By Guest Blogger George,

Many educators feel that the so-called “21st Century Learning” which advocates a more technology based and supposedly student-centered curriculum for the future is the magic bullet of educational reform. In this, they find themselves in perfect agreement with the companies which stand the most to gain from such an approach: those which sell ICT (information and communication technologies) and those which sell education (ie. the charter school companies and the school improvement industry). Justifications for the technology make-over of education range from the simple fact that we have so much of it, through to the notion that it provides ideal “differentiated instruction” which is customized for the learner, all the way to the assumption that computers will be the key to being competitive in the global “knowledge economy” of the future. One thing that is certain about the technology boom is that many are banking on using it as a way to undermine teachers and in particular their unions, which are seen as the primary obstacle to profits.

According to Moe and Chubb’s Liberating Learning, technology is destined to save America from its poor scores on the Program for International Student Assessment administered by the global business think-tank, the OECD. Moe, a researcher at the Hoover Institute, and Chubb, an executive with the for-profit Edison Learning charter school chain, believe that online education is that answer because it will make it possible for all students to learn anywhere and any time and because it will be the tool that allows education to finally get rid of “political blocking” caused by unions in defence of high wages. According to James K. Glassman’s review in the Wall Street Journal, ( the book blames “the thwarting of such simple reforms as paying teachers for performance. Many states prohibit even gathering data that link individual teachers to the test scores of their students.”

Moe and Chubb cite the success of the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School in allowing 8000 students to earn credits without union impediment. “And the classes aren’t just digital correspondence courses — there are textbooks and live educators, including ‘synchronous teachers,’ who work with students through instant messaging, voice and interactive whiteboards while the kids are engaged with their lessons online. Advisers are required to communicate with students’ families at least once a week by email and once every two weeks by phone.”

According to Moe and Chubb, the U.S. has (as of June 2009) over 190 cyber charter schools, up from just 57 in 2003. Glassman explains, “Many of the new cyber charters are managed by two for-profit companies, K12 and Connections Academy. Meanwhile, some students in traditional schools are taking individual courses online, and companies such as Educomp, based in India, are tutoring U.S. students after school hours.”

A similar review of Liberating Learning by Dave Saba of the Heartland Institute, explains in a review which has been tellingly titled “End of Union Control is Key to Reform” that “The combination of innovative digital curricula and easily accessible data on school, teacher, and student performance will be the ‘one-two punch’ that will overwhelm the status quo and force schools to change.”

And indeed, such technology may well turn out to be poison for teachers and their unions, for, according to Moe and Chubb, “the new computer-based approaches to learning simply require far fewer teachers per student — perhaps half as many, and possibly fewer than that.” Glassman’s review explains that the beauty of such online delivery systems is that “Technology also disperses teachers geographically (making them elusive for union organizers); lets in private-sector players who aren’t members of the guild; and enables outsourcing to foreign countries.”

Most people find the replacement of live workers in areas from automated phone answering through to automated grocery checkouts to be both an annoyance and an obstruction. Perhaps the time has come to ask: Is teaching not a fundamentally more complex, more important and more human interaction than a paying for a grocery item or answering a phone? Will computers really ever be able to compensate for the human touch? Many believe that the only real beneficiaries of the technology boom have been the tech giants themselves. Is it not at least possible people may not want to Liberate Learning if it means liberating it from live, in person, teacher student interaction? These would seem to have been the kinds of questions Isaac Asimov was thinking about when he concluded his 1951 Sci-Fi prediction that there would be a wistful nostalgia in the future for “The Fun They Had”:

“The screen was lit up, and it said: “Today’s arithmetic lesson is on the addition of proper fractions. Please insert yesterday’s homework in the proper slot.”

Margie did so with a sigh. She was thinking about the old schools they had when her grandfather’s grandfather was a little boy. All the kids from the whole neighborhood came, laughing and shouting in the schoolyard, sitting together in the schoolroom, going home together at the end of the day. They learned the same things, so they could help one another on the homework and talk about it.

And the teachers were people…

The mechanical teacher was flashing on the screen: “When we add the fractions 1/2 and 1/4…”

Margie was thinking about how the kids must have loved it in the old days. She was thinking about the fun they had.”