Technology or Unions – which is the problem?

I saw this story pop up on WSJ in my reader this morning and then I noticed it in Growing Up Digital as well. Liberating Learning (Moe, T.M. and Chubb, J.E.) claims that technology might be the way to get around many of the “blocks” that have been put up with regards to change in schools, but to me this smells like another magic bullet argument – from the flap:

“Technology has transformed all aspects of our everyday lives. From online banking to social networking, we communicate, connect, and consume in ways radically different from the past. Yet, the average classroom is not that different from the classroom of fifty years ago.”

What’s wrong with this picture? Terry M. Moe and John E. Chubb, two thought leaders on education reform, tell a dramatic story about the pitched battle to bring about real change and improvement to America’s schools—a battle that pits the innovative forces of technology against the entrenched interests that powerfully protect the educational status quo.

From the WSJ review:

The authors believe there exists a magic bullet that is capable of shattering the unions’ political power and, at last, bringing the sort of reform and excellence to U.S. K-12 education that might make U.S. students competitive with Finnish teenagers. The ammunition? Technology.

The authors also believe that, by allowing the door to be cracked open with online schools, the unions won’t be able to shut it. With the encouragement of students’ parents, millions of children will rush in, overcoming current union-imposed enrollment caps. Since labor costs keep rising, school districts, hard-pressed for funds, will naturally turn to technology as a way to get more for less. Mostly, though, Messrs. Moe and Chubb are determinists who believe that the political problem will be solved because it has to be. They make a good case, but hardly an air-tight one. “Technology,” they write, “is transforming nearly every aspect of American social life, and will keep transforming it in the decades ahead.”

While it is true that technology can improve efficiency, there are many more things that schools provide for in addition to a teacher in the front of the room. As physical spaces, schools provide safe locations for students. With teachers in the room, they can spot signs that students may be struggling or excelling through non verbal signals. Sadly, as physical spaces, schools also act as childcare for many families. If all schools move online, there is no way to spot some of the problems that the students may be facing.

Properly done, online schools certainly perform very well when there are committed, dedicated students and families (regardless of their SES, assuming that they have a decent broadband connection) on the learner side and committed teachers and other support on the instructional side. If a school looks to technology as a way of saving money, they will likely be quite surprised when they realize how much good development costs. Granted, they could use all manner of off the shelf materials and outsource student contact to grad students in India and China, but what good would that do?

Based on the blurbs, unions seem to be the target of the book as one of the reasons why US schools are falling behind. As I mentioned in the comments left on Growing Up Digital, Alberta has a strong teaching union and did rather well in the last PISA report (2006) (so did Ontario, another province with a strong teaching union), so unions may not be the problem that they make it out to be.

Having said all this, I really want to read this book and see what else it has to say. Technology extends the ability to communicate. It does not magically fix problems.