What does it mean to be a professor, or teacher, in this era when the world's knowledge is available at everyone's fingertips?Will the internet, and now mobile devices that one can use to access the web at any location at any time, fundamentally change the role of the teacher/professor in education? Will the model of one teacher/professor-one classroom which we have had for centuries still be the optimal one in this new era?
It is believed primary and secondary education will retain the current model into the future as primary and secondary teachers play a dual role in society, teacher and babysitter. With the increase of two career (job) families and single parent families it would appear unlikely for societies to come up with a more cost effective method of supervising the children while the adults are off at work in the near future. So even if the classroom model is deemed to be less than optimal for learning purposes it is likely to remain to fill the secondary role of watching the children while the parents are working.
Therefore it is not surprising we are seeing most of the technology driven major changes happening in higher/adult education.
Will the notion of a "degree" be relevant in the future? Will we continue to see higher education being broken down into the current three tiers, bachelor, master, and doctoral, in the future? Is the system that was designed for the industrial age the system needed in the information age?
We have already seen in the last 50 to 100 years the notion of most university degrees go from primary being a liberal education as a preparation for life to more or less training programs for preparation for jobs and careers. Not that I am complaining as I am a business professor and teach some of these "training" courses.
What value does the teacher/professor add to the educational process when students can read from, listen to or watch world class professors anytime from anyplace they want?
We have seen an explosion of educational material available. For example, one can go to Youtube (those of you in countries where it is not blocked) and watch world renowned experts give lectures on innumerable topics.
Also many universities (including Stanford and Cal-Berkeley) have some lectures from their courses podcasted and the students have the option of either attending the lectures or downloading the lectures and listen to them any time and place when it is convenient. I have "attended" a number of courses from Cal-Berkeley myself, including one on the history of ancient Rome and another on globalization, while living in Southeast Asia.
Being a business professor myself, the logical cost-saving next step would seem to remove the option of attending the lecture and make the podcasts mandatory. This would eliminate the need for expensive maintenance of expensive lecture halls. And of course a smart entrepreneur could take this even farther. Why bother to hire your own professors, instead why not just use the podcasts or other material from the top universities and use standardized tests which can be electronically graded? A university with no teachers/professors? Is that possible?
We have also seen online education becoming more popular. I have both attended and taught online. In fact, in one course for an American university I gave real-time "lectures" from four different countries to my students. I have also taught MBA courses with students who are physically in four different continents. More and more education is now taking place outside the traditional model of the teacher/professor and students being physically in the same location.
However, before declaring the end to the classroom model as the main form of education, the resilience of the model should be acknowledged. In ancient times before the availability of the mass-printed books, information had to primarily be passed from person to person, teacher to student. However, with the availability of books, information could be shared across both time and location, yet the student-teacher/professor in the classroom model survived. What did and does the teacher/professor add to the information from the books the students read (or are supposed to read)? The classroom model has also survived the invention of radio, TV, and video tape, all which, at least in theory, could have supplied all the learning material a student needs and thus eliminating the need for individual teachers/professors.
In fact I took a teacher-less course back in the 80s while in the military. The US Navy designed a course in basic electricity and electronics which was used as a core course for a number of occupational specialties before going on the more advanced training. Students studied individually and without supervision and decided for themselves when they were ready for each test for each individual unit. The computer created an approximate timeline and deadline for completion of the course for each student based on the individual's aptitude test scores. At first the course was completely without any instructor, but later it was decided there needed to be a teacher that students could go to individually for guidance. The model didn't appear to work well and the failure rate for students was quite high.
But the question remains were the problems with the system or the students? As students, my generation was conditioned towards more passive learning following the lead and instructions of a teacher. Can the new generation be conditioned to take more responsibility for their own learning which could eliminate the need for an actual teacher/professor in the educational process?
This article has more questions than answers, but the temptation to make predictions about the future is irresistible.
The teacher/professor-student model has shown its value and flexibility and it is predicted there will continue to be a need for teachers/professors, but the roles teachers/professors play might change considerably.
Traditionally the teacher was the "master" who a student went to for expertise and guidance. In the future students might be expected to take more charge of their own learning and will not have to follow the lead of the teacher/professor. The teacher/professor will take on more of the role of a coach and as a gate keeper to ensure educational goals are met. More like the traditional role of a PhD dissertation advisor, but this will become more common at the undergraduate and master's levels as well.
I see a move away from the lecture form of higher education to one of more independent study, where students will have more freedom to explore issues of interest to their specific career goals and there will be less standardization. The teacher/professor's primary role will no longer be that of a content expert, but as a facilitator/coach who encourages students in their development and as a gate-keeper who ensures the standards of the university or institute of higher learning who grants degrees or certifies education are met. In this new role, physical separation between students and teachers will not be a major obstacle. One does not have to be in the same country or continent to grade assignments or give advice.
But, without a crystal ball the only way to see if there will or will not be major changes in the manner in which adults receive an education will be to stick around and see for oneself.
Scott Hipsher is the author of
Expatriates in Asia: Breaking Free from the Colonial Paradigm,
as well as numerous book chapter, academic journal articles, conference papers and other articles on international business and other topics.