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Say Goodbye to Your Favorite Teacher


John Thomas writes:

Don’t bother taking an apple to school to give your favorite teacher, unless you want to leave it in front of a machine. The schoolteacher is about to join the sorry ranks of the service station attendant, the elevator operator, and the telephone operators whose professions have been rendered useless by technology.

The next big social trend in this country will be to replace teachers with computers. It is being forced by the financial crisis afflicting states and municipalities, which are facing red ink as far as the eye can see. From a fiscal point of view, of the 50 US states, we really have 30 Portugals, 10 Italys, 10 Irelands, 5 Greeces, and 5 Spains.

The painful cost cutting, layoffs, and downsizing that has swept the corporate area for the past 30 years is now being jammed down the throat of the public sector, the last refuge of slothful management and indifferent employees. Some 60% of high school students are already exposed to online educational programs, which enable teachers to handle far larger class sizes than the 40 students now common in California.

It makes it far easier to impose pay for productivity incentives on teachers, like linking teacher pay to student test scores, as a performance review is only a few mouse clicks away. These programs also qualify for government funding programs, like “Race to the Top.” Costly textbooks can be dispensed with.

Blackboard (BBBB) is active in the area, selling its wares to beleaguered school districts as student/teacher productivity software. The company has recently been rumored as a takeover target of big technology and publishing companies eager to get into the space.

The alternative is to bump classroom sizes up to 80, or close down schools altogether. State deficits are so enormous that I can see public schools shutting down, privatizing their sports programs, and sending everyone home with a laptop. The cost savings would be enormous. No more pep rallies, prom nights, or hanging around your girlfriend’s locker. Of course, our kids may turn out a little different, but they appear to be at the bottom of our current list of priorities.

Creative destruction is also at work in higher education. Sixteen universities have created coursera.org, with free courses taught by popular professors. When the University of Illinois announced it would offer online courses for free, fourteen thousand prospective students came running. It would appear that the Economics 101 supply-demand curve goes exponential when price is zero, as it should.

But is online education wasted time in front of a screen. In the first study of its kind, Ithaka says in a random study of 600 statistics students that one classroom session a week augmented by online courseware yields the same final exam results as a three session-a-week conventional course.

At the university level, costs are up 42% in the past decade (even after adjusting for aid). At the K-12 level, local budget pressure is cutting school budgets to the bone.

My conclusion is that online education is reaching the mainstream, aided by enormous pressures to cut costs and deliver predictable outcomes. Keep an eye on quality and avoid fads.

Somewhere in the not too distant future employers will have to decide on a big change from traditional credentials in hiring decisions. A college diploma today is a ticket to a white-collar job (at least it would be again if the economy picked up). Will employers hire students who have passed 120 credits of free, online college courses? Or will they demand a sheepskin that costs $200,000 and accompanies students who have passed 120 credits of paid, mostly-online college courses?

Will the motivated free-college students who lack back-breaking debt be better entry employees? I suspect so.

The Good Old Days of Education

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