Not surprisingly, information technology, is providing new opportunities for teachers. One might consider that computers are the greatest breakthrough since paper and the printed word. And everything has accelerated during this COVID-19 year. Inertia has been overcome and digital delivery is now normal.

There have been many advantages. Students can be better supported. They can access material at their own pace, and review it as often as they like. They can also contact teachers and peers with questions or ideas.

Beyond this, artificial intelligence will provide more opportunities. Already students can get their own answers via Google and Wikipedia (or, alas, cheating websites), and in the future bots will be trained to provide more nuanced information. It will also be possible to survey student learning and target missing information to where it’s needed.

It’s important that we all keep pushing and exploring the opportunities. But I think we can do that confident in the knowledge that teachers themselves are unlikely to be replaced by robots, any more than they were previously replaced by books. The technologies will be important, but the human factor won’t fade quickly.

Learning is deeply set in human DNA. We learn from our elders and our peers. Teachers have three roles: knowledgeable guides, inspiring coaches, and respected role models.

As knowledge expands into an ever more complex maze, the role in “guiding” will become even more important. The most common question I’ve ever had from students is – do I need to know this for the exam? In some ways that’s sad, but in other ways it reflects the overwhelming abundance of information and students’ attempts to focus and deliver on what’s important and on our expectations.

It’s possible that one definitive pathway through knowledge might be agreed by some Microsoft University, but I doubt there’ll ever be just one answer. Or if there is it won’t last for long. Even driving instructors have their own priorities when they take students through the syllabus. The best guides are often those who are in love with the syllabus. Accordingly, teachers tend to inspire most when they choose their own examples and model the syllabus around what they value – within discipline limits. So, David Attenborough teaches about animals and it is inspiring, and he chooses those animals and aspects of their biology, he thinks are most interesting. He’s also very good at curriculum renewal, and finding new things, and we need to learn from that.

The second role of “coaching’” could also be done by computer apps, like the “couch to 5km” fitness apps. But again, I think it is unlikely apps will take over. Gyms, personal coaches, sports coaches, they all prevail. They are real and one makes emotional connections that are essential to learning, that sustain the effort. Students learn because they want to, because they want to prove to themselves that they can do it, but also because they want to prove to their teachers that they can do it and that they belong in the learning community. Electronic communities can increase inclusion and can be cohesive but I’m not sure we’ll ever see Siri getting the best out of students.

The third role of teaching again relates to community and this time not to the shared knowledge that binds the community together but to the conduct. Teachers are “role models” in many ways. They may instil a respect for knowledge, and for questioning, but also for civilised disagreement and discussion. If they are past practitioners, like many sports coaches, they may inspire by virtue of their stature and past conduct (though we all know the best players are not always the best coaches). Role models show what is possible, but they also show how the game should be played. Some teachers take this last part very seriously. Others hardly think about it but I consider this aspect of decency, respect for others, and openness to ideas, is one of the most important things students gain from formal education. Again, Siri could learn all that and do a course in ethics via artificial intelligence training but I’m not sure students would model their behaviour on a bot.

When I think of all the best teachers I’ve had they have been very different in how much they guided, coached, and served as role models. They were all excellent guides. Few were excitable coaches. Some more or less left us to sink or swim rather than cajoling or driving us to learn, but they were inspiring. What they taught me, in a technical sense, has now mostly been superseded though the content was very important to me at the time. But the dignity of how they taught remains with me.

Most important though – I remember the people more than the facts, or perhaps in combination with the facts. To me my own history and my own recollection of world history consists of a set of people surrounded by events, ideas, and discoveries. It is never just a history of breakthroughs.

Learning will always be a human game. Facts and ideas are important but people need other people. One can play chess against a computer but it isn’t the same. Because it’s not really just the outcomes that matter, it’s how you play the game, and how one responds to winning or losing that is sometimes most informative and that’s what makes history.


Professor Merlin Crossley

Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic



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