TLO: Part Three: Blurring the Lines in Virtual Classrooms

I wrapped up my last blog (posted 28 Aug) with the following questions: If the traditional role of the teacher was, for many centuries, to stand at the front of the classroom, what is the position of the teacher now—now that there is no classroom? Where does TLO (teaching and learning online) leave the teacher?

Learner-centered or student-centered education has a long and international history, going back to the works of John Dewey (American, 1859–1902), Jean Piaget (French, 1896–1980) and Lev Vygotsky (Russian, 1896–1934), as well as the work of Maria Montessori (Italian, 1870–1952). With such a long and distinguished history, you can imagine the consternation when I have stood up at conferences, including the annual TESOL Convention, and questioned the idea of learner-centered or student-centered teaching. My question was: If the learner is at the center of the teaching, where does that leave the teacher?

Teacher-centered education also has a long history—much longer than learner-centered education, and there are some contexts and some teaching methodologies in which teacher-centered education is still the norm. But that doesn’t work well either. So, I proposed the idea of a “Shared Center” in the classroom, in which the center is sometimes occupied by the teacher, and sometimes by the learner, depending on who is doing what, and on what needs to happen for the lesson to proceed.

We can now connect those two questions and sets of ideas: Where does TLO leave the teacher? And: Where does learner-centered education leave the teacher? As I wrote in my last blog post, TLO is blurring of some of the long-held distinctions between teachers and learners. For example, the term “course participant” was part of the change in language that reflected the shift from teacher-centered to learner-centered education. But when I am teaching the MA TESOL courses through Anaheim University, I’ve noticed that I pause before writing the phrase “course participant” to refer to the MA TESOL students.

Am I not one of the course participants as well? This may, in part, reflect the difference between undergraduate and graduate education, but I believe it also reflects an important difference between education online, and education in face-to-face, “real time” regular classrooms. Something about TLO, for me at least, blurs the distinction between teacher and student. This may sound a little odd (like when I questioned learner-centered education), but I believe this blurring has partly to do with space.

By space I don’t mean the “final frontier” Star Trek kind of space, but the physical space that teachers in classrooms have occupied for centuries: They stand at the front of the classroom. To the best of my knowledge, there is no culture or civilization in which teachers always stand at the back of the classroom (and if anyone does know of such a culture or civilization, please do let me know!). But in cyberspace, no one is standing at the front, because there is no “front.”

There are other reasons for this blurring, but whatever the reason(s), one of the positive benefits of TLO—and I would say it’s an especially important benefit—is the equalizing effect of the online environment. Most of the TESOL professionals I know want to support their students in meaningful and significant ways. We want our students to feel like “We’re all in this together.” But there are inherent inequalities in the even the most democratic of classrooms, because someone has to be in charge, and the schools, parents, and other stakeholders have decided that that person is the teacher.

But in TLO there is a much greater chance of creating these “flatter” and less hierarchical structures, in which we can get much closer to the ideal of us really being in this together. Beyond the pedagogical and other advantages of TLO, it is the democratizing potential of TLO that may turn out to be one of the most important changes brought about by TLO.

About Andy Curtis

Andy Curtis
From 2015 to 2016, Andy Curtis served as the 50th president of TESOL International Association. He received his master of arts in applied linguistics and language teaching, and his doctorate in international education, both from the University of York in England, He is based in Ontario, Canada, from where he works as a language education consultant for organizations worldwide.
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