Can Blended Learning Solve the US Teacher Drought?

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Flickr user VinothChandar

Nearly every profession has wrestled with this question: will machines, often providing cheaper and more consistent labor, replace humans in the workforce?

In education, technology is being proposed as a possible solution to the widespread teacher shortages reported across the country. While some propose higher pay to encourage more of America’s brightest college graduates to enter the profession, others are looking for answers in blended learning, asking how districts can use online technologies to refashion classrooms and make the teachers we already have more effective.

One supporter of the latter idea is Mallory Dwinal, a fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute, a nonprofit think tank that conducts research on education innovation. In a report published earlier this year (PDF), she argues “disruptive technologies” can make the classroom more flexible, productive, and perhaps even more attractive to young professionals.

In California, which has over 21,000 teaching vacancies this year, she notes that charter organizations like Rocketship and KIPP have successfully adopted blended learning technologies that help fewer teachers serve more students.

Dwinal is not alone in her thinking.

“I do absolutely think blended learning is an answer to our teacher pipeline problem,” says Beth Rabbitt of The Learning Accelerator, a nonprofit that helps school districts implement blended learning. She is quick to point out, though, that online learning would not mean replacing jobs with computers. At least in the initial years of a district’s transition to blended learning, there often needs to be more staff in the schools to help with implementing new technologies.

As the traditional learning model currently stands, teachers face difficulties in reaching every child and can often feel hopeless in a large classroom. “We are dependent on the model of education right now that requires an excellent teacher in every classroom. With blended learning, there is more of a scaffold in place,” Rabbitt said.

With the acute teacher shortage, some schools are putting teachers with little or no experience into classrooms with the idea that they will receive proper training on the job. Rabbitt believes blended learning could create a system in which the most experienced teachers take the lead, while junior colleagues take on roles that resemble apprenticeships.

“Part of the challenge of having an unexperienced teacher in the classroom is that in traditional models that person is totally isolated from other more experienced people to learn from,” Rabbitt said. “An exciting thing about blended learning is that it can give us more flexibility about how to use teacher time and learning space. Imagine having a bigger, more dynamic classroom with a very experienced teacher and a new teacher working together.”

Stacey Wang, Director of Personalized Learning for Oakland Unified School District in California, agrees with this vision. The district, which had more than 70 vacant teaching positions as of August, has been moving towards a blended learning model for the last three years. She says the district sees blended learning as an opportunity to help solve the teacher shortage.

Blended learning advocates like her believe that if technology is replacing anything, it would be textbooks—not teachers. Wang hopes the district can cut back on costs by investing in software that would replace traditional instructional materials. The money saved could then go into enhancing teachers’ salaries. And tools like Remind, which allows teachers to communicate with parents and students, can also help teachers cut back on administrative work and allow them more time to do what they love: helping kids learn.

Thomas Arnett of The Clayton Christensen Institute agrees we will always need teachers in the classroom. He recently had a teacher ask him if he thought her job would be replaced by a computer, to which he resolutely replied “no.”

“If your job is just to drill students on multiplication tables, then yes, your job can be replaced,” he recalls explaining to her. “But as an expert teacher, you are so much more valuable than a machine.”

For example, a computer cannot, as of yet, teach deeper learning and critical thinking.

“Learning fundamentally is a lot of that human interaction. You wouldn’t replace your parents or your family with Facebook,” says Wang. Technology “just adds to the enrichment of your life.”

Andra is a California Reporter for The Hechinger Report.

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