Teaching and Learning in a Net-Centric World

End of Jobs in Online Education?

I started out my teaching career as a “shop teacher” – teaching middle school students how to work and built with a number of technologies. Thus, it was a bit disturbing to listen to recent CBC radio broadcast listing jobs that have disappeared and to hear that ‘shop teachers’ along with elevator operators, typists and postal worker were disappearing.

Two articles from the latest issue of Online Journal of Distance Education Administration, caught my attention for the same reason. Will technologies soon reduce or even eliminate the relatively new job position of “online teacher”.

The first article,

Vu, P., Fredrickson, S., & Meyer, R. (2016). Help at 3:00 AM! Providing 24/7 Timely Support to Online Students via a Virtual Assistant. Online Journal of Distance Education Administration, 19(1).  http://www.westga.edu/~distance/ojdla/spring191/vu_fredrickson_meyer191.html.

directly addresses the issue of substituting the traditional teacher role of answering student queries with a machine. The article notes that most online students do their work in the evening and on weekends when many teachers are not interested and often not available to answer questions.  In an attempt to provide some sort of 7/24 service the instructors built a chat bot and seeded it with a database of questions culled from archives of questions asked by students taking the course in previous terms.  Chat boots have rarely been used in education, though colleagues at Athabasca worked developing a Freudbot. But chat bots are becoming ubiquitous on online shopping sites where they provide a type of 7/24 customer support.

During the design-based research project the Bot was involved in 475 sets of interactions with the 56 students enrolled in 2 sections of an early Childhood Education course. As expected more than half of the interactions took place on weekends and 88% were during evenings. Of course some of the questions were ‘off topic” and used by curious students to learn the capabilities of the bot. But many were on topic with 65% of queries focussed on information seeking – much related to assignments and exams.

Of perhaps most interest was the students’ reactions, which were queried by 5 point Likert perception questions.  Only about half (m=2.5) found the bot did effectively  answer their question, but nearly all (m=4.8) noted the extra service provided 7/24 by the bot and over half (m=3.3) preferred asking the bot rather than emailing the teacher.  The effectiveness of these type of bots naturally grows as the data base expands through use and the searching algorithms improve. Thus, one can, even now, see how machines will undertake ishot-266at least some traditional teaching roles which in a positive sense can give teacher more time for more important learning diagnosis and help and reduce time spent on administrative type queries.  It is also interesting to think about the “teaching presence” of of the female avatar (displayed at left) used in this study. In any case a very nice exploratory, design-based study.

The second employment related article compared adjunct teachers employed in for-profit universities as compared to those in the not-for-profit sector. This is an important problem as more than half of online courses in the USA are taught by part-time sessional instructors. This in itself has huge implications on job stability for teaching faculty, but the rise (in the US) of for-profit universities with a tradition of not offering tenured positions, doing no research and not training next generation of scholars is also threatening.

Starcher, K., & Mandernach, J. (2016). An Examination of Adjunct Faculty Characteristics: Comparison between Non-Profit and For-Profit Institutions. Online Journal of Distance Education Administration,, 19(1).  http://www.westga.edu/~distance/ojdla/spring191/starcher_mandernach191.html.

This study used an online survey to query 859 online adjunct teachers. The results were remarkable in the lack of statistical differences between the teachers at the two types of institution. No differences in age, satisfaction, education or a host of other variables. There were small differences in class size, but this was confounded by the higher percentage of graduate courses (with normally smaller numbers of students) in the public, not-for-profit universities.

The authors put a nice spin on the discussion by noting that the similarity means that professional development and support can be shared between the sectors – unlikely as that may be. But the study also adds empirical support to the notion that education can be and is being  “privatized” with resulting decreasing employment for traditional, tenured faculty.

So what do I conclude from these two very good articles? I think one of the largest challenges for our global population (ranking right up there with climate change) is the capacity to meaningfully employ people in a context in which machines are more and more able to perform both mundane as well as high performance and high communication tasks. My Interaction Equivalency Theory speaks to this by noting the ways in which activity that used to be performed by live teachers (student-teacher interaction) can and is substituted by bots and canned media to create high quality student-content interaction.

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1 Comment

  1. Milly Milly
    March 25, 2016    

    As much as I read about online education, I’ve never actually read a story about it doing something so unexpected as vanishing a job! I’ve read about different aspects, even turning singing, acting, whatnot into a course! However, this news is just unexpected. I mean we cannot compare information carriers to teaching jobs, in a way that now nobody misses floppy disks as much as they were opposing CDs back in the day. However, this is something to think about, because I’m making an infographic about benefits of online education, similar to this one http://bit.ly/1SBpDTr and I would definitely include this information, because no computer could replace human interaction, which should always be a part of online education.

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