Do We Still Need Teachers in Schools of the Future?

Technology is coming to schools at varied speeds. Still, even the most old-fashioned teachers cannot avoid the fact that educational tools relying on modern technology are slowly becoming an essential part of everyday life in schools. Concepts like learning analytics, intelligent tutors, artificial intelligence and machine learning are frequently mentioned when the classroom of tomorrow is discussed. So, what is the role of the teacher in all this?

Teachers Are Human Too...

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Naturally, the teachers act as catalysts in bringing the new technology to classrooms. Or actually, depending on their autonomy, they usually have at least some role in deciding on what tools their students use. With all options out there, how do they decide the most pedagogically effective and motivating tools? A study, conducted by a workgroup lead by Professor Thomas Naps, reported that the most important factor for teachers, when deciding what educational tools to use, was the amount of time saved for them. Not effectiveness, not features, not students’ experiences, but the amount of teachers’ time that the tool saved. And with larger and larger classrooms, this is very human.

The most important role of the teacher regarding technology is to work together with it. Now, that could sound like an understatement of teacher’s role, but I think it is in fact the opposite. We should accept the fact that technology can perform many things better than them. And by better, I mean faster and more reliably. For example, assessing a week’s worth of math problems can be done in seconds, and visualizing the results only a second more. Technology does not get tired and does not make human errors. So, should we gradually replace teachers?

...and That Is Why We Need Them

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Of course not – or not in the near future anyway. Although technology is better at some things, humans are still superior in other ways. Providing individual tutoring is an excellent example of this. Teachers are experts in dealing with students, and providing personal guidance is something the machines are not going to be able to compete with, at least not for a while. But what the technology can do, is to help teachers in identifying the students with problems that need solving. Learning analytics (and AI and all that) can be a real solution for this, if they are provided in a useful manner and for teachers, who know why and how to work with them.

Because of this, we should adapt a practical approach to learning analytics. The teachers are in general not that interested in the technology behind the analytics, but instead they want to have real-time information about their students’ learning. If teachers are provided with information like this, we can have tutors equipped with pedagogical skills and with exact knowledge on who to help and with what. So, we do still need teachers in the 21st century, maybe more than ever. But we need teachers who understand technology. And moreover, we need technology that understands teachers.


Erkki Kaila (PhD) is a pedagogy expert and co-founder in Eduten. He blogs about the role of technology in education and it's societal impact among other things. You can reach Erkki at erkki@eduten.com