. How do we extend (“scale up”) the scholarly conversation that depends on the domain expertise of the few, so that all students can join the conversation, those in the demographic represented by UoPeople and those represented by traditional higher education? How can we re-engineer our media to, first, allow those with access to participate in the conversation more actively and allow those without access (the demographic for the UoPeople) to begin to have access?

A large lecture hall is not the answer, nor is sending lectures out through iTunes, or other media channels. Knowledge is not a commodity. And learning is not performance. Learning is conversation. So, then, the question becomes:

How do we extend the conversation to more people and how can that conversation be authentic and lead to active and experiential learning?

What if, for example, students at Delivery U, after they sit through a few lectures in a subject, then were assigned to connect with students at UoPeople and try to convey the ideas from the lectures to those students? What if they had to try to answer the UoPeople students’ questions? And, what if the Delivery U students learned that what they heard in lecture doesn’t make sense in Oman or Mongolia or Arkansas? Each teaching each other: Through teaching we learn the most.

The social Web and its millions of avid users around the world prove, once and for all, that people want to communicate with each other. We are hungry for communication. Let’s not think about how to re-package knowledge into another commoditizeable chunk: Let’s instead unleash the cosmic energy of human communication by designing and engineering ways to link experts formally and informally with learners, and also find another financial model to compensate contributors. We are not bound by any physical limitations in the virtual classroom that I see, which is not teacherless but full of teachers. We can create a hierarchy of expertise so that those who are most articulate and scholarly start conversations that then ripple out so that others have conversations with peers that then also ripple out, and on and on.

The New York Times article, in the end, sets up a false dichotomy: It is not teacher vs. teacherless. In fact there is no dichotomy. The issue is how to extend the scholarly conversation with new media, not just through books, but through the thousands of options for sharing ideas now available.

But, in all efforts to re-commoditize teaching and learning, we must remember that learning is conversation (dialog) and that learning is social. We need more teachers, not fewer; we need teachers at all levels to facilitate conversations (the “ripple down” conversations), conversations that include students as full participants. The whole world can be the little red schoolhouse, with all ages in one room and all students listened to and all participating in a tight social bond of trust, each teaching the other something of value.

[Editor's note: You can read the New York Times article referenced at]

About the Author

Trent Batson is the president and CEO of AAEEBL (, serving on behalf of the global electronic portfolio community. He was a tenured English professor before moving to information technology administration in the mid-1980s. Batson has been among the leaders in the field of educational technology for 25 years, the last 10 as an electronic portfolio expert and leader. He has worked at 7 universities but is now full-time president and CEO of AAEEBL. Batson’s ePortfolio: E-mail: [email protected]

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