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Curator educators: being a teacher in the information age

With all the information you could want freely available online, what role remains for educators?

Posted by Lucinda Reid | May 04, 2017 | Higher education

By Joel Mills, Acting Head of Technology Enhanced Learning at University of Hull

There is very little new knowledge being created. It may sound controversial - particularly among teachers - but in the digital age of searchable information, people can put together their own learning resources based on what’s already ‘out there’. The idea that we educators are containers of knowledge, dishing out precious facts, is no longer true.

But rather than feeling threatened, teachers need to accept that the focus of their role is merely shifting.

By most metrics, the current education system is successful at instilling knowledge in students, but it could be much better at giving them the tools to continue learning throughout life. And a crucial, developing part of education, is giving students the skills to find and be discerning consumers of information.

Flip the situation

This change, a necessary reaction to the digital age, can be seen in schools and universities already. Concepts like flipped and blended learning are gaining real currency among teachers of all age groups. The appeal is clear - by moving parts of knowledge acquisition out of the classroom, you can free up a large chunk of your lesson for other things. The role of the educator is helping them digest information, and apply it to practical problems, allowing them to support their understanding and exploration of concepts. Technology is at the heart of facilitating this.

Of course, as well as increasing the time teachers can devote to encouraging higher level thinking, another benefit is the promotion of intellectual curiosity. By encouraging students to go home and discover new topics for themselves and instilling the enthusiasm to do so, teachers can really lay the groundwork for lifelong learning.

The heat is on for universities 

The move to teachers becoming curators of information - helping students to ‘own’ their learning journey - can be seen as a significant threat to higher education. With the increase in tuition fees over recent years, there is a sense that the value of higher education has to be clearly demonstrated. And if students are just fine learning independently, why go to university at all?

One common response would likely be ‘for that degree certificate at the end’ and all the doors it can unlock in pursuing a career. But, how long will this continue to be the case? With services like LinkedIn allowing users to use endorsements to vouch for their competence when job hunting, it may not be long before there is less of a need for companies to look to a degree as the ‘be all and end all’.

The real worth is found not despite technology but because of it. The best tutors and teachers provoke thought, challenge conceptions and encourage their students to go above and beyond their usual sources and channels when investigating a new topic. New tech facilitates this kind of pedagogy, helping to remove the barriers to discovery by opening up new sources and modes of expression.

And of course, many vocational subjects still need to have one foot in the physical realm. Put simply, you don't get the experience of skinning a fish online - and as such not all learning can be distance learning. But many things can make the jump beyond face to face education in bricks and mortar institutions.

Educators as curators, or: tending the garden

So on the cusp of an uncertain future, what will the role of an educator look like as the impact of technology becomes more apparent across the profession? 

Aside from the vital role of inspiring students, value can be found in the curation of content. Guiding learners to use the technology available to discover information is one facet of this - the key to the door, as it were. For, while there is an unbelievably large amount of knowledge available online, methods of finding it aren’t always intuitive. Teachers will need to be confident that they are the best at uncovering this information.

Similarly, the openness of the internet, which is in many senses its greatest strength, also leads to a vast amount of irrelevant information - and even so called 'fake news' - being available too. Educators need to take the approach of carving a ‘walled garden’ within this wild digital landscape, controlling quality and creating a sense of context to accompany the raw facts.

The right technology can make this process more straightforward. VLEs like Canvas, which we use at University of Hull offer features like dynamic, timed release of content to help educators guide progression through a course while still retaining some of that sense of discovery for students. 

Teachers and students alike are better connected and the proliferation of devices means that learning can be more flexible and there is more room for collaboration on great resources and shared breakthroughs across cities and continents than ever before.

As with any paradigm shift, it can be daunting. But the genie is well and truly out of the bottle, and if educators can adapt and meet the challenges involved, the opportunities for this generation and the next have never been greater. 

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