Laptops Are Not Teachers

The third bill of Idaho schools Superintendent Tom Luna’s education reform plan is headed for final passage. The bill allocates new spending on laptop computers for high school students across the state. New technology in the classroom – what could be wrong with that?

In Idaho’s case, almost everything.

Luna’s plan isn’t really about integrating new learning tools into the curriculum. He’s using what he calls the “miracle of technology” to cut teachers’ jobs, salaries, and increase class size. Give every high school student a laptop by 2015 – they won’t notice any difference!

Testifying against Senate Bill 1184, Sherri Wood, president of the Idaho Education Association, said it “trades teachers for technology,” adding that laptops cannot replace “caring, competent” adults in the classroom.

“You simply cannot replace a teacher with a laptop,” Wood said.

Of the three Luna bills signed into law, SB 1184 had the roughest sailing in the legislature. The final legislation is a narrower version of what Luna had been pushing – four mandatory online classes for every Idaho student, tied to an increase in class sizes and paid for by eliminating 770 teaching jobs over the next two years.

While the provision for online classes was dropped, the law will still provide laptops for students at the expense of teachers.

“If teachers are laid off to buy laptops, which is what this bill does, who will be in the classroom?” wondered Republican lawmaker Shawn Keough.

Idaho educators, like their counterparts across the country, strongly advocate the integration of technology in the classroom to enhance student learning. What so many find  objectionable about the bill (including Idaho students, who staged countless public protests against the measure) is Luna’s ham-fisted attempt to use these tools to supplant teachers.

“We think he missed he missed many of the bigger, much broader discussions about technology,” IEA Executive Director Robin Nettinga told KIFI-TV in Idaho Falls.

Nettinga’s concern is being echoed across the country as online classes and other technologies begin to take hold in classrooms, particularly in Florida.

Tempted by short-term budget cutting and the lure of private sector dollars, districts might be turning to tools that, while generally beneficial, are being implemented too fast.

Replacing experienced educators with online classes is undoubtedly a risky move, especially since the rush to do is not founded on reliable research. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Education stated, “Without new random assignment or controlled quasi-experimental studies of the effects of online learning options for K-12 students, policy-makers will lack scientific evidence of the effectiveness of these emerging alternatives to face-to-face instruction.”

Specifically, online classes and digital tools could undercut the need to take students’ individual learning styles into account. Any benefits new technology may bring would then be overshadowed by the damage done to student learning and the teaching profession.

“As educators, we talk with business owners all the time,” Sherri Wood explained to Idaho lawmakers. “We don’t hear them telling us they need workers with more technological skills. They say they need young adults who can address complex problems, work as a team, and find creative solutions. These are the things best learned face to face, not in front of a screen. Our students have more than enough screen time.”

Attending a rally against the Luna plan in February, eighth-grader Samantha Krier agreed that students need interaction with their teachers.

“We don’t want computers replacing our teachers,” she said. “Computers can’t talk to us or make us laugh. If you need someone to talk to, the teachers are there and computers can’t do that.”


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