Teaching Profession

Should E-Learning Replace Substitute Teachers?

By Brenda Iasevoli — March 13, 2017 2 min read
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Instead of calling on substitutes when teachers are absent, New York City could save $9 million each year by sending students online to complete assignments independently, according to a new report filled with other belt-tightening strategies.

The yearly report, issued by the city’s Independent Budget Office last week, includes more than 90 ideas for cutting costs and raising revenue. The budget office analyzes the suggestions and estimates how much money the city could either save or raise if it follows the suggestions.

The e-learning plan would be put in place in high schools for teachers who are absent fewer than three days in a row, according to the report. In the 2015 school year, city high school teachers with three or fewer absences missed a total of 96,000 days. These short-term absences make up more than 97 percent of all classroom teacher absences.

Usually, short-term and unplanned absences are covered by substitutes at a daily rate of $155. High school budgets in 2015 included $23.7 million for short-term teacher absence coverage. The budget office estimates that some of the savings gained from a switch to e-learning would have to be spent on technology and software.

Under current requirements, the city’s Department of Education must assign a human substitute to lead an absent teacher’s class. Providing students with online lessons in place of substitutes would require collective bargaining with the teachers’ union, according to the report.

With e-learning, the report says, administrators won’t be left scrambling to find a substitute when last-minute absences arise. Students might also prefer working online at their own pace, while at the same time picking up time-management and computer skills. Ideally, the online assignments would be related to class content, or they might be done for extra credit or to make up a credit or course.

The shortage of substitute teachers nationwide has made the need to have a plan in place increasingly urgent. Some schools are already replacing substitutes with online learning. Lexington High School in Massachusetts has replaced in-person substitutes with “electronic learning facilitators,” full-time licensed educators who are trained in online instruction. Madeline Will wrote in Education Week about a concept that Harvard Ed. Magazine calls “Uber for substitute teachers. This concept involves sending community professionals, including chefs, musicians, and scientists to share their careers with students when teachers can’t be there.

The Budget Office report warns that a smooth transition to e-learning in New York City would take some planning. The report recommends that schools designate a space for students to complete online assignments, and that school staff be assigned to monitor the e-learning space.

Photo by NEC Corporation of America with Creative Commons license

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.