Eagle County Teacher-Technology Controversy Calls for Blended Learning

Several days ago Education Week published a story about a large Colorado school district replacing French and German language instructors with software-driven programs:

Of all the recent budget cuts made by the Eagle County, Colo., school district —the loss of 89 staff jobs through attrition and layoffs, a 1.5 percent across-the-board pay cut, and the introduction of three furlough days—none sparked as much anger or faced the same scrutiny as the decision to cut three foreign-language teaching positions and replace them with online instruction.

Since I’m not too familiar with the details underlying the decision in Eagle County, I’m more interested in discussing policy ramifications and other ideas in general terms. Clearly, the decision was driven by the need to tighten the budget belt. The 6,300-student mountain district is not alone in this circumstance.

Whether the path chosen was the best among viable alternatives for Eagle County, I am not qualified to say. But the conversation stirred some thoughts that ought to be considered carefully not only by local and state policy makers but also by professional educators, parents and other taxpayers, too.

Colorado HOPE Online Learning Academy leader Heather O’Mara — whose school employs a unique kind of learning lab model to reach a population of challenging, low-income learners — is not alone in understanding and articulating that technology “can’t replace the relationship” a face-to-face teacher provides.

Even so, we can’t shy away from outside-the-box solutions that redefine teacher roles and responsibilities to maximize student learning and productivity. As I highlighted a couple weeks ago, groups like Opportunity Culture are putting forth some serious ideas on this front. And we can’t forget about effective blended learning models — such as Rocketship Education, KIPP Empower L.A. and Carpe Diem — that are leaders in seeking to provide the best of both worlds.

Let’s get back to Eagle County, though, where a secondary student who wants to take French or German now will have to take the course digitally with a remote instructor. How well will the model work? Let’s wait and see. But if you’re going to make the brick-and-mortar student take the course online, why not open up their choices to other digital providers? For one thing (a fairly big thing), our state’s K-12 funding system needs some serious changes to make that range of quality choices available.

Colorado really needs to start exploring bigger, bolder, and more student-centered change in education policy.