Replace me with a computer . . . not

In my earlier posts I suggested several ways that a computer could enhance teacher productivity and therefore, potentially, permit schools to get by with a few fewer (and potentially better paid) teachers. Computers can help disseminate lectures, streamline grading, drill students on basic facts and skills, and even promote more meaningful class discussion.

But they aren’t very good cops.

My mother, who was a talented upper elementary teacher, would grouse about “learning objectives” – the buzz phrase in her later teaching years. “You know what that means?” she would ask me, mostly rhetorically. “It means you will lead a horse to water and you will make it drink.”

One big advantage of traditional seat-filled classrooms is that a teacher can snag a student before or after class and ask about those missing assignments, or unexcused absences, or even that pained expression. Sure, I can – and do – email students and parents when a student falls behind in an online class, but it’s a lot easier to ignore an email than a teacher who’s blocking the exit.

Critics of online courses note their high dropout rate, and it’s a serious problem. I like that Utah’s online credit law includes a provision that course providers are not fully paid until a student completes the course. And of course many students will be motivated by the prospect of a failing grade on his or her transcript.

But since online courses are often touted as a route to “credit recovery” and ultimately graduation, I think we need to be realistic about their limitations. Students who have dropped out or are at risk of dropping out are also at grave risk of failing to complete an online course. Of course the same students may not show up in class to be snagged in person.

Still, the “cop” problem is the major reason why I don’t favor requiring students to take online courses, even as I strongly support enabling students to take online courses. I also suspect online education will ultimately prove most valuable to motivated students who are eager to expand their educational horizons, and to teachers who want to combine online resources such as Khan Academy lectures with their regular classroom teaching. These are worthwhile uses of online education. But until computers can become enforcers as well, they won’t replace teachers altogether.

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