Commentary – Heiny: Replace Teachers with Computers


I’ve been wondering about a topic that Tom Hoffman addresses indirectly. I raise this issue in the spirit of comity. He lists surprise events or lack thereof in use of personal computers in education.

I’d add to his list the seeming disinterest of school boards in at least openly discussing, and then planning to replace more classroom teachers and instructional supervisors with computers in order to increase one-to-one individualized student learning with electronic media.

Instead, school boards seem focused on system building over individual student learning. I know, the use of the preposition “over” allows an opening for disagreements. It appears that boards accept the old ed pattern of adding something new, in this case computers, onto what already exists, rather than replacing existing instructional resources and procedures with more efficient technology. Adding technologies by using grant funding from external sources appears easier than rebudgeting existing funding.

On the surface, it appears that one teacher’s salary for one year would buy enough personal computers with digital ink for all students in that class for several years use. Going further yet with discussions of ed policy influencers in the 1960s and 1970s, school boards could replace weaker teachers with computers, thus allowing other cost savings, increased ROI and cost-benefits, etc. by, for example, redefining or eliminating “classrooms,” “classes,” etc.

I’ve watched for reports of such discssions. Have I missed them and related plans? Or does educational political culture consider such discussions beyond the pail (or maybe pale?)? Do other educators wonder about being replaced by a computer?

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Robert Heiny
Robert W. Heiny, Ph.D. is a retired professor, social scientist, and business partner with previous academic appointments as a public school classroom teacher, senior faculty, or senior research member, and administrator. Appointments included at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Peabody College and the Kennedy Center now of Vanderbilt University; and Brandeis University. Dr. Heiny also served as Director of the Montana Center on Disabilities. His peer reviewed contributions to education include publication in [I]The Encyclopedia of Education [/I](1971), and in professional journals and conferences. He served s an expert reviewer of proposals to USOE, and on a team that wrote plans for 12 state-wide and multistate special education and preschools programs. He currently writes user guides for educators and learners as well as columns for [I]TuxReports[/I].com.


  1. I don’t worry about being replaced by a computer. A computer can’t lead the class outside during a fire drill. A computer can’t maintain discipline in the room. Who’s going to do that and more if they replace the teacher with computers?

  2. Good point, Terry. Thanks for your comment. I agree that computers, like teachers, have limits on what they can do. I share your lack of worry about being replaced by a computer as far as some face to face interactions with students. I do know of things a computer does better than most teachers seem to do, when teachers allow computers to do that work. Computers may get better results by design, not by the fault of any teacher. For example, the family of MathPractice software that uses Direct Learning strategies does not require a teacher in order for students to perform some math problems correctly. The software developer anticipated an efficient presentation of the problem and answer. Students see these rules and use them promptly as though a teacher sat beside them one-to-one. Other empirical evidence indicates that on task student performance also seems to reduce student discipline problems for teachers. Such software frees up a teacher to engage in other face to face intereactions with students, such as during fire drills. In any case, keep up your good work, Terri, and let us know of your progress.

  3. The K12 (more specifically the K8) learning environment has a lot of legacy in it obviously ans as such is still primarily driven by the educator in addition to terri’s points of control and monitoring. The real challenge and opportunity for technology in learning is to engage today’s students (reducing in some way the behavioral affects you mention – a learning-engaged student is busy learning not passing notes or whatever) and to move the learning dynamic from teaching to the middle to individual pacing, earlier diagnosis, intervention and facilitation/mentoring by the educator leading to increased learning outcomes and a host of other benefits to the student and society at large. Tablets can help engage, move the educator away from the sage on the stage, deliver content that is engaging/media-rich and personalized to individual learning needs. Short version: teachers can be more effective and efficient in delvering learning, students can be more engaged and excited about learning and will have a greater propensity to pursue further or higher education. But then this is just what I see happening where schools and teachers have grasped and adopted tablets appropraitely in their classes.

  4. teachers can certainly be replaced with computors. It is done so in latin american counties such as ecuadore. all that is needed is some temporaries with BS degrees in Ed to keep the kids on task, and ten teachers per school to program the computors. trust me on this. It can be done and will be