Alexandria Online

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Fewer Teachers; More Learning

Imagine a school where students worked alone or in teams with computing devices connected to automated web-based tutoring systems designed by master teachers. If a student got stuck on a problem, or didn't understand an essay question, she or he could open a chat window with a "cloud-sourced" education-worker in Bangalore, India, or one of several similar centers in India, China, or wherever there are clusters of highly-educated, low-wage workers and abundant fiber-optic bandwidth. A person would be present and circulate through the room or rooms to parent, encourage, discipline and instruct students as needed. All testing would take place online and all grading would be outsourced. The teacher-to-student ratio would be halved and the levels of reading, writing, math and problem-solving skills would increased by half.

I had this vision reading an academic article in the Journal of Research on Technology in Education entitled, "A Comparison of Traditional Homework to Computer-Supported Homework." The author points out that the "Maine Learning Technology Initiative was able to supply laptops to all of their seventh and eighth grade students for $300 per student per year, which is about one third of the cost of reducing class size." (434).

Maybe education can be "flattened." The best, most creative teachers will become content creators and designers of the system, or they will lead, parent and oversee the instruction of very large numbers of children. And their salaries will be comparable to the salaries of doctors. While the help-desk aspects of teaching will be outsourced to the cloud. Teachers who are living in high cost-of-living areas but lack the high-level skills required to design and maintain such a system would have to adapt or lose their jobs like many other victims of the new global economy.


  1. So I'm a little puzzled. A few posts back--@ -- you were insisting that education is one activity that can NOT be "flattened" in Friedman's sense, because there is @ its core "an allegiance between individuals that depends on physical togetherness." So this new vision constitutes a revision of your initial revulsion to this idea....?

    I'm intrigued by your new vision. It seems an interesting "turn of the screw" to the usual lament, which I hear so frequently among college teachers, about students who play on their laptops instead of listening to their professors.

    Some of us actually find it useful to the educational process to have our students on-line, multi-tasking (searching, anyone?) while we are talking (for one of the best articulations of this position, see Tim Burke, a Swarthmore history professor, @ The Laptop in the Classroom: --btw, Tim's Archive for the ‘Information Technology and Information Literacy’ Category might be something you'd like to check out:

    Anyhow, your vision goes WAY beyond Tim's reality: w/out a central teacher to which the students are attending (or not), you imagine a decentralized classroom where each child is exploring her own line of inquiry--I like it a lot!

  2. Isn't this the premise of online schools (k-12 or higher ed)? It clearly has a following and success rate, but also has known limitations.

    There is a core tension in the conversation focused on the role of a live teacher in the learning process. The argument for keeping teachers in front of students is that there is a contribution to learning and development that is lost when the interactive, human aspect is removed. I lean in that direction. Having taught chunks of some classes online exclusively, I could sense a tangible difference. There were some advantages, but also some things lost.

    I think a lot of what is gained from teachers could happen synchronously or asynchronously online, but there is an element of interactivity- which often ties into nonverbals, which cannot be sensed online in the same way- that is lost when you isolate students from teachers physically. It also loses the "other" ways teachers interact with students that matter to the process- after or before class, in hallways, etc. The school day is more than a series of lectures, right?

    Interesting fodder.