Face to Face: Virtual Teachers Can't Replace the Real Thing

The New York Times recently reported that Florida has adopted a plan that places more than 7,000 students in Miami-Dade County public schools in virtual classrooms where there are no teachers.

In place of certified educators, "facilitators" are present to support students' progress. The move was motivated by financial constraints, and to circumvent the requirements of a 2002 Florida State law that limits class sizes. Virtual classes are not bound by the size restrictions.

This strategy for addressing school reform comes at a time when many of our nation's school districts are challenged by budget setbacks. Simultaneously, there is considerable media coverage about technological advances and their potential to improve educational outcomes. There is particular enthusiasm about iPads, iPods and similar "smart" mobile devices.

As an academic and media professional who studies these trends quite closely, I find, when they are thoughtfully used, Internet-accessible devices and computers can provide educators with exciting new ways to engage students. However, I am troubled by educational policies that result in removing face-to-face teacher-student interaction from the learning equation.

Mediated instruction in the form of distance learning and computed-guided training are not new concepts. The advent of sleek mobile devices, coupled with wider access to broadband service, has made the Utopian vision of virtual learning seem possible. The ability to reduce infrastructure and personnel costs are an added attraction.

While technology provides valuable new tools for instruction, it cannot replace effective teaching. Virtual learning is an effective resource for highly motivated students who are disciplined and prepared for the distinct demands of mediated instruction.

Regardless of method, it is generally agreed that academic achievement is linked to students' being motivated to learn. University of Rochester researchers Edward Deci and Richard Ryan have identified students' sense relatedness as a key factor in their motivation. Relatedness refers to our emotional ties. It involves our basic need to feel connected with, and acknowledged by, others.

Young peoples' attachments and dependencies on adult figures had long been considered a key factor in their growth and development. However, there is increasing agreement among psychological researchers that adolescents' personalities prosper, not from detachment or separation but rather, from the maintenance of relatedness. A University of Michigan longitudinal study of 1,301 middle school students and their teachers compared classrooms with contrasting levels of teacher support. Students' interest and attitudes towards learning were diminished in classrooms with perceived lower levels of teacher support. Subsequent studies have emphasized the interpersonal significance of schooling.

Learning environments and teaching styles are also a factor. Other research indicates that collaborative learning environments, where teachers and students collectively contribute to the content and flow of instruction, enhance learning, when compared with traditional hierarchal teaching methods. This two-way interaction facilitates higher levels of motivation among students and higher academic achievement.

My own research focuses on the intersection between media and education, as use of iPads, iPods and similar devices increases in classrooms. I've studied teachers, and their students, who are accomplishing remarkable pedagogical results with the aid of technology. In Eugene, Oregon, fourth and fifth graders produce and host their own television series, where they interview public figures. During the fall 2010 election cycle, they covered a political rally for John Kitzhaber, Oregon's newly re-elected governor, and nearly landed an interview with President Barack Obama. Palo Alto High School boasts the nation's largest scholastic journalism program with more than 500 students participating. Students rely heavily on mobile devices to manage their nine campus publications. And, at the University of Oregon's School of Journalism and Communication, students are designing iPad apps, in collaboration with book and magazine publishers. It seems inconceivable that these qualitatively-rich learning experiences could be replicated by virtual means. In each instance, face-to-face highly-textured interactions between teachers and students was an essential factor in producing exceptional outcomes. Collaborative learning environments were also key, where teachers demonstrated a willingness to co-create the classroom experience with their students.

We should exercise caution in experimenting with populations of students whose opportunities to excel are already compromised by budget cuts and a litany of previously failed attempts at education reform. Educating our youth should not be viewed as an obligation to be reckoned with, but rather an opportunity to fulfill upon our legacy as a nation that leads in innovation. These students deserve more.