In the past three decades, the focus of China's educational reform has shifted from the traditional teacher-and-textbook-centered practice to a student-and-activity-centered approach. In this transformation, the role of teachers has also undergone change as a transmitter of knowledge to facilitators of authentic learning.
But with the dramatic development of information technology and the internet, especially the recent development of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the envisioning of the 4th Industrial Revolution, discussions on the changing role of teachers has gained new momentum.
The logical starting point for redefining this role lies in the envisioning of teaching and learning in an AI-rich future. With the development of Massive Online Open Courses, access to quality and free content online is empowering a new generation of learners.
Teachers and textbooks are no longer the main channel or controller of authoritative knowledge. AI-powered online learning with data-driven learning analytics further facilitates learners with customized content, a flexible pace and real-time feedback according to individual styles and personal needs.
Personalized learning on a massive scale is the vision for education, and AI technologies are expected to provide leverage to achieve the UN's Sustainable Development Goal of being able to"ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all."
Teachers working with digital natives and in an AI-rich environment need to adapt themselves to this new situation. For example, the 2017 European Framework for the Digital Competence of Educators has outlined the professional and pedagogical competencies in order to master digital teaching.
With all the resources and technologies available, teachers still have much to do to promote authentic learning.
Quality learning resources may be readily accessible on the internet but students still need motivation to take advantage of them; AI may customize individual learning through behavioral data collection and data mining but learning in its full sense is a fundamentally social and ethical process.
Yu Shengquan from Beijing Normal University believed that the common form of future teaching and learning is not the traditional classroom lecturing model, but a project-based learning model with the aid of online resources and offline teacher support.
Students learn through collaborative and genuine problem solving projects with their creativity, critical thinking, communication and collaboration skills cultivated in the process.
Thus, teachers need to be excellent designers of learning environments, activities and projects and facilitators of learning communities which can inspire and sustain students' passion for learning and problem solving for the benefit of mankind.
Currently, there's also much discussion on the dissection and reallocation of teaching tasks to AI and human teachers to form a human-machine hybrid model in order to promote teaching effectiveness and student learning outcomes.
While AI takes over the low skill, repetitive, knowledge transmission aspects of teaching, human teachers are to be liberated for more high skill, creative, and social-emotional aspects of teaching.
For example, the tedious routine of assignment grading and feedback, and repetitive lecturing will be replaced by AI. And teachers should better play the role of facilitator, mentor and counselor, online content curator, activity organizer, and project designer, among others, instead of mere transmitter of knowledge.
So, teachers should improve their social-emotional capacity, sensitivity to students' needs, data analytic skills and intelligent use of data and information, and creativity in teaching.
But we should not mistake this vision of hybrid teaching as a claim that AI will take up the cognitive aspect of learning and human teachers can focus on the affective aspect of learning.
This kind of separation and dualism would be a misinterpretation of the teaching and learning process. Only teachers passionate about and knowledgeable about what they teach can teach well.
Therefore, knowledge is always at the center of both teachers' and students' attention and all the learning activities are to lead students to the consummation of truly mastered knowledge which is always accompanied by proper feelings.
The AI age is only dawning and its full potential to transform how we live, work and learn is still to be manifested. There are some concerns that strong AI will dominate human society and many would become the useless class with jobs taken over by AI.
This only gives us more reason to augment human intelligence through education, and determine the technological future for the shared future of humanity.
Teachers are not to be frightened by new technologies and reluctant to use them, or to accept any new technology without professional judgment, instead they should be intelligent and critical users and co-developers of educational technologies for the benefit of all learners and society.
AI for education cannot be realized merely in the technological sense to reshape education and redefine teachers' role. In the age of AI, we need to consider education in its relationship with history, culture, language, and the all-encompassing social life itself.
Thus, the discussion of teachers' role change in the dawning age of AI is just a beginning. It requires a deep and holistic understanding of teaching and learning, which should be based on a better understanding of human intelligence and human life.
With this foundation laid, we can better discuss how AI should empower learning, what teachers' roles are in new circumstances and how teachers should be prepared for an AI-rich future.
And teachers themselves should definitely be the most active participants of public discussion and social practice in this ongoing process of great technological and social transformation.