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Teacher's new "PET"
David Squires is professor of educational computing at the School of Education of King's College, London. In a recent talk at the World DIDAC in Zurich, David put forward the provocative idea of the "peripatetic electronic teacher" or "PET". A PET is a higher education teacher who uses new technology to act as a freelance agent. A PET, according to David, "would exist as multiple telepresences (pedagogical, professional, managerial and commercial) in global networked environments which support advanced multimedia features".
or the advent of Peripatetic Electronic Teachers
David, you have postulated that new technology will enable teachers in higher education to act as freelance agents in the learning process.
The radical claim is that Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) will break exclusive links between teachers and a single institution. Just as future learners may be seen as clients contracting to receive educational provision from a range of providers, teachers may be seen as independent workers offering their services to learners on demand. These teachers will not be confined to the classroom; rather they will be electronic workers providing a virtual presence in public spaces, the workplace and the home. A new type of peripatetic electronic teacher (PET) will emerge. Aristotle, the first peripatetic teacher, used to walk around the Lyceum as he taught; PETs will surf around the Net as they teach.
Why do you suggest that teachers be freed from institutions?
This is the way life is going. Twenty years ago life was defined by physical access to institutions - banks, health centres/hospitals, places of employment, cinemas/places of entertainment. Banks are 'disappearing' (at least as we know them, with the advent of online banking, teller machines etc.). There are radical changes in health care - Web based-health information systems etc. Teleworking is now established, and entertainment is moving to the home (videos, satellite TV and so on). Why not education? - particularly higher education where the custodial function of the institution does not exist.
Higher education is becoming much more market driven with a heavier emphasis on client led delivery. Learners now want bespoke learning experiences that match their needs and interests. This corresponds with the notion of the Internet as a market driven social space. Within this space there will be a role for entrepreneurs - freelance teachers who use the features of new technologies to create and deliver learning experiences. This may be attractive to employers - there is an ever-increasing percentage of contract teachers employed in universities.
Amongst the functions of existing higher education institutions, there is a certain label of credibility given to those working for them. In a system in which many teachers are independent agents, how do propose to guarantee the quality of teaching?
You are quite right, at the moment most teachers are legitimised by their host institution; remove the teachers from the institution and you remove their formal status. Perhaps third part agencies could be established to licence PETs. These could include a range of organisations, including infrastructure providers such as Telecom companies. Perhaps licensed PETS could be allowed to add credit/comments to the digital learning portfolios that we will all carry around with us in the future? Another, more radical approach would be to adopt a market perspective - good PETs would thrive, poor PETs would not be employed and cease to operate.
Don't you think that by applying market logic to selling teaching in this way, the quality of the learning experience will not necessarily prevail but rather superficial appearances with marketing practices, advertising and show?
Yes I think this is a problem. However, my point in advocating a market-driven approach is not to automatically assume that it is the way to go. Rather I am saying that I think that the market-driven perspective will become increasingly important and that we must take note of it, rather than 'hide our heads in the sand'. By adopting an extreme view, opportunities and problems can be identified and then we can plan for a balanced approach.
It is essential that the Education Establishment engages in the Information Society issue now so that it can have an influential - hopefully the most influential - voice in the developments of technology-mediated learning and teaching. If not other agents - the mega-publishers, telecom infrastructure providers etc. - will take sole/primary charge of education. While I can see an essential role for these players, it is imperative that educational decisions are primarily informed by educators. This is how quality will be ensured.
You see future teachers in the form of telepresences. What exactly do you mean by a "telepresence"?
Effectively, the perception of a PET relies on the emerging notion of telepresence, ie. the presence which online users portray to other users during networked interactions. Four telepresence domains are proposed for PETs:
- Pedagogical telepresence where the PET appears as a teacher, playing roles such as instructor, coach, mentor, tutor, scaffolder, and expert.
- Professional telepresence where the PET appears as a member of the teaching profession, playing roles such as colleague, committee member, trainer and trainee.
- Commercial telepresence where the PET is a freelance worker available for hire, playing roles such as consultant, personal tutor, and publisher.
- Managerial telepresence where the PET appears as an administrator, scheduling teaching commitments, validating learners attendance and achievements, and managing course enrolment.
Apart from allowing the presence at a distance, what role would the technology play in enabling and enhancing that presence?
The possible tools for a pedagogical telepresence, for example, could be:
- a Learning Theatre in which exposition can take place in an interactive distributed multimedia environment
- a Discourse Forum based on access to a range of synchronous, asynchronous and hybrid a/synchronous systems providing opportunities for the PET to scaffold learners activities;
- a Virtual Field Centre in which the PET acts as guide and designer of thematically constructed explorations of the Web;
- a Learning Surgery in which a PET can assume the roles of tutor and mentor to respond to requests for specific help and advice from individuals and small groups;
- a Design Studio providing a PET with access to a range of design tools to develop curriculum materials;
- a Resource Centre where a PET is a guide to information seeking.
Although teaching is, in the long run, an activity of the individual, many teachers are far from having the entrepreneurial spirit that surviving as an "freelance agent" would require. How do you imagine the individual teacher would withstand the culture shock?
With difficulty, I guess. But I am not proposing a massive overnight change - more of a growing band of freelance PETs. I think there would be a critical mass of entrepreneurial teachers who would be attracted by the notion of PETs. After all many people become teachers (particularly in higher education) because they value an open working style. With current systemic changes in higher education (in the UK anyway) this possibility is being eroded by ever increasing paperwork and 'accountability'. There might be something of a backlash with able academics (who often see the present managerial culture in higher education as a limitation) valuing the opportunity to concentrate on teaching and scholarly work in a less constrained environment
Supposing that enough people see the positive side of having PETs and the idea gains momentum, what steps would you see in the transition?
I think there are a number of (parallel) possibilities:
(1) There is scope for some exciting research and development. For example, a university, possibly with help from industry and/or a research agency, could offer a small number of academics the opportunity to be PETs for two or three years. Their work would constitute something of an action research project. The PETs could be closely monitored: working style and conditions, examination results, student feedback, relationships with non-PET colleagues, relationships with other PETs etc. All this would fit in nicely with the current work of the JISC in the UK in developing a 'Digital National Educational Learning Resources'. This research would provide guidelines for development (in an ideal world!).
(2) Collections of academics (particularly those suffering from the effects of casualisation (*) of academics, lack of promotion opportunities for women, poor pay and conditions etc.) may form local consortia on a self-employed basis in the expectation that their quality of life may be better as a PET rather than a conventional academic. These local consortia may be franchises offered by large corporations (Telecoms companies etc.)
(3) I think it is a safe bet that at least one large corporation will see PET-like developments as a golden business opportunity and invest heavily. Just to repeat my previous point: I think it is essential that educators are involved in major developments sponsored by commercial concerns.
(*) By casualisation of teachers, I mean the practice of universities employing part-time / short-term staff (at relatively low rates of pay) rather than making the commitment to give staff tenure/long-term contracts with genuine career prospects.
An e-mail interview of David Squires by Alan McCluskey
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Created: April 20th, 2000 - Last up-dated: April 20th, 2000