The TVNZ series What Next? asked provoking questions and for us to consider what we want our world to be like in twenty years’ time. Will bugs be chosen over beef? Would we want to live to be 130-years-old? Will our current job exist in twenty years’ time? And where do robots, automation and artificial intelligence fit into everything?
We wonder, could teachers be surplus to requirement? Or replaced by robots? Will schools as we know it cease to exist? Is this a horrible thought or an intriguing possibility that leads us to rethink education and teaching in entirely different ways?
Dr Fiona Ell and Dr Kirsten Locke were posed the question.
Dr Kirsten Locke, University of Auckland
In 1979, the philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard infamously opined that with the incoming digital age came the decline of the teacher and education would be irrevocably altered because of it. Instead of a warm body waxing lyrical on differential equations to an enraptured group of students diligently writing down their sums, the teacher could be replaced with a computer to the same effect. Lyotard’s provocation has lurked within the educational imaginary for nearly four decades and has been variously ridiculed and embraced during that time. So certain of the industrial model of mass education and the ‘sage on the stage’ teaching format for large chunks of the twentieth century, countries like New Zealand rarely questioned the primacy of the teacher’s role to the educational endeavour.
Yet Lyotard’s decades-old diagnosis is starting to look prophetic in the twenty-first century. Along with a host of other changes to the 1989 Education Act, in May 2017 the government approved the establishment of purely online learning schools entitled ‘Communities of Online Learning’ (COOLs). From the start of 2018, a school-aged person in New Zealand has the choice to attend a ‘brick and mortar’ physical school, to blend their attendance at a physical school with online learning, or they can opt to access their education through a purely online form of delivery. The latter is a move that radically questions the role of the teacher and the purpose of education in New Zealand, making the muted response from educators and researchers alike a puzzling one. For or against, bewildered or confused, this move deserves robust critique and broad engagement.
Much has been written about the influence of the internet to forms of informal and formal learning. It is now a truism that we demand the ready and instant answers to questions through our fingertips. ‘Dr Google’ is nearly always close to hand to provide assistance to your pressing queries. YouTube can teach you the guitar, show you how to cook an omelette and provide advice on physical and spiritual wellbeing. The internet, at first a fragmented conglomeration of curiosities and oddities, is now a cohesive entity tailored to reflect back to the user their identity, their interests and their opinions (Dr Google knows more about you than you would imagine and is adept at giving you what you want). The institutions of education, spanning the non-compulsory sectors of Early Childhood Education through to tertiary education have altered in response–they’ve had to, and this is not necessarily a bad thing.
However, Lyotard did provide a caveat to the obsolescence of the teacher. Only when knowledge is reduced to information, pedagogy is reduced to transmission and education is reduced to efficient performance can a computer replace, in kind and function, a human teacher. We would do well to remember that education in New Zealand should not be reduced to any one of these things, despite the internet and the rise of the digital age, and because of it. The old ideas of citizenship and democracy are the challenges that our new online schools will need to grapple with in these brave new times, and with it, the role and existence of the teacher.
Kirsten Locke is Senior Lecturer at the School of Critical Studies in Education and Associate Dean Teaching and Learning at the Faculty of Education and Social Work, University of Auckland. As a philosopher of education, Kirsten is interested in the history of ideas and their application to education in New Zealand and international contexts. Kirsten is particularly interested in the philosophical theories that underpin mass education systems and how these relate to issues of equality and democracy.