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Thursday, January 20, 2011

Florida Schools Replace Teachers With Computers


by Amar Toor

Walk into just about any classroom in the developed world, and you'll see the same basic things: desks, chairs, students -- and, of course, a teacher. You won't always find those things in the sunny state of Florida, however, where someone has had the bright idea to replace teachers with computers.

It's all part of a new program in the public schools of Miami-Dade County, and involves 54 schools and some 7,000 children. To participate in each virtual classroom (or e-learning lab, as they're affectionately titled), students log into a website, where they're presented with online lessons. Their digital course material typically consists of text and graphics, but students can always call, text or e-mail online instructors with questions. The only authority figure in each class is a "facilitator," who addresses any technical problems, and makes sure the kids don't look at porn.

These labs allow Miami-Dade schools to circumvent a 2002 state amendment, which stipulates that each high school classroom can have no more than 25 students in core subjects like math and English. The class-size limit, however, does not apply to virtual classrooms.

At Miami Beach High, for example, sophomore Alix Braun takes her AP macroeconomics class in a computer lab with 35 to 40 other students. And, while Braun personally chose to take the computer-based course, she said many of her classmates were automatically placed in it against their wishes. "None of them want to be there, and for virtual education you have to be really self-motivated," Braun told the New York Times. "This was not something they chose to do, and it's a really bad situation to be put in because it is not your choice."

Many parents have expressed concern over the method, and even some teachers have openly doubted the effectiveness of human-free teaching. Penn State education professor Michael G. Moore thinks that computers should play a role in the classroom, but only in conjunction with human teachers -- an approach known as "blended learning." "There is no doubt that blended learning can be as effective and often more effective than a classroom," Moore said, adding that a single facilitator can't make up for the presence of a real teacher.

But Miami-Dade officials insist that they had no choice but to institute the program, because "there's no way to beat the class-size mandate without it." Is it a good idea? Of course not. Does it smack of administrative laziness? A little. Would our teenage selves have been motivated enough to take a virtual class seriously? Absolutely not. But hey, it could be worse. They could be robots.

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