Teachers vs. technology

In an April 1 post on NEA Today enti­tled Lap­tops Are Not Teach­ers, author Tim Walker pits tech­nol­ogy against teach­ers. He talks about the state’s plan to “cut teach­ers’ jobs, salaries, and increase class size.” This post isn’t intended to weigh-in on the debate in Idaho. As a for­mer union pres­i­dent and teacher, I cer­tainly value the work of teach­ers. Unfor­tu­nately, Walker seems to be attempt­ing to make his point by devalu­ing tech­nol­ogy. The entire post high­lights many of the com­monly held beliefs that some edu­ca­tors have about tech­nol­ogy. I’ve hand picked some of those state­ments from the arti­cle that I’d like to address.

You sim­ply can­not replace a teacher with a laptop

Although this is a good sound bite, I think this is extremely rare in most schools.  It is cer­tainly pos­si­ble that online courses could even­tu­ally elim­i­nate some teach­ing posi­tions, but even in those cases there is still a teacher.  In actu­al­ity, a school may replace a face-to-face teacher with an online teacher.  For some schools this means increased effi­ciency and wider course offerings.

Replac­ing expe­ri­enced edu­ca­tors with online classes is undoubt­edly a risky move, espe­cially since the rush to do is not founded on reli­able research.

It is worth not­ing that a report for the Depart­ment of Edu­ca­tion came to the con­clu­sion that “On aver­age, stu­dents in online learn­ing con­di­tions per­formed bet­ter than those receiv­ing face-to-face instruc­tion.”  Sure, the research cited may not be the golden stan­dard for research, but it cer­tainly is bet­ter than the “gut feel­ing” that online learn­ing can’t match face-to-face instruction.

Specif­i­cally, online classes and dig­i­tal tools could under­cut the need to take stu­dents’ indi­vid­ual learn­ing styles into account. Any ben­e­fits new tech­nol­ogy may bring would then be over­shad­owed by the dam­age done to stu­dent learn­ing and the teach­ing profession.

Many online edu­ca­tors would argue that online learn­ing more eas­ily allows for indi­vid­u­al­ized instruc­tion.  I also think that it is worth not­ing that if you take online learn­ing out of the con­ver­sa­tion, many edu­ca­tors would also argue that our tra­di­tional schools are doing a poor job dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing instruction.

My point in this post isn’t to say tech­nol­ogy should replace teach­ers.  Unfor­tu­nately, the NEA arti­cle in response to Idaho schools Super­in­ten­dent Tom Luna’s reform effort made this debate about com­put­ers ver­sus teach­ers.  In that effort, the arti­cle misses the mark by embrac­ing some of the tech­nol­ogy myths men­tioned above that are ques­tion­able at best.

Nick Sauers


  1. Jeff Johnson says:

    Edu­ca­tion has many com­plex issues and over­sim­pli­fi­ca­tion is easy. For exam­ple, “give every high school stu­dent a lap­top by 2015″ would be, I think, a project that would require more highly-trained edu­ca­tors, thor­ough plan­ning and a long-term com­mit­ment to pro­fes­sional devel­op­ment — all of which would seem to bode well for Idaho’s teach­ers. Stu­dent lap­top pro­grams can be suc­cess­ful (with suc­cess defined by a vari­ety of stu­dent achieve­ment mea­sures) but hardly by hand­ing out com­put­ers with­out con­sid­er­ing other fac­tors that are crit­i­cal for the invest­ment to succeed.

    The Governor’s ideas may not be based on a vision for edu­ca­tion but I do think that talk­ing about online learn­ing can have pos­i­tive effects, par­tic­u­larly if the devel­op­ment of full and par­tially online courses opens up the school day and frees edu­ca­tors from rigid schedules.

    As a for­mer HS sci­ence teacher, I can attest to the frus­tra­tion many edu­ca­tors have with short (45–50 minute) class peri­ods, par­tic­u­larly when it comes to time-intensive activ­i­ties (sci­ence labs, technology-related projects, etc.). Many schools still oper­ate with these inflex­i­ble school sched­ules; per­haps expand­ing the stu­dents’ learn­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties beyond the typ­i­cal 8 am — 3pm bound­aries will enable schools to exper­i­ment and pro­vide expanded time peri­ods that would allow teach­ers to cre­ate activ­i­ties not so eas­ily attempted in tra­di­tional schedules.

    There’s increased evi­dence to sug­gest that hybrid courses — those that com­bine face-to-face and online learn­ing — have many pos­i­tives and are a good way to intro­duce stu­dents to online learn­ing. Prepar­ing teach­ers to teach online, along with prepar­ing them to use tech­nol­ogy more effec­tively, is a pro­fes­sional devel­op­ment chal­lenge. We’ve known for decades now that this is one of the most impor­tant fac­tors in curriculum-technology inte­gra­tion efforts. Schools can have lots of com­put­ers, inter­ac­tive white­boards and fast net­works but with­out vision­ary lead­ers that under­stand and com­mit to pro­fes­sional devel­op­ment, the promise of tech­nol­ogy will con­tinue to fall far short.

    The “teach­ers vs. com­put­ers” argu­ment is a spu­ri­ous one. On the other hand, books like “Teach­ing 2030
    What We Must Do for Our Stu­dents and Our Pub­lic Schools–Now and in the Future” are the oppo­site of the innu­mer­able paint-by-number pro­pos­als we get from politi­cians and offer fresh, thought­ful ideas from prac­tic­ing edu­ca­tors.

    It’s clear that edu­ca­tion as we know it is chang­ing fast — what choices will we make that will truly ben­e­fit students?

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