Education Funding

Can Technology Replace Teachers?

By Ian Quillen — August 07, 2012 12 min read
Nancy Bujnowski, a French and German teacher who was laid off from Eagle Valley High School before officials adopted an online learning program, calls friends to help her make a last-minute move to Colorado Springs, Colo. She was recently hired by that school system.
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Of all the recent budget cuts made by the Eagle County, Colo., school district—the loss of 89 staff jobs through attrition and layoffs, a 1.5 percent across-the-board pay cut, and the introduction of three furlough days—none sparked as much anger or faced the same scrutiny as the decision to cut three foreign-language teaching positions and replace them with online instruction.

At a spring school board meeting, supporters of the targeted programs in French and German, as well as the affected teachers, railed against the 6,200-student district for replacing face-to-face instructors with a digital option they argued would not be as rich or as meaningful.

The highly charged response reflects the fear many teachers are beginning to feel that technology could push them out of their jobs, especially in an era of persistently tight budgets. Emerging management models that rely on a smaller number of highly paid teachers supported by new technology and a larger roster of relatively low-paid paraprofessionals are also fueling such fears.

Those worries seem likely to grow, even though younger teachers and many veterans appreciate the teaching potential of the Internet and digital devices, and educational technology advocates insist the teacher is still essential to any technology-based effort to improve schools.

Brian Childress, the Eagle County schools’ human resources director, said his department recommended keeping face-to-face instructors for Spanish and Chinese because of higher enrollments in those courses, but also suggested cuts in the arts at the high school level and other cuts of staff in the elementary and middle grades.

“I’m surprised that we didn’t have an equal amount of attention for all the pieces that we had to do,” he said.

It’s unclear whether the concerns dramatized by the action in Eagle County, about 120 miles west of Denver, are justified on a broad scale.

Most administrators say decisions such as the district’s move to offer students online French and German courses are more reflective of extraordinary budget circumstances than an institutional desire to cut staffing.

Further, developers of even the most sophisticated learning technologies insist their goal is to help make teaching a more efficient and effective profession, not a less relevant one. Teachers’ unions and other teacher advocates also appear to vary greatly in their openness toward technology initiatives according to the policy and economic climates in different states and districts.

“It’s not only about how do you bring teachers into these new roles so it is not disruptive to their own livelihood and so forth, but how you bring about these roles to ensure it brings about a better education system,” said Michael Horn, the co-founder and executive director of the Mountain View, Calif.-based Innosight Institute’s education practice. He is an advocate of blended learning, which mixes online and face-to-face instruction.

“The thing is, you’ve got 5 percent of teacher training that is focused on 95 percent of your job,” Mr. Horn added, regarding how poorly he says the content of current teacher training matches the demands of teachers in a technologically integrated classroom. “It’s terrifying for an individual and terrifying for a system.”

New Roles?

Mr. Horn is among several educational technology leaders who say they see technology’s role as enabling improvements to make teachers more focused and efficient.

For example, Joel Rose, a self-proclaimed follower of Mr. Horn and a former educational-human-resources director for the 1.1 million-student New York City school system, founded the School of One math program in the city in 2009 on the idea that a combination of adaptive online content from multiple vendors could be the primary source of instruction for students. The role for teachers then becomes to intervene when students encounter difficulty with a computerized lesson, ideally with different teachers having different specializations in a manner similar to a team of doctors at a hospital.

By co-founding the New York City-based New Classrooms Innovation Partners in January, and breaking away from the city school district, Mr. Rose is trying to carry the model to a handful of new districts.

If implemented more broadly, the model likely wouldn’t affect the total number of positions, but it could mean a restructuring of compensation with a few highly paid expert teachers and a broader base of lesser-paid paraprofessionals.

One in a series of briefs released last week by Public Impact, an education policy and management-consulting firm in Chapel Hill, N.C., estimated that such an approach could result in a 41 percent increase in compensation for those more expert instructors.

The briefs resulted from the organization’s examination of 20 alternative models of schooling that have been researched through its Opportunity Culture Initiative, which is funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (The Gates Foundation also helps fund Education Week’s coverage of business and innovation.)

Intellectual Tasks

Richard J. Murnane, an economist by training and a professor of education and society at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, says such a restructuring driven by technology would mirror the effect technology has already wrought in other industries.

With an increase in automation, jobs in education would likely shift toward three functions he says are difficult to computerize: expert thinking and complex communication; solutions to new problems; and service jobs.

But because the demands of the school system itself are changing, Mr. Murnane suggests that the future education system may include a larger number of higher-paying positions that involve thinking, communicating, and problem-solving.

“Effectively, the country is asking our schools to provide all students with skills that, 40 years ago, only a small percentage mastered,” Mr. Murnane said, referring to the new push for college and career readiness. “So that’s just a dramatic new demand on the nation’s educators, and it’s important in my mind to frame it that way.”

But at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, researchers at the school’s Language Technologies Institute believe they are exploring the kinds of technologies that could aid even those more sophisticated tasks through natural-language processing, the science of how computers can interact with human language.

Although Carolyn P. Rosé, an associate professor at the institute, and her research team gained publicity for participating in a recent analysis of automated essay graders, that work flowed out of more in-depth explorations of using computer analysis to moderate student online discussions and analyze individual student contributions to collaborative projects.

Those technologies, such as a computerized persona that can contribute comments to a class message board, have been tested in middle and high school classrooms in the 25,000-student Pittsburgh school system, but Ms. Rosé said they are not yet “stable enough” to be offered to other school systems.

When those technologies are perfected, they will ideally help a teacher keep tabs on small-group work completed outside of class, while informing students of the type of information they should contribute to larger-group discussions during class, says Ms. Rosé.

She acknowledges that she could also foresee a scenario in which a cash-strapped district might use the technology to increase teacher courseloads, even in classes emphasizing collaborative learning.

“I would definitely say our goal is to work with teachers and support the instruction teachers are doing,” Ms. Rosé said. But, she added, “I don’t have any moral concern about what we’re doing, because even if it’s misused, … even if they don’t have the opportunity to have [smaller class sizes], then I would say at least they’re getting [the technology].”

Arguments in Idaho

It’s an issue Ms. Rosé has dealt with only in theory. Developers and proponents of virtual education, however, are now seeing arguments over the use of their technology to replace teachers sprout across the country.

Nowhere has the issue been more pronounced than in Idaho. State Superintendent Tom Luna successfully pushed a three-piece education package that includes a mandate for all high school students to pass two online courses to graduate, and for all Idaho high schools to provide 1-to-1 computing environments out of their district budgets within the next five years.

The Idaho Education Association, an affiliate of the 3 million-member National Education Association, opposed the legislation all the way through to its passage and has led a successful effort to put Mr. Luna’s “Students Come First” package to a referendum in this fall’s general election.

Without specific state aid provided for the technology changes, the IEA maintains that the requirements would result in districts being forced to cut teacher positions to find funding for the package. And although most of the online courses students would take would have a human instructor, the IEA claims those courses would generally be provided by for-profit companies that it says skimp on hiring and paying qualified instructors in order to maximize profits.

“We know that online providers, as they have done in the past, will continue to use fewer teachers to teach more students,” said IEA President Penni Cyr. “That equates to a loss of teaching positions if you are requiring online courses.”

Mr. Luna counters that most teachers are actually indifferent to or in favor of the digital-learning provisions in the legislation, but instead oppose the two other major provisions, which curb unions’ collective bargaining rights and impose performance-based-pay measures. He says the IEA has directed its scorn at the digital-learning requirements because that issue is an easier sell to the general public.

“It’s easier to get parents riled up over laptops and online classes than it is over labor issues,” Mr. Luna said. “So they chose to focus on replacing teachers with laptops.”

Nationally, union attitudes toward technology’s impact on teachers appear more nuanced than simple opposition. In June, in an apparent endorsement of digital-learning practices, the 1.5 million-member American Federation of Teachers announced the launch of a digital-content repository designed to give members access to learning objects aligned to the Common Core State Standards.

In Arizona, where more than 36,000 students enrolled in multi-district virtual schools during the 2010-11 school year, the state teachers’ union has indicated that its concern is not virtual schools themselves, but their implementation in a district as a cost-saving measure.

“Teachers get excited when you put these issues in terms of innovation and teaching students better,” said Andrew F. Morrill, the president of the Arizona Education Association, an NEA affiliate. “Where teachers get sensitive is when teachers get the impression that the legislature is not concerned about quality.”

‘Cutting Good People’

In Colorado’s Eagle County, where three foreign-language instructors lost their jobs, and students in French and German classes were given the option of continuing their studies online, a perceived lack of quality in the online alternative appeared to rankle teachers, parents, and community members.

Mr. Childress, the human resources director, concedes that offering only the online courses isn’t ideal.

“We are cutting good people, and we are cutting good programs, and we know that,” said Mr. Childress, who says the decision to lay off French and German instructors was made based on student demand, and came well before an online substitute was explored as a possibility. “It’s not what we want to do.”

One teacher who lost her job, Nancy Bujnowski, disputes that position, saying that the administration and district parents had not considered foreign languages—aside from Spanish—as important to students’ education because they had little exposure to practical uses for French and German in Eagle County.

In fact, Ms. Bujnowski says, that lack of regard for other foreign languages proves that administrators were thinking first about which courses to cut before they explored any sort of online replacement, because if they had been thinking of the two hand in hand, they might have considered cutting instructors in courses that more easily lent themselves to online instruction.

“One of my fellow teachers said to me, ‘I don’t see them cutting out the math program and doing it on a computer. Wouldn’t that be the most logical?’ ” said Ms. Bujnowski, who, after 21 years at the district’s Eagle Valley High School, will take a new job teaching French in Colorado Springs this fall. “It’s all finances. The first thing they always think of is the money part of it.”

Computer vs. Teachers

Ms. Bujnowski also said computerized programs like those promoted by Arlington, Va.-based Rosetta Stone, which are marketed to the public at-large in addition to educational institutions, also give the public a sense that computerized foreign-language instruction is suitable to replace a flesh-and-blood teacher.

However, Gregg Levin, the senior vice president of school solutions for Aventa Learning, a subsidiary of Herndon, Va.-based K12 Inc., said that the French and German instruction and curriculum his company will be providing the Eagle County district will include feedback from a live—albeit remotely located—teacher and much more oversight.

He said the district should understand the nature of the Aventa Learning courses since the company previously offered courses to students in the district’s Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy.

“They were looking to support a student population that is a natural fit for online learning,” Mr. Levin said of the company’s work with the academy, which serves elite-level youth skiers and snowboarders who are unusually mobile and under obligations for their time. “We’ve created a purposefully flexible model so we can expand and contract however school districts want to run their program.”


If districts are going to use online courses to help cut costs, they should try to give teachers in brick-and-mortar schools some ownership of those courses, said Todd Yohey, the superintendent of the 8,100-student Oak Hills district in suburban Cincinnati. His district switched to a mandatory online health course before the 2010-11 school year.

While Mr. Yohey acknowledges that the decision was partially budget-driven—and that the retirement of three health teachers made the decision to implement a cheaper online option easier—the Oak Hills district also bought proprietary rights to the course material, allowing other teachers in the health and physical education department to tweak the course as they saw fit.

“I think providing ownership of the online programs is critical to its success,” Mr. Yohey said. “You don’t want to create a competitive environment, where teachers feel like they’re competing for students with an online option.”

“Our hope is that our classroom teachers are also the online facilitators,” he said. “That’s our goal.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 08, 2012 edition of Education Week as When Technology Tools Trump Teachers


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