e-Teaching: teamwork & the new technology

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Technology expert, Graham Oakes, discusses the role of teaching in the brave new world of e-learning.

e-learning has gathered a lot of attention over the years.  It’s been at the crest of the wave, back in the late 90’s, when technology startups were going to change the world.  It’s been in the troughs of despair, when they’d burnt through their venture capital and the world was still pretty much the same.  Now it’s back on the ascendancy.  The cry is clear: a personal learning environment for every student!

Sometimes in the midst of all this noise, people seem to forget that teachers are involved in the process somewhere too.

Perhaps they aren’t exactly forgotten.  Someone needs to create content.  Maybe even moderate discussions.  We certainly recognise the need to manage their resistance to change.  But serious discussion about what technology-enabled learning means for the role of the teacher seems a little thin on the ground.

I want to shift the lens a little and think about what teaching might look like in this brave new world of e-learning.  This isn’t to say that the learner-centred view isn’t important.  It is.  I just happen to believe that teachers will continue to play a vital role in helping people to learn.  If we don’t have a clear view of what this role is, then we’re unlikely to build appropriate support for it into the systems we’re shaping up to buy.

So, what might e-teaching look like?

To answer this, I first want to look at a couple of analogies.  How has technology changed the role of professionals in other domains?

Consider scientific research.  Many great scientists worked more-or-less on their own.  Newton.  Galileo.  Darwin.  They corresponded with their peers.  They may have had assistants.  But many of their achievements were essentially solitary: scientist engaging alone with the universe.  That’s much less true today.  Papers in Physical Review Letters last year had an average of 3.70 authors.  In Science it was 3.93.  Major physics experiments can involve hundreds of researchers.  Science is a team game these days.

Or, for something completely different, consider computer games.  When I worked for one of the major games publishers in 1996, the industry was going through a transition.  The last of the single or dual person development teams were struggling to compete.  Teams of a dozen developers – game designers, producers, programmers, artists, musicians – were the norm.  Come forwards a decade, and many games for Xbox or Playstation 3 are the results of more than a hundred people’s efforts.  The days of the genius programmer in his bedroom have died (or, to be precise, that genius programmer is now part of a large team collaborating virtually on some open source project).

Some people think that technology eliminates jobs.  It’s not that simple.  These examples both suggest that, in some fields at least, technology shifts the balance from individual activity to team endeavour.  Why is this so?

Well, for a start, technology tends to add another layer of complexity.  As well as understanding physics and mathematics, those experimental teams now need people who understand electronics and how to engineer very high vacuums and a whole lot more.  The lab equipment is too complex for a lone researcher to manufacture.  In many cases, manufacturing the equipment is itself a research endeavour.

As a natural consequence of this complexity, technology tends to increase costs.  There’s the cost of the technology itself.  There’s the cost of the team to build and support it.  This often creates an escalation dynamic.  Running a hundred-person team to build a game is expensive, so the game needs to be sold to the widest possible market to recoup its costs.  That in turn means that the game must be translated into multiple languages.  So we add translators to the team.

Finally, large teams need co-ordination.  So we add a layer of management and administration.  Then we add yet more technology to support it.

This all leads me to believe that e-teaching is very unlikely to involve a single teacher with a roomful of students.  Or even a single teacher and virtual-meeting-space-full of students.  I think e-teaching will be team teaching.  Just as e-learning will be collaborative learning, technology is going to create an imperative for collaborative teaching.

The e-teaching team will still need people who understand the subject being taught.  It will still need people with all the skills that teachers bring to the classroom today.  Classroom teaching won’t go away.  But the team will also have designers and graphic artists to help construct compelling online materials.  It will have access to specialists in a range of pedagogies, to help select the right approach for any given set of objectives.  It will have people who can wield the e-equivalent of duct tape to pull together all the servers and software and networks for any given learning event.

For the e-teaching team will manage events.  Some of those events would be recognisable in today’s classrooms – individual tuition and small group interactions, for example – but other types of event will become more common.  To be affordable, the e-teaching team will need to manage larger cohorts of students.  So they will need to construct environments that can accommodate these students, providing safe learning paths appropriate to the range of skills and aptitudes within the class.  This is where virtual learning environments and personal learning environments will meet – under the careful orchestration of the e-teaching team.

This all goes beyond what one person can do.  Even the most able of generalists can no longer do it all.  The people on those one and two person game development teams were brilliant – they had a huge range of skills, deep knowledge of their industry, and tremendous enthusiasm for what they did.  They just couldn’t deliver games of the same overall quality as the large teams that supplanted them.  So eventually they accrued their own teams.

The vision for e-learning has always been centred on the learner.  We are building tools to help them access a vast range of resources.   They can choose their own destination and move at their own pace.  They work on their own or collaborate with their friends.  This is all fine.

However, this vision can’t mean casting the learner adrift, to fend for themselves.  There is a role for guides to help them define and navigate towards their personal goals.  There is a role for people to create maps and define shipping lanes.  You can extend the metaphor as you like – naval architects, protection from pirates…

One final thought.  How will we support these e-teaching teams?  This is about a lot more than sharing lesson plans.  This is about building multi-disciplinary teams.  It’s about working together in close collaboration in order to bring our different skills to bear.  It’s every bit as revolutionary as e-learning.  I think a good virtual learning environment can be extended to support this sort of collaboration.  But that will only happen if we ask for it.

Graham Oakes helps people untangle complex technology, processes and governance. www.grahamoakes.co.uk

e-Learning Update