Cathy Davidson provocatively suggests that "If we (profs, teachers) can be replaced by a computer screen, we should be." The emphasis there is on the if. Needless to day, computer-driven models of instruction are becoming increasingly popular. My daughter received her math education online through Stanford's Education Program for Gifted Youth from 2nd grade through 4th grade, and was able to complete the K-8th grade curriculum. Certainly there was no way she was going to receive a challenging education where we were living. Now she attends UB's Gifted Math program, which is face-to-face, and, I believe, is an even better experience.
Davidson's argument is that educators need to add value to the classroom by providing a level of engagement beyond that of the computer. Ultimately, if a computer can adequately mimic the human component of the teacher in the classroom, then certainly it can also replace medical doctors, lawyers, engineers, and many other professions. And, I think it is fair to say that these professions have been significantly altered by computers. But wholly replaced? She contends that what the best teachers can do is build powerful relationships with students, "ensuring a personal connection that, in essence, models the way to translate that rigor and relevance into something intensely meaningful and motivating."
Needless to say, relationships require more than one person. This is not about blaming the students anymore than it is about blaming the teachers. However, our legacy notions of learning do lean heavily on activities that can be accomplished through a computer screen. That is, memorization and rote practice can be achieved without a teacher. As Davidson continues:
In a world where lots of learning can be taught online, we better think seriously and carefully about our particular role in the classroom or we will be put out of business and perhaps we should be. I've learned how to Moonwalk from an online tutorial. I'm learning how to draw from online courses. I'm learning Java Script on line. I have a list of other things I'd like to learn. Millions of others share my desire to learn when we can, in airports, on runways, on weekends, fit to my schedule.
Here's the thing, millions may share this desire to learn, but they aren't the people who are in the conventional classroom. That is, the students in the conventional compositional classroom don't typically have a desire to learn how to write. We could make higher education about the "desire to learn." All we would have to do is do away with degrees and record-keeping. Then the only reason to go to college would be to learn about a particular subject. Obviously that's not going to happen. If anything, we are going in the other direction, towards more credentialling. This great ability of online courses to respond to the desires of students are also the reason why online classes often don't work: because they require significantly more personal motivation and discipline on the part of students.
I completely agree with Davidson that educators need to rethink their pedagogies in the context of digital networks. However, shifting the relationships they have with students will also require students to change. If teachers act like screens it's because students act like screen viewers. There's a feedback loop that needs to be broken, but once it is,students will also need to behave differently. More will be expected of them, which is maybe a good thing. I know, as I am sure many educators do, how difficult this can be, because students can react as if you are breaking a contract with them, an unstated, cynical contract that says the professor can do his/her thing and the students can be passive.