Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Digital Learning and the Changing Role of the Teacher

  • Hamish Macleod
  • Christine Sinclair
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_126


Even though educational institutions have been key to the development of digital practices, teachers are sometimes regarded as late adopters, often with good reason (Cuban and Jandric 2015). At the start of the twenty-first century, there was little direct use of digital technology for teaching in schools or universities. However, teachers worked within cultures and societies already becoming reliant on digital technologies and increasingly defined by them.

Contemporary writing traces shifting relationships across teaching practices, digital mediation, and the influence of globalization. There are debates about the resulting impact on who teachers are, and what they (are able to) do, in the era of digital learning. The emergence of newer forms of technology to support and mediate the processes of teaching and learning has also led to a reexamination of the theoretical underpinnings of those practices – educational purposes, values, and structures – and the forms of literacy associated with these. Several strands of critical research literature highlight changes in the society’s relationship with teachers and pedagogy. Historical analyses of the repressive impact of the print era, political inquiries into the effects of neoliberalism on universities, and pedagogical calls for emancipatory approaches to teaching and learning all present evidence of the teacher’s changing role.

An initial broad look at the context sets the scene for considering definitions around digital teaching, mediation effects, and cultural and political influences.

The Changing Context for Learning

Educational systems have always been dependent on the prevailing technological affordances of recording, transmission, reproduction, and communication of their era. Biological, mechanical, and electrical means of achieving these basic functions have all made their mark on the practices of teaching and learning, although when changes in these are gradual, they may go unnoticed. However, “the digital” is regarded by many commentators as different in kind, with the impact of the technological change comparable to that from the oral tradition to literacy, or from written communication to mass dissemination through print. As in previous eras, the newer forms of technology retain features of those which they supplant; in addition, older forms find new avenues, as exemplified by Walter Ong (2012/1982) who refers to the “secondary orality” as demonstrated, for example, in television, which would not have existed without writing and print. Digital technologies have brought even more oral culture than television, including changes to television that have rendered it interactive, asynchronous (and differently synchronous), remixable, and ultimately unrecognizable from its original form.

As education in the twenty-first century has begun to emerge from the 500-year dominance of the printed word, some commentators have identified a restoration of more democratic and dialogical approaches to teaching and learning. This fits with Pettit’s (2012) notion of the “Gutenberg Parenthesis” – the relatively short period of modernity where the printed book was the source of authority and control – creating a digression from the former and now renewed oral communication mode. At the heart of the escape from the print era are issues of voice, agency, and connection – not new ideas in themselves but given new opportunities to flourish – not least in education (Wegerif 2013). Less optimistically, some writers suggest that neoliberal policies and practices in educational institutions and beyond are stifling debate about teaching and privileging an economic and utilitarian perspective on education over a pedagogical or intellectual one. Technology might be a mediating factor in either case: digital technology has the capacity to support communication and openness, as in the open source movement; it also supports automation, which might lead to commodification and closure. While these examples illustrate potential contradictions and tensions about the role of technology, they do not represent a simple binary: technology does not only promote communication and automation. Support functions for education from digital technology include, inter alia, acceleration, administration, automation, calculation, communication, design, display, learning analytics, simulation, surveillance/observation, and storage/retrieval. These inevitably affect a teacher’s role and status, as do social changes that have accompanied such technological functions.

Defining the Teacher and Teaching Practices

The advent of the expression “student-centered learning” suggested a shift in focus from “traditional” subject-based curricula. It emerged in the 1980s, peaking around 1999–2003, but fitted well into the narratives around digital learning that followed soon after. In 1993, the title of a short article entitled “From Sage on the Stage to Guide on the Side” (King 1993) prompted many citations and adaptations even two decades later. Thus the teacher’s role was already being questioned by writers on educational development, and by educational policy makers, just before the arrival of popular awareness of the Internet through the World Wide Web. As digital learning became possible, then, there was already a mood to move from transmission of knowledge to construction of knowledge – from instructivism to constructivism. While either or both of these might be enhanced by digital technology, some teachers saw technology as a potential “Trojan horse” to introduce more progressive teaching methods.

Metaphors and other tropes around teaching bring out competing understandings at a time of change. The simplest conceptualization is that teaching involves the transmission of knowledge. The teacher possesses knowledge in a particular domain, works to structure it in an accessible way, and transmits that knowledge to the learners. A radical constructivist position would suggest that knowledge cannot be simply transmitted from one individual to another, but must be constructed anew in the mind of every learner. The debate between instructivism and constructivism raises questions about the teacher’s role as a repository of domain knowledge, especially when there are digital alternatives to this. The implication might be that what is important in the teacher is the generic skill in supporting learning – and perhaps the cultivation of generic scholarship in the student – as opposed to disseminating high levels of domain specific knowledge.

“Guide on the side” has not, however, become a job title. “Facilitator” sometimes has, though it is more likely to refer to the role in a very specific context, such as in resource- or problem-based learning. The education sector globally has had some difficulties with terminology, and these increased with new roles emerging with the use of technology. Differences could be local, or they may reflect changes in emphasis. For example, “tuition” might be something that a teacher gives you (UK) or something that you pay (USA). Some countries refer to course or curriculum design, others to instructional design, an expression that was widely used in the USA from the 1980s. Early in the twenty-first century, the notion of “learning design” began to gain momentum. The person who does that design might be a teacher, but might instead have the title “instructional designer” and be considered not to be a teacher or instructor but someone who supports the teacher, especially if digital technology has an impact on the complexity of the design of educational activities. Another title that has developed with digital technology has been “learning technologist,” which has raised a number of discussions, not least among learning technologist themselves, about what the expression really means and thus what the role encompasses. In some contexts, learning technologists will be directly involved in teaching; in others, not at all.

Other titles related to the teaching role are facilitator, demonstrator, tutor, faculty, lecturer, and professor – all words that can have different connotations in different times, places, and contexts. The definitions relate to what people do, but also to their status, both of which are significant to their role at a time of change. Just as the word “lecturer” has evolved from its original application to a person who reads a text, before the printing press rendered that unnecessary, it may be that some words will change their reference and other new words may be required to describe teaching in the age of digital learning. This may have implications for individuals’ career and professional development and remuneration.

Phrases saying “what people do” in education might hint at tools used for mediation, though they can be more subtle than that. While e-learning, technology-enhanced learning, and digital learning emphasize that the teacher and/or the student is using technology, another terminology perhaps offers a greater indication of how the learning is to be done. The shift from transmission to construction clearly involves a change of metaphor, and constructivism, especially social constructivism, is seen as particularly appropriate for digital learning. Technologies have also offered metaphors for the way in which educational engagements should proceed. Ideas such as networked learning and connectivism have called upon notions of nodes, linkages, and communication as a way to understand, and to provide prescriptions for, pedagogic design and action in a highly connected world. However, it is interesting that in their continuing emphasis on student-centered learning, these expressions do not explicitly say anything about what the teacher does. For more details on what the online teacher actually does, see Sinclair and Macleod (2015).

These debates suggest potential confusion about expectations of teachers, especially in relation to subject knowledge, which is now readily available digitally and no longer needs to be transmitted. This should not be seen to imply that subject knowledge in teachers is not required; in the more dialogical context, it is still essential for diagnosing conceptual problems to enable the teacher to steer conversations or structure learner experience in a coherent way. Indeed initial and sustained learner motivation comes through the manifest enthusiasm that is displayed for the subject by those influential others – frequently teachers – in the student’s world. The teacher might thus be positioned as a model of academic values and behavior. Those values and associated actions now take place in digital academic environments as well as in physical locations.

There are other concerns about teachers’ roles, such as long-running arguments over whether what the teacher wants to achieve will be the same irrespective of medium. From a wider political perspective, there is also the question of whose business it is to define the role the teacher should play and whether that is changing through digital technology. Definitions of teachers and teaching will inevitably be filtered through perspectives on these questions. A person who thinks that technology is a neutral tool to deliver a standardized curriculum will see the teacher’s role very differently from one who thinks that a digital environment offers a new opportunity for intensive critical dialogue in which the teacher plays the role of senior colleague.

Effects of (Digital) Mediation on Teaching

A teacher looking for guidance on “what to do” in digital learning might then be influenced by the idea of giving instruction online to students or of creating an activity for students within a network – or by any other theories that relate to student learning, such as the promotion of emancipatory learning through technology. There are a number of possible frameworks stemming both from the pre-digital era and from the wish to develop practices that exploit the potential of digital technology, such as the ability to scale or to “flip” the classroom by having the students engage with transmitted material in their own time, followed up by a more discursive session where knowledge is more fully constructed and assimilated.

New forms of mediation have led to a reexamination of processes of teaching and learning. This is nowhere more evident than in the debates surrounding the rise of the massive open online course (MOOC) and its associated and derivative practices, as this rise was so rapid and widespread. The speed of change has made it more obvious just which parameters have been changing. As a consequence, technologically supported (and other innovative) practices in education are debated and critiqued in a way that is rarely faced by traditional and established practices. Participation in such debates can serve to revitalize education as a whole, and it has done so as much in the public domain as in more abstract academic (printed) publications.

The variation in MOOCs brought out further arguments about instruction versus construction and connection – it soon became clear that this discussion had not disappeared with the advent of digital learning. As already suggested, a conception of teaching as transmitting information can be well served by technology. The potential of the MOOC reignited debates about the role of the teacher, including a perennial one about whether teachers are necessary at all. However, most notably for our purposes here, it has highlighted the role of teacher presence and its relation to learner motivation, particularly how it can be sustained both at scale and at a distance. By “presence,” we mean the sense in which people feel that they and others are in a shared context.

Presence, in the educational context, is most fully developed in the “community of inquiry” theoretical framework of Anderson and colleagues (Garrison and Anderson 2003). This framework considers social presence, cognitive presence, and teaching presence, mapping onto a social constructivist understanding of learning, and accounting for the role of the teacher in designing, initiating, focusing, and sustaining discourse directed toward a learning outcome or outcomes. Particularly significant here is the role of the teacher in orchestrating the experience of the learners such that learning is motivated by the emergence of some “triggering event” in the student(s)’ experience.

Presence is an important topic because it relates to what teachers do, how they do it, and how this is perceived by students, employers, and other stakeholders in education. Lack of teacher presence was seen as likely to be one of the biggest barriers to the acceptance of digital learning; as a difficult concept to quantify, metrics such as “contact hours” have been offered in lieu.

This is at least in part a result of the broader political, social, and cultural environments in which education takes place. As with education, effects on these are partly constituted by digital technology, but also in part predate that technology, bringing in effects from earlier times, which continually merge. Teachers have to teach within a technology-saturated context as well as through using the tools that it has to offer.

Teaching in a Technology-Saturated Context

Continuing to focus on the idea of teacher presence – and indeed student presence – allows illustration of some of the emergent dilemmas of digital learning already alluded to. When digital technology enables fully online courses, and blended learning with a mix of classroom and online activity, it draws attention to the problems of providing equivalence between these activities for purposes of measurement and quality assurance. In fact, some have argued that it illustrates the futility of measurement of activities of teaching and learning in this way at all. Some writers such as Chickering and Gamson (1991) prefer to emphasize the importance of relationship with faculty as a key dimension of quality educational experience.

The notion of “contact hours” is complex, in a setting in which access to a period of “video lecture” might be equated with the student’s participation in an equivalent period in a “live” lecture room. It has an impact not only on what is fair for students but also for how lecturers are performing within their contract of employment. Graham Gibbs (2014) has pointed to students’ and their representatives’ flawed reasoning about the value of contact hours, suggesting association with a commercial neoliberal approach that regards the student as a customer.

Technologies supporting access to resources, and communications between actors in the pedagogic process, inevitably bring with them opportunities for surveillance and monitoring. Such monitoring may be neutral, or even benign, in its intent, as in the development of the domain of learning analytics which seeks better to understand the processes of learning, and the behavior of students in networked spaces, and thus to improve and support the student experience. The same data may, of course, also be used to call students and teachers to account.

Learning analytics may be directed to provide information about the behavior of cohorts of students as a whole or to generate information about individual learners. This could help to identify students who are “at risk” in some important way, perhaps of academic underperformance, or of withdrawal from study altogether. There have been associated questions about data protection and rights to access to the information held about students. Thus legal rights and ethical considerations can affect the way information might be supportively interpreted through the lens of the teacher’s experience.

The teacher as employee of the institution or the State is open to the pressures of monitoring of performance and productivity. In the past teaching has been seen as a profession, implying a high degree of autonomy and discretion in the conduct of one’s duties. The early twenty-first century saw a rhetoric of regulation, audit, and accountability, by which other interests dictated to the teacher how they should conduct themselves. This situation has not been “caused” by digital technology, but it may well have made it easier for it to occur.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of EdinburghEdinburghUK