No More Teachers, No More Books?
Can computers replace teachers and textbooks? According to school officials in Miami-Dade County, yes. Thousands of students in the Florida county's schools are enrolled in classes where instruction is delivered exclusively on computers. What do programs like this mean for students, teachers and the future of education?
Responding to a Funding Crisis
Florida recently implemented legislation designed to limit class sizes in schools. Under the law, high school classes in core subjects can have no more than 25 students. Classrooms for students in grades 4-8 cannot exceed 22 youth. And class sizes in preK-grade 3 classrooms are capped at 18 students.
While most school reform advocates endorse limiting class sizes, many education analysts have qualms with the manner in which some Florida schools are meeting the law's mandate. More than 7,000 students in Miami-Dade County Public Schools are receiving instruction in core academic areas via computers with no on-site teachers. The reason: Virtual learning environments are exempt from the class-size reduction law, which means that 40 or more students might be placed in a single classroom.
Online classes are offered through the Florida Virtual School, established in 2000 to deliver instruction online via 'e-learning labs.' Courses are conducted by off-site teachers, with whom students can communicate via email, instant messaging or phone. On-site facilitators handle technical issues in e-learning labs, but these professionals are not typically trained teachers.
Integrating Technology into Education the Right Way
Many education experts believe that virtual learning has an important part to play in the future of American schools, but they suggest the Florida program is designed to cut school costs rather than to produce effective classrooms. Analysts commonly believe that 'blended' or 'hybrid' learning - a model incorporating both computer learning and face-to-face teacher instruction - holds the most promise for helping students succeed.
Most education advocates also believe that online learning simply isn't an appropriate instructional delivery method for many students. Virtual classrooms are among the least effective forums for processing information for some individual learning preferences and styles. A troubling aspect of the program in Miami-Dade County schools is that the program is not optional; students are mandatorily assigned to e-learning labs - often without notice - prior to the school year.
Florida education authorities defend the virtual learning program, suggesting that students enrolled in online classes receive as much or more individual attention from teachers as peers in traditional classrooms. Education advocates, though, suggest that this is a disingenuous argument only intended to justify schools' chosen means by which to get around state law without busting budgets.
Despite concerns, school officials suggest that the e-learning labs will be expanded to other districts. In the meantime, the Gates Foundation is making plans to study the efficacy of educational offerings from the Florida Virtual School. Results from this research may help determine whether Florida schools are pioneering sound reforms or shortchanging preK-12 youth.