Are there Teachers in the Future?

In my own research I have found it difficult to locate research regarding online learning in K-12 education, so I can empathize with Means, Toyama, Murphy, Bakia, and Jones (2010) difficulty in finding sources of information that fit their meta-analysis criteria. However, I feel if they did not limit the meta-analysis based on their quantitative requirements and being number driven some interesting insights would have been found. Of course this report was not written with educators in mind, but policy makers and politicians. It is a government document. Although not a practical document if one is looking for a guide to online learning best practices, it does make the case that more research needs to be conducted before any formal conclusion can be made, especially regarding K-12 online learning. But one with common sense and life experience in the education system could probably draw the same suggestive conclusions that Means, Toyama, Murphy, Bakia, and Jones (2010) did from their meta-analysis.   The one concluding thought I did not expect to draw was whether teachers will be needed in the future like they are needed in the present. But lets start at the beginning.

I appreciated that Means, Toyama, Murphy, Bakia, and Jones (2010) referenced distance education at the beginning of the report because it gave a historical basis for their research and a starting point to ask the right questions. Means, Toyama, Murphy, Bakia, and Jones (2010) state:

Overall, results from Bernard et al. (2004) and other reviews of the distance education literature (Cavanaugh 2001; Moore 1994) indicate no significant differences in effectiveness between distance education and face-to-face education, suggesting that distance education, when it is the only option available, can successfully replace face-to-face instruction. (6)

This helped raise the question of whether this is true for online learning and face-to-face instruction too. The authors found that online learning like any other form of learning environment has its advantages and disadvantages. Means, Toyama, Murphy, Bakia, and Jones (2010) found that the meta-analysis overall tended to point towards the positive “…with online learning (whether taught completely online or blended) [and] on average produce stronger student learning outcomes than do classes with solely face-to-face instruction’ (18). Just like distance education pure online learning can be just as effective as face-to-face classroom instruction, but it is the blending of online learning and face-to-face instruction that had the most interesting and useful results from Means, Toyama, Murphy, Bakia, and Jones (2010) meta-analysis. According to the meta-analysis the blended learning environment seemed to have more benefits and more positive outcomes than the stand-alone pure online learning and face-to-face learning environments. At the college level from my own experience both pure online learning and blended classes make no difference to me I will learn one way or another. I think in the K-12 learning environment a blended learning environment might work best. The blended learning environment will work best because it will cater to more learning styles and allow for more differentiation of material, content, and assessment. It would be more inclusive and hopefully provide fewer barriers to learning if done well.   But as I have come to realize through my reflection this might be a selfish viewpoint and hope because I am a K-12 teacher.   I have come to realize I may not be necessary in the future.

This leads to the best practice and recommendation from Means, Toyama, Murphy, Bakia, and Jones (2010), which is to use teaching methods that promote self-reflection, self-regulation, and self-monitoring. This is true whether teaching online or in a classroom.   But notice how the best practice advice for online learning is to just let the students learn.   They do not recommend teacher-reflection, teacher-regulation, and teacher-monitoring.   Means, Toyama, Murphy, Bakia, and Jones (2010) confirm this by stating, “Attempts to guide the online interactions of groups of learners were less successful than the use of mechanisms to prompt reflection and self-assessment…’ (48). Can add another one, self-assessment not teacher-assessment. It was interesting when Means, Toyama, Murphy, Bakia, and Jones (2010) suggested that some of the research states that the students in an online learning environment “…provide scaffolds for one another (Suh 2006)’ (48). This raised a question I did not feel was answered by the report, is a synchronous or asynchronous online class more effective? Should an online learning environment have both? Does synchronous or asynchronous lend itself to this student scaffolding effect? If students can scaffold for each other how much teacher involvement should there be?   Do we need teachers in an online learning environment? Reflecting on my own experience I find I benefit when both synchronous and asynchronous characteristics are present because it provides structure and freedom to learn at your own pace. Also in my past online learning experiences (and in class for that matter) I found it annoying when I was told what exactly to discuss and think by the instructor’s script instead of the instructor just giving us a starting point to go from for the discussion. Based on their meta-analysis Means, Toyama, Murphy, Bakia, and Jones (2010) state that students’ learning experiences “…were less positive when instructor involvement was low…’ and became “…more positive, up to a point, as instructor involvement increased. At the highest level of instructor involvement (which would suggest that the instructor became dominant and peer-to-peer learning was minimized)…’ (53). Regardless of whether it is online learning or face-to-face the teacher has an impact on students’ learning and if that teacher does not allow students to reflect on their learning and own it the quality of the class whether online or not decreases. This research that some teacher involvement is good for the online learning experience has given me hope that in the very least teachers of the future will be guides.

After considering the report further by Means, Toyama, Murphy, Bakia, and Jones (2010) I guess it is not surprising that what affects the classroom environment also affects the online learning environment. What works in one will most likely work in the other. The technological mediums used might enhance learning and provide more opportunities, but when it comes down to what makes online learning an effective learning choice it is the sound pedagogy behind it, but as we have read even that is changing and evolving. It is the proven teaching practices, the teacher-student relationship, and sense of community that holds a class together not the technology. Technology provides another structure to teach from, but ultimately it is sound teaching practices and learning theories that determine how good learner outcomes will be. What needs to be researched further is how to apply what we already know about learning and combine that with online learning tools to K-12 education. Then it needs to be decided how far it should be taken with the whole human and machine relationship that connectivism suggests. Should we have totally virtual schools? Should those schools be synchronous or asynchronous? Is a blended approach better? Or do we need both blended and pure online learning environments in order to reach all types of learners and their unique needs? Here is even a scarier question and thought. It was found in the meta-analysis that some research suggests students can “…provide scaffolds for one another (Suh 2006)’ (48) in an online learning environment. If this is true do we need teachers and schools in the traditional sense if the future of learning is completely online? I encourage you to watch this TED Talk: Build a School in the Cloud, which will broaden your thinking about online learning in K-12.


Means, B., Toyama, Y., Murphy, R., Bakia, M., & Jones, K. (2010). Evaluation of evidence-based practices in online learning: A meta-analysis and review of online learning studies. US Department Of Education.

22 thoughts on “Are there Teachers in the Future?

  1. Alda

    You make an interesting point about what we might find if we looked at qualitative information on the subject. I’m a huge fan of using complementary quantitative and qualitative methods to get a fuller picture of the how and the why behind phenomena. However, since qualitative data are not meant to be generalized, it would be a game of comparing apples and oranges to try and look across qualitative studies in the same way we can look across quantitative studies. You stated, “I I feel if they did not limit the meta-analysis based on their quantitative requirements and being number driven some interesting insights would have been found.” As someone who has worked on a meta-analysis team, I can tell you that it is absolutely crucial to be strict about inclusion criteria. It’s the only way to ensure you’re comparing apples to apples. After an exhaustive literature search, you then must see if the write-up of each study provides enough of the raw data and results (chi square, t-test, F statistic) so that you can use a formula that converts the results into a common metric (standard deviation units and Cohen’s d) that can be compared across a diverse collection of studies. This is assuming that you can defend treating the variables of interest in each of the studies as equivalent even though they may be using slightly different wording. For example, in the meta-analysis I worked on, we were looking for observational studies of positive and aversive communication between parents and children. Well, some studies might say “negative” instead of aversive, or “pro-social” instead of positive, and we had to dig up definitions to see if what was measured was comparable.

    1. kgebauer Post author

      What I meant to communicate is that on top of the extensive meta-analysis they did it would have been nice to include some qualitative data on the side especially concerning K-12, since there was so little quantitative data in that area. I didn’t mean to say that quantitative and qualitative data should be analyzed the same way or included in a meta-analysis together. It just would have added to the findings and I wanted more information about K-12 than they could give me through their meta-analysis. Like you said you really can’t make generalizations from qualitative data, but I feel you can learn a lot from it. Thanks for the insight and explanation.

  2. lsowa

    I enjoyed your piece. The theme we keep coming back to is that we need more data from K-12, but I wonder why we have such little data in this area? The prevalence of online courses in K-12 can’t be the issue, the statistics quoted in the report indicate otherwise. Perhaps it is because those who perform educational research typically do so on their own courses, and that is much more common to find at the University level? Finding ways to encourage rigorous educational research at the K-12 level, perhaps through Univeristy/school district partnerships, should be explored.

    I watched the video link of Sugata Mitra’s TED talk. Wow. I found his perspective to be quite interesting, and have to admit I loved his hole in the wall computer experiments. The question of whether teachers are even required in this technological society is a heavy one. While I’m not ready to say that teachers are unnecessary, I really like how he empowered the children, and has so much respect for their innate ability to learn. I actually see parallels with Montessori philosophy, although most Montessorians I know are much less focused on technology, at least at the younger ages.

    Another question that is raised related to the TED talk – is our transition to online learning the first step in this process? Broadband + collaboration + encouragement (caring)

    Thanks for sharing the video.

    1. Owen

      Great reflection piece, Kelly, and great comments Alda and Lori. As I read through your work, I wondered f the blended environment provides the best of both worlds, does it also contain the worst of both worlds? I’m thinking particularly about the synchronous requirement and its inherent inconvenience – especially as we struggle to gather for our synchronous sessions. We’re all busy.

      In direct response to your question about whether or not there are teachers in the future – I would venture that we’ll see ever more variability in the “marketplace.” Fifty years ago, elementary and higher education in America was fairly homogenous. Similar to process manufacturing in the 18th century – we only knew how to do educate in one model. With the advent of the industrial revolution, we learned we can make things a lot of different ways. We can still buy handmade chairs, we can also choose from an unlimited field of other options. Similarly with education perhaps? The fortunate will be able to choose from a thousand different options, some will include teachers, some will not. The poor, however, will have far fewer options, I fear. If the rest of our economic history holds true – I am doubtful of alternatives.

      Last, on the subject of research with K-12 cohorts – one additional factor is the complications inherent when doing research with minors. The paperwork alone can be rather daunting. Just a thought.

      Nice work folks!

      1. kgebauer Post author

        You make great points. There is a lot of paper work involved when working with minors and it is also very time consuming because you have to get everybody’s permission before even starting your research. Published research is something that would be nice for K-12 teachers to be able to do from time to time, but on top of everything else it takes a super hero and lots of coffee I would imagine.

        I think blended environments might be the best answer for K-12 right now. I think online learning in isolation in a school building is not the answer or the best way to include it in that setting. So a blended environment seems to be best, but that still doesn’t meet the needs of every student and is still limited by what the teacher can do in the school system. I think one of the main differences between K-12 and higher education is the ability to individualize a student’s education. In higher education the student essentially can pick their education path to fit their learning needs and goals. In K-12 a student’s education is guided by grade, graduation requirements, GPA. There is not the same flexibility of student choice. Online learning could provide K-12 with more individualized education opportunities, but that would also require revamping the current K-12 system. Ideally as you point out we would all get to choose how we want to learn from the ever growing options available to us. Ideally every student would have an individualized education based on their learning needs and goals and most importantly would have a say in it. To say the least I think teachers will still be around, but be different in the future.

    2. kgebauer Post author

      I think there is little research in K-12 because it is difficult to get permission to do research when minors are involved. Most K-12 teachers don’t have the time to conduct research in their own classrooms. I don’t think teachers are unnecessary either, but I wanted to get my point across that our educational and schooling options are growing. It is a possibility one day that some “schooling” choices may not need a teacher in the sense we know it today. I think it is a possibility that online learning is making way for the Broadband + collaboration + encouragement (caring) approach, which is funny because my article this week is on how caring is perceived in the K-12 online learning environment. No matter what transition online learning may be facilitating it is definitely opening up other options for education. Thanks for the comment.

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