DAILY INSIGHT: Can technology replace teachers?

By Steven M. Baule, CIO Advisor

Since 1991, when I finished graduate school at Iowa, I have been hearing the debate in many circles about using technology to replace teachers. The overriding economic argument seems to be to employ a few “master teachers” to supervise a wider array of paraprofessionals and potentially a few junior teachers to multiply class loads for those master teachers. At one point, a consulting company working with my then current district was thinking of three times the current student-teacher ratio. There was a great deal of blowback from the teachers and some of the administration, to the point the new “tech building” was never built.

Recently,Education Week ran an article about the Eagle County Colorado school district that is replacing French and German instruction with computer-based online learning. The article keys in on the economic arguments for online learning for courses with lower enrollments and debates the quality issues of online v. face-to-face instruction. There is a bit of conversation about blended learning, but blended learning is most likely the future.

The key will be how well teachers integrate the technology into the classroom environment. Teachers who blend online learning into their traditional courses through Edmodo, Google Apps, etc., are able to already extend learning for their students beyond the traditional classroom. Some courses may well be better taught in an online environment with a resource teacher available to help students and ensure they are making progress in their work. Many alternative schools are moving toward online curriculum in order to allow students more flexibility than they had when such schools had to rely on traditional instructional paradigms. Alternative students or those in small schools couldn’t access Chinese, some AP courses, etc. Technology can allow those courses to be offered even when low enrollment or staff availability would otherwise prohibit such a course. Online courses for credit recovery generally provide a higher success rate than putting students back into the same instructional model in which they failed. My own experience as a high school principal showed 100% success rate for online remediation, as long as the student wasn’t absent more than 10% of the time.

Changing to an online-based alternative curriculum allowed our regional alternative program to reduce costs by nearly half by combining small sections under a single teacher. The previous curriculum had been entirely teacher built with no real administrative oversight, so this will also provide a stronger curriculum for students. Of course, alternative schools and remedial programs historically don’t get the same level of curricular scrutiny as traditional college prep high schools do. Adding more online courses into traditional schools will have a bigger impact in the long term. Educators need to really start working to individualize course content, curriculum support and resources in order to better differentiate for each students’ needs. Technology can help with that. Teachers who think that they can do it without technology, however, need to be polishing up their resumes. Technology cannot do it without human interaction and support. The key will be: Where does that human interaction and support come from? Will it come from the local classroom or via chat or video from a remote location?

Steven M. Baule is superintendent of North Boone CUSD 200in Poplar Grove, IL. He has written several books on aspects of library and technology management and planning.