Future of Learning

As schools continue to digitize and automate, where do teachers fit in?

Technology has transformed many things in schools, but the centrality of teachers isn’t one of them

As classrooms becoming increasingly digital, the role of teachers is bound to change.

As classrooms becoming increasingly digital, the role of teachers is bound to change.

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Advances in technology have meant a world of change in schools. Yes, proponents of “disruption” tend to argue that students are basically sitting in time capsules from the industrial era, but technology has made schools look and run very differently, both on the operations side and the instructional side.

Computers, laptops and other digital devices have become commonplace in most schools nationwide, changing the way students get instruction and complete assignments. Computers have also digitized student records and taken a whole host of school processes to the cloud. This has created new risks and led to the founding of new departments focused on the safety and security of all this data. It has also created new efficiencies for schools.

Phil Dunn, the chief information officer of Greenwich Public Schools in Connecticut, said during a panel at the NY Edtech Week global innovation festival last month that the cloud has made a big difference in his workflow.

“In the old days, it was a nightmare to deploy one new system,” Dunn said. Now his district has hundreds of systems. And the work of getting them operational has been transformed.

New technologies are coming out all the time. Some make life better and easier for the people who use them. Some make life different, but not necessarily better. And there are definitely the technologies — designed for the classroom and elsewhere — that make life, or learning, worse.

Focusing on the first category, Joshua Starr, CEO of the professional association for educators PDK International and a former school superintendent, asked panelists what tech advances are missing in schools. What should be automated, but isn’t?

Chris Rush, co-founder and chief program officer at New Classrooms, a nonprofit that helps schools implement personalized learning programs, brought up grading.

“Teachers spend a significant amount of time scoring papers rather than spending time with students,” Rush said. Automating not only multiple-choice test scoring but the grading of essays and project work would give teachers more time to focus on the student interaction that they’re uniquely capable of, he said.

Jonathan Supovitz, director of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education at the University of Pennsylvania, talked about school improvement. Using a sports analogy, he said coaches don’t just look at the game summaries to consider how their players did. They look at videos of each play. Data systems in schools, though, skip straight to the summaries, Supovitz said. The play-by-play is missing.

“This is the area that I think is the next frontier on data use,” Supovitz said.

In discussions about increasing the role of technology in schools, questions are often raised about the long-term role of teachers. While some worry that ed tech proponents advocate for sidelining teachers, panel advocates disagreed, saying teacher skills will just need to change. Supovitz, for example, said there will be  demand for teachers who are more sophisticated about looking at and responding to student performance data.

Satya Nitta, an inventor and program leader in IBM’s cognitive computing for education division, said professional development will have to support this additional responsibility for teachers in the future, but he said the responsibility isn’t theirs alone.

“Simple software engineering principles about how we present information and insights can go a long way toward making the technology seamless,” Nitta said.

Many districts, including Atlanta Public Schools and Tulsa Public Schools have been been focusing on exactly that. They want teachers to be teachers, while data analysts do the extra work to support them. And that balance may be just what schools need for the classrooms of the future. 

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

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Tara García Mathewson

Tara García Mathewson is a staff writer. She launched her journalism career with two award-winning pieces co-produced during a three-month stint at the Kitsap Sun… See Archive

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