P21LogoHorizontalRGBtmThe following is a guest blog post from CEM partner Partnership for 21st Century Learning’s P21Blogazine

Driving Questions: What roles must effective teachers play for new generations of learners in our digital world?

Working under the assumption, and it’s a large assumption that the role of the teacher must change when faced with a modern world filled with vastly new and different opportunities to learn, I have to ask what will those changed roles look like? What, specifically, will teachers need to know and be able to do to fully serve their students in this vastly reconfigured and highly technological world?

The Digital Challenge

The challenges that current technologies pose to the profession are great.  They are summed up well by authors Alan Collins and Richard Halverson who write:

“There are deep incompatibilities between the demands of the new technologies and the traditional school. Technology makes life more difficult for teachers. It requires new skills that teachers often have not learned in their professional development. Further, the lockstep model of most classrooms undercuts the power of the new technologies to individualize learning. Teachers can feel that the endless amount of information available on the web undermines their classroom expertise. Much of what students pick up from the web is of doubtful reliability, and there are few widely accepted norms for how to evaluate it. Cell phones and video games are seen mainly as devices that distract students from classroom instruction” (Collins 6).

Because of the tremendous technological advances we now find ourselves facing, I would argue that the whole idea of teaching now needs to be rethought, and that begins with the acknowledgment that the Web and its affordances for learning are not going away, that Internet access significantly amplifies an individual’s ability to learn in powerful new ways on her own, and that because of that, new narratives around learning and education will need to be written. That last may be the most difficult as despite the potentials to learn with these new technologies, most teachers find it difficult to let go of their nostalgia for their own experience as students in classrooms with teachers in schools. And many others feel uncertain about or unprepared for what the new roles of teachers may become.

Modern Teaching in a Technology-Driven World

Let me repeat: the value we assign to teachers at this moment of expanding access to content, information, knowledge, and expertise must change. Take a look at the current definition of “teacher” from Merriam-Webster online:

“Teacher (noun) –  “a person or thing that teaches something; especially a person whose job is to teach students about certain subjects.”

Interesting, isn’t it? Especially now, here in the second decade of the 21st Century, when the very nature of teaching seems to be listing on the precipice of a huge,  messy change. All of a sudden in our modern, interconnected world, teachers are everywhere, with all different types of expertise and passions, offering all sorts of opportunities for learners. And now, “things” as teachers are becoming more ubiquitous as well. It’s no longer hard to find software programs that teach us Algebra or French, or virtual tutors and “teaching machines” to help us master whatever content we want to master. And increasingly, we teach ourselves about anything we want to learn, not just “certain subjects.”

With universal Internet access open to two year olds, teachers are no longer the smartest people in the “room,” and while this may be a shift in thinking, it’s no doubt a good thing. I know this firsthand. Back in 2002, when my students and I found ourselves in a computer-filled, internet-connected classroom, all sorts of teachers taught my kids in ways that I could not.

  • My Modern American Literature class read The Secret Life of Bees as the author Sue Monk Kidd was interacting with my students on a classroom blog, answering their questions, giving deep background, and commenting on their interpretations of the story.
  • Scott Higham, a Pulitzer Prize winner from the Washington Post, was one of dozens of professional journalists mentoring my journalism students on their blogs.

 Seven New Roles for Effective Teachers.

My early experiences as a teacher in that highly connected environment fit with George Siemens’ redefinition of the role of the teacher, which he argued  “will be dramatically different from the current norm.” As we move toward a more networked structure for education, an effective teacher must shift away from control and move instead toward influence in terms of shaping, but not dictating the learning environment.

Siemens suggests that effective teachers will transition to a different set of roles in the classroom.

  • Teachers will be amplifiers in the sense that they will use their own connections to strengthen those of their students.
  • They will be curators of ideas and work that happens in the classroom space, selecting and sharing best practices or provocative questions to challenge learners.
  • They will need to be way finders who use social interactions to make sense of complex information or subjects.
  • Fourth, teachers will need to be aggregators who are adept at pulling in information from a variety of sources in order to “reveal the content and conversation structure of the course as it unfolds, rather than defining it in advance.”
  • They will also act as an expert filters who provide a relevant, ongoing stream of content to students.
  • All along, they will serve as a transparent model for the types of learning interactions now possible in online spaces.
  • And, finally, teachers will be required to have a persistent presence online in order to make all the rest of these roles effective (Siemens).

It almost goes without saying that few current teachers play those roles in their classrooms today.


  • Collins, Allan, and Richard Halverson. Rethinking Education in an Age of Technology. New York, NY: Teachers College, Columbia U, 2009. Print.
  • Siemens, George. “Teaching in Social and Technological Networks.” Connectivism. 16 Feb. 2010. Web. 7 Nov. 2014.

About the Author

Will Richardson has spent the last dozen years developing an international reputation as a leading thinker and writer about the intersection of social online learning networks and education. He has authored four books, most recently Why School? How Education Must Change When Learning and Information are Everywhere (September, 2012) published by TED books and based on his most recent TEDx talk in Melbourne, Australia.

This post is an excerpt from Will’s extensive article “Teaching Modern Learners: New Contexts, New Literacies, New Roles.” in Bellanca, J. (In press: February, 2016) Connecting the Dots: Teacher Effectiveness and Professional Development. Solution Tree Press with permission and all rights reserved. It is shared through our partnership with the Partnership for 21st Century Learning’s Blogazine. For additional posts on student agency and other 21st Century Deeper Learning Themes, go to the P21Blogazine (http;www.p21.org/blog). You can also sign up for P21’s free RSS feed for the three times weekly posts in your mail



About Marshal Conley

Marshal Conley is a senior technical assistance consultant and Educational Technology and Innovation lead at the American Institutes for Research. His current work focuses on innovative, technology-infused solutions to improve educator professional learning. He is the Project Director for Connected Educator Month and serves in a leadership capacity on several other projects focused on educational technology for K-12 and adult learners.
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