We don’t doubt that the digital future will transform education—along with practically everything else. But rather than seeing it as a painful (and politically volatile) trade-off between technology and teachers, we propose that digital education needs excellent teachers and that a first-rate teaching profession needs digital education. Schools will not require as many conventional teachers as they did yesterday, but those they need will be crucial—and will be able to tap top-notch technology and instructional support teams to achieve excellence at scale. These teachers will get paid more, too, potentially a lot more. And all this can be done within tight budgets so long as education systems judiciously blend technology and people.

Digital learning has the potential to transform the teaching profession in three major ways:

  • Extending the reach of excellent teachers to more students.
  • Attracting and retaining more excellent teachers.
  • Boosting effectiveness and job options for average teachers.

Extending the reach of the best. In the digital future, teacher effectiveness will matter even more than today. As digital learning spreads, students worldwide will gain access to core knowledge and skills instruction. What will increasingly differentiate outcomes for schools, states, and nations is how well responsible adults carry out the more complex instructional tasks: motivating students to go the extra mile, teaching them time management, addressing social and emotional issues that affect their learning, and diagnosing problems and making the right changes when learning stalls.

The top 20 or 25 percent of teachers already meet these challenges. But in traditional classrooms, they only reach 20 to 25 percent of students. That’s where digital learning can help.

Digital technology, along with changes in teacher roles and schedules, should make it possible for top teachers to assume responsibility for all students, not just a fraction of them.

America’s education leaders will need courage to make bold changes in a profession that has remained static as other enterprises have advanced.

 
   
 

For example, by replacing a quarter to a half of initial instruction and practice in some subjects, digital instruction can free excellent teachers’ time, enabling them to take responsibility for more students—while keeping similar class sizes and gaining planning time. These “time-technology swaps” are already used in top-performing schools that combine digital learning with excellent teachers to boost results.

Digital tools can also connect excellent teachers working live with students across the hall, state, or nation—using web cameras and email. Shy instructional masters can help design smart software to personalize learning. Star-performing content masters can go viral on digital video, and someday holograms, to millions of students anywhere, who, with excellent teachers, can convert that access into stellar learning.

Attracting and retaining the best. Digital learning will also transform career opportunities for excellent teachers. As they reach more students, they should earn more out of the per-pupil funds generated by the expanded number of students. Greater opportunities for advancement and  pay will, in turn, make the profession a more attractive long-term career for top performers, wooing unfulfilled engineers and lawyers into a better life.

Boosting effectiveness and job options for average teachers. Digital tools will also help average teachers by freeing their time, providing frequent data about their students, serving up tailored professional development, and letting them play focused roles tapping their strengths. They’ll be able to join teams that support fully accountable excellent teachers, with the chance to develop and become excellent instructors themselves.

Of course, not all of today’s teachers will benefit from these transformations. As we require fewer lead teachers per pupil, schools will be able to shed their least effective teachers. Some of today’s full teaching jobs will be replaced by new roles, such as digital lab monitors, tutors, and positions performing non-instructional duties. Such positions will likely have shorter hours but lower pay. The net effect will be a smaller but much stronger and better paid teacher workforce supported by an array of support staff and digital tools, just as we see in most other professions.

Employing technology to transform the teaching profession in ways that benefit students holds enormous promise. That promise will go unrealized, however, without significant changes in policies and management systems, in the allocation of funds, in technology infrastructure, and, perhaps most importantly, in the demand for better outcomes.

America’s education leaders will need courage to make bold changes in a profession that has remained static as other enterprises have advanced. Without that, our children—and our teachers—will forfeit the enormous opportunities made possible by digital technology while other nations seize them and soar beyond us.

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Click to listen to commentary on teachers and financing in the digital-education future from the Education Gadfly Show Podcast.