Time to retire the phrase “guide on the side”

If you attend any blended learning conferences or read any digital learning materials you’ve probably come across a version of the phrase suggesting that the teacher’s role in blended learning changes from “sage on the stage to guide on the side.” This expression came up in an informative panel discussion that I joined in New York City last week, hosted by The DigitalJLearning Network. Panelists Liz Pape, Jennifer Levy, Allyson O’Rourke Barrett and I spent an hour answering questions from Network Director Gary Hartstein and from the audience of Jewish Day School educators experimenting with blended learning.

Gary acted as the ideal foil for this point by asking about the teacher’s role in blended learning and using the “guide on the side” phrase (although, to his credit, largely to make the point that the phrase is commonly used). He asked what we should do to help teachers better understand their role. My response—which hadn’t occurred to me until I heard him phrase the question—was that we should retire the phrase “guide on the side.”

Why? Because one of the enduring misconceptions about online and blended learning is that they are teacher-less (especially online learning), or at least that they diminish the role of the teacher. There is no doubt that some online courses do not have teachers, but all of the good online or blended courses and programs with which we are aware use teachers in a role that is central to learning. Still, the misconception persists.

Even when the important role of teachers is acknowledged, the perception remains that perhaps the teaching function is being devalued. In a focus group that we held years ago, for example, a teacher said that he thought that perhaps he was being asked to video his lectures and put them online so that the school could replace him (and all the other teachers).

Within this context it strikes me that “guide on the side” does mistakenly imply a reduction of the teacher’s role. With this phrase, blended learning advocates mean that the teacher works with students in a variety of different ways, and that the time lecturing to a full classroom is reduced or perhaps eliminated. The difference does not mean that the role is less important. But “on the side,” by the very nature of the phrase, suggests a reduction of the importance of the teacher. I believe advocates of online and blended learning should drop the phrase.