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Lectures May Be Dead But Do We Still Need Teachers?


Technology has DISRUPTED education, to use a popular phrase from the valley. Most traditional institutions are clinging to their linen cardstock degree certificates fearful that a shift to online learning will render them worthless. The paradigm shift underway due to the marriage between technology and education has many innovative thinkers questioning the need for schools at all. Some are arguing that perhaps computers can do a better job of teaching than actual teachers. I tend to agree with a quote from the famous science fiction writer, Arthur C. Clarke: “A teacher that can be replaced by a machine should be.”

Below I outline three perspectives on the future of education and how the role of ‘teacher’ is either shifting or disappearing all together.

Minimally Invasive Education or MIE

The concept of Minimally Invasive Education was created by software engineer, Sugat Mitra. His engaging series of Ted talks outlines his belief that children can teach themselves and that schools are no longer needed. His work is based upon the findings of a very simple experiment. He placed a working computer in a public space near the office where he worked. He offered no instruction on how to use it, however within a few hours local children began to teach themselves the skill of ‘browsing’ on a computer. This startling result compelled him to conduct additional experiments with similar findings.

Mitra’s findings suggest that unsupervised use of computers can lead to accelerated learning of skills in children (Mitra, S., 2000). This type of accelerated learning goes beyond computer skills, as Mitra has applied the MIE model to subjects OTHER than computers and technology.  He has developed Self Organizing Learning Environments or SOLE’s that require three elements for success: 1) Broadband 2) Collaboration and 3) Encouragement. In these interactive learning environments, the traditional role of a teacher is replaced by a facilitator that simply asks a question and encourages the students to discover the answer on their own.

The suggestion that children can and DO teach themselves is rooted in the constructivism view of cognitive growth and learning (Mitra, S., 2000). Theorists such as Piaget, Vygotsky and Bandura suggested that children were MORE than just a blank slate and actively participated in the learning process. The core elements that attributed to Mitra’s children teaching themselves involved social collaboration and modeling. Mitra’s experiments show children learning computer skills by watching other children at the controls (Mitra, S. 2007). This strongly supports Bandura’s social learning theory and his components of observational learning (Crain, W. 2010).

Video Games as Teachers

Mitra’s ground-breaking work also points to the value of PLAY and EXPERIMENTATION as valuable forms of learning. Play is a form of mental exploration in which “children create, reflect on, and work out their understanding. Both play and exploration are self-structured and self-motivated processes of learning (Mitra, S., 2000).”

Video games have been scrutinized for the last decade and there has been a debate waging about their use in the classroom. Recently, there is a trend toward believing that games CAN be used for good and that well-designed games can indeed help today’s students excel (Gee, 2007). James Gee has dedicated an entire book to this subject and lays out 36 learning principles that are addressed in well-designed video games. He does an expert job at arguing that children that play these highly immersive games aren’t finding value in the old ways of teaching (Gee, 2007).

Gee also believes that that the principles behind learning from video games are reflected in the recent cognitive science research (Foreman, J., Gee, J. P., Herz, J. C., Hinrichs, R., Prensky, M., & Sawyer, B., 2004):

The commercial games have created a form of learning that young people are very familiar with. It’s a very powerful form of learning, and the principles behind that learning are reflected in the best research we have in cognitive science. If you look at what current cognitive science argues about how people learn best, you will find those principles embedded deeply in good videogames, but you will not find them deeply embedded in a lot of elementary schools and high schools. Not in colleges, either.

In his paper, Game Based Learning: How to delight and instruct in the 21st century, Joel Foreman aggregates comments from industry luminaries such as James Gee, Marc Prensky and J.C. Herz. They all outline a new era in education where teachers in classrooms will become dinosaurs. Prensky sums it up best (Foreman, J., et al., 2004):

I think we’re going to see a move away from the industrial classroom approach, especially for the big courses, to the tutored approach. And most tutors, to a large extent, will be computer-based and game-based, supplemented, of course, by people working online together, people having human tutors online. I think that the era of listening to a professor tell you something is fast coming to an end.

No More Lectures!

If you’re a teacher, like me, the ideas outlined in this post might make you feel obsolete. As a final approach to the shifting role of educator, I offer up something LESS radical and more palatable for today’s teachers. Bringing classrooms online has led to research intent on determining the most effective online teaching techniques. The Handbook of Online Learning devotes several chapters on how TEACHERS need to become FACILITATORS.

Studies have shown that feelings of community and connection among online learners and instructors contribute positively to learner satisfaction (Rudestam, K. E., & Schoenholtz-Read, J., 2010). Incorporating collaboration into online learning enhances achievement and reduces potential for learner isolation. Shifting the role of ‘teacher as lecturer’ to ‘teacher as facilitator’ is paramount to ensuring student engagement (Rudestam, K. E., & Schoenholtz-Read, J., 2010). Teacher facilitators encourage student interaction and collaboration and keep lecture materials to a minimum.

There are several recommendations on how to present materials online WITHOUT the use of lectures. They include:

  • Creating web pages that contain no more than one screen of text and graphics
  • Small-group projects where students contribute to the whole of a topic or problem
  • Research assignments asking students to seek out and present additional resources on a topic
  • Limited use of audio and video clips
  • Use of Web 2.0 technologies such as wikis and blogs to encourage collaborative assignment completion

The three perspectives outlined in this article provide much food for thought on the future of education. I feel all of the ideas presented offer up one guiding principle: Students NEED to be the central focus when designing effective learning strategies. Whether they are teaching themselves in groups or by playing video games or collaborating online, they truly hold the keys to success.



Crain, W. (2010). Theories of Development 6 th Ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Foreman, J., Gee, J. P., Herz, J. C., Hinrichs, R., Prensky, M., & Sawyer, B. (2004). Game-based learning: How to delight and instruct in the 21st century. Educause Review, 39, 50-67.

Gee, J. P. (2007). What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (Revised & Updated) (2nd ed.). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Mitra, S. (2013). Build a School in the Cloud. Ted Talk.

Mitra, S. (2007). Kids can teach themselves. Ted Talk.

Mitra, S. (2000, June). Minimally invasive education for mass computer literacy. In Conference on Research in Distance and Adult Learning in Asia.

Rudestam, K. E., & Schoenholtz-Read, J. (Eds.). (2010). Handbook of online learning. Sage.

Shaffer, D. W., Halverson, R., Squire, K. R., & Gee, J. P. (2005). Video Games and the Future of Learning. WCER Working Paper No. 2005-4. Wisconsin Center for Education Research (NJ1).