By MICHAEL FITZPATRICK
The virtual teacher has arrived — flickering away on a screen on a school bus, in a bunk bed or in the shade of a beach umbrella, and turning traditional education on its head.
Thanks to digital media like video-on-demand broadcasts, or VODcasts, lectures that students would normally receive in the classroom are migrating outside of brick and mortar schools.
TED, the global organization that specializes in both conferences and online inspirational talks, has taken the idea a step further with TED-Ed , a Web site with educational videos that can be customized. The site was announced in April. The idea is to use both educators and animators to produce videos for the site, which also has a YouTube channel.
“It’s a better fit for education in the 21st century,” Chris Anderson, the head of TED, said at a news conference in Tokyo in late May. “It’s the next logical step in TED’s evolution.”
“TED-Ed was founded as a way of empowering teachers, as well as giving a large platform for great teachers to produce their talks or lessons on video for the world,” he added.
This spring also saw the introduction of the new Flipped Learning Network, another online aid for educators. According to its Web site “flipped learning” refers to a technique in which students watch classes via video — the argument is that teachers do not need to be present in person when a group listens to a lecture passively — thereby saving physical classroom time for individual tutoring or small groups.
The idea of flipped learning has been around for several years; the fifth annual Flipped conference was just held in Chicago last week. According to its Web site, it began when two teachers decided to address the problem of students’ skipping classes at their rural Colorado school. They added audio and annotations to PowerPoint slide shows, and started presenting their classes online in 2007.
Michelle Rinehart, a mathematics and science teacher at Rankin High School in Rankin, Texas, started “flipped” teaching and created video lessons for her students a year ago. “It’s not about the videos — it’s about the powerful class time we regain for higher-order thinking activities,” she said. “Students appreciate the increased assistance and collaboration they receive with this model.”
She emphasizes the importance of making her own videos rather than taking others’ work off the Internet.
Teaching via video is not new. Open University in Britain has offered distance higher education since the early 1970s, mostly through television and video in the beginning, and now through the Internet.
Today, the Khan Academy , a nonprofit institution backed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Google, offers nearly 3,000 free instructional videos on subjects as varied as Mayan civilization and calculus.
In 2010, Mr. Gates told a conference in California that the best lectures in the world would be found online and for free in five years time.
Gráinne Conole, director of the Beyond Distance Research Alliance in Britain, said that young learners were so accustomed to the digital world that it was the only way to reach them.
“I think the Ted-Ed stuff is excellent, very engaging, and a lot of people seem to be aware of it,” she said. “More generally, I think there are increasing amounts of rich open educational resources, multimedia and online seminars now being made available.”
The use of digital resources may even help reverse the downward trend in U.S. education standards.
According to a 2011 report by the Computing Technology Industry Association, or CompTIA, 65 percent of U.S. teachers surveyed believed that students were more productive than they had been three years earlier because of increased reliance on technology in the classroom.
But before technology replaces real live teachers entirely, education experts urge caution in rolling out new resources.
“The discussion needs to focus on how people teach and learn, their needs and the choices they make,” said Alejandro Armellini, senior learning designer at the Beyond Distance Research Alliance at the University of Leicester. “If the technology becomes the driver, e.g. ‘let’s do X because this technology here is really cool’ — regardless of need or preference, we have problems.”