Thursday, December 16, 2004

The Technology Squeeze: Teachers

I initially had teachers on my list under “professions that should probably be partially automated, but won’t be”, but after reading Richard Worzel’s ‘The Next Twenty Years of Your Life’, I feel inclined to move them into the “can expect to be partially displaced by automation” category.

The reason he sold me on was demographic: The elderly have historically proven themselves opposed to increased education spending—after all, their kids have long since graduated—and Baby Boomers are about to swell the ranks of the senior citizenry. This will mean a massively increased burden on government entitlement programs alongside shrinking tax revenues. Pushing through new funding for education in this fiscal climate may be next to impossible.

And yet, the attitude that “something is wrong” with our educational system does not seem to be disappearing, so we can expect the usual vague, contradictory pleas for education reform to continue. Pie-in-the sky plans that promise to both improve schools and cut costs will be more attractive than ever.

Worzel and I agree that technology does indeed allow better, cheaper education. Studies suggest that interactive educational software can be more effective than a traditional classroom environment when the products are well-crafted by talented teams of instructors and programmers. What is true in corporate training programs would be even more true in public schools: The high cost of production is more than made up for in volume, as the program gets used in thousands of classrooms and reduces staffing requirements. Woila. Improved educations and reduced budgets.

However, when educational software is implemented on the cheap, the cure is much worse than the disease. A developer who merely adds little quizzes and a few flashy bits of multimedia to a digital version of a textbook will always have the cheapest offering. Getting what they pay for, disappointment, ill-feelings, and much finger pointing ultimately ensue among the buyers.

The moral for today is that no matter the quality of the software, teachers in districts that spend heavily on these programs can expect pressure or outright reassignment to remove them from the traditional classroom setting. They may find themselves shunted into less-attractive duties that are not-so-subtle attempts to encourage tenured professionals to take an early retirement.

The trend will be spotty. The American public school system is a patchwork of local districts that usually have a great deal of autonomy. As the price of hardware continues to drop, the largest and most volatile districts—generally those of metropolitan areas—will set the trend. Chronically understaffed and underfunded, but with an unrivalled ability to pool large sums of capital, they will be eager to invest in software that promises to bring top talent to every classroom in the city. Barring flaming wreckage in pilot programs, the quality of the digital alternatives will be irrelevant from the standpoint of teachers whose subjects will shortly invite replacement.

Less deliberative subjects at junior high or high school levels will be obvious targets: Algebra, Earth Science, geography, and driver education, for example. Math and science teachers are usually in short supply, adding another reason to make heavy use of software in these subjects. Because of said shortage, however, these teachers will probably find ready employment in the more advanced subjects—or in other districts.

Elementary school teachers will be the least vulnerable, followed by teachers of writing, calculus, art or anything else difficult for software to helpfully evaluate. I’m not sure about physical education teachers—not because they’re easily replaceable but because P.E. programs make easy targets when funds are scarce.

Now, few will think it a good idea to leave students at terminals without adult supervision. So where, they will rightly ask, would the cost savings come from?

Larger class sizes. Not necessarily in the form of bigger or more crowded rooms—although this will be possible in some buildings. No, the nature of the media will mean that teachers can remain in the loop without being tied to a given room in a given building. Loose online arrangements can replace the typical class structure entirely, allowing students to complete courses at their own pace and still have professional teachers on call for one-on-one help or small group sessions at all hours. Teachers would be making better use of their time, increasing productivity and reducing payrolls. Those who take their teaching online may enjoy their jobs more, too, freed from the responsibilities of classroom management. The adult body in a classroom (or generic computer lab) will not be a low-paid teacher, but lower-paid aide—a glorified warden at the minimum security day-care institution that is a public secondary school.

But if we’re moving courses and teachers online, why come to school at all?

Why, indeed? It’s not inconceivable that schools would cope with decreased per-pupil funds by shortening the school day or year and requiring some specific courses to be completed from home. But I don’t expect things to reach their logical conclusion—the wholesale closing of school buildings. There is immense social inertia locked up in public education; too many roles to fill: day care, social interaction, moral and civil indoctrination, and the not-to-be-underestimated parental instinct to see that our children learn the same (often pointless) things that we did in the same (often ineffective) ways.

Expecting these same institutions to educate almost seems unreasonable, doesn’t it? Smart use of technology would help to compartmentalize these functions, which is probably a good thing. Too many students today graduate with an ingrained understanding that learning is something done at the behest of others in a building set aside for the purpose. In the typical public school, education can easily become an emotionally repellant activity—one students will avoid for life and never undertake without the whip of external discipline cracking overhead.

This is partly why, at the beginning of this post, I suggested that replacing many teachers with software would probably be a good thing, whether or not it was likely. It’s not a perfect solution to the problems inherent to public education, and probably not even a great one. But it’s one that we could actually see happen.

In any event, teachers—in some grades, in some subjects, in some districts—face what looks like a technology squeeze. They would be wise to take stock of their situation and plan accordingly. The teaching profession is not going to die anytime soon, but portions of it appear destined to become less hospitable.


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