When teachers are scarce, software fills a void

Commentary: While technology has become a pervasive part of the classroom, it can also help meet immediate learning needs as schools face a growing shortage of teachers.

Tom Arnett
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Tom Arnett Senior Education Research Fellow

Tom Arnett is senior education research fellow with the Clayton...

Student using online-learning tools. (Getty Images)

Teacher shortages — a growing epidemic in the U.S. — create a major barrier to quality education, particularly for those in low-income urban and rural areas. And while some states try to incentivize entry into the teaching profession, like the Next Generation Hoosier Educators Scholarship from the Indiana Commission for Higher Education, none have offered an immediate solution to ensure students affected by this issue today receive the education they desperately need.

While technology has become a pervasive part of the classroom, it can also help meet immediate learning needs without waiting and relying on a new cohort of teachers. A personalized learning company from India can show you how.

According to a 2015 Brookings Institution report, India has a shortage of roughly 689,000 primary teachers and a teacher attendance rate of just 85 percent. In the poorest neighborhoods where few adults have even a basic education, these problems are much worse.

The lessons of how Educational Initiatives, a personalized learning company in India, tackled this problem head on are instructive.

Since 2012, Educational Initiatives has operated five learning centers in densely populated communities in South Delhi. The company initially planned for students to rotate between 45-minute sessions with its adaptive learning software, Mindspark, and in small groups with a teacher.

But as it began searching for teachers to staff the centers, it quickly discovered that finding educated adults, especially in the low-income areas surrounding the centers, would be practically impossible. The lack of available teachers led the company to shift its plan: The centers would instead rely on the Mindspark software as the primary source of instruction.

Teachers would still play a critical role in the learning model – providing rich, human learning experiences that could never be replaced by technology ­– but company officials had to find an alternative solution.

When hiring teachers to staff its centers, Educational Initiatives focused less on finding educated adults and instead sought out individuals who excelled at encouraging and motivating students.

As Pranav Kothari, vice president of Mindspark Centres, explained:

"Based on the size of its population, India needs seven million teachers if it is going to educate all of its students. India does not have seven million people who can teach advanced math, but it does have seven million nice people who like to work with kids. … Children come back [to our centers] every day because they like their teacher, they feel loved, and they are recognized for their efforts. That’s something only humans can do."

Recent research shows that students who use the Mindspark software, with support from caring adults, can achieve dramatic growth. A randomized control study led by Karthik Muralidharan of the University of California San Diego and the global co-chair of education for the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), found that students who attended the centers for four-and-a-half months had learning gains that were two times higher in math and 2.5 times higher in Hindi than students who were randomly assigned to a control group that only received instruction through local schools.

Teacher shortages in the United States are nowhere near as severe as they are in India, but the fundamental problem remains the same: How do you meet students’ learning needs when it is hard to ensure that an effective teacher leads every classroom?

Education leaders in the United States often have a strong bias against using technology as the primary source of students’ content instruction. But when teachers are in short supply, school leaders would do well to consider how they might support students’ unmet learning needs by putting technology in the hands of adult educators who may lack content expertise in a particular subject area, but can provide students with the emotional support they need as they learn online.

We’ve already seen examples of that at a school district in Maine, which has turned to using language learning software by Rosetta Stone to help students learn Spanish and French when qualified teachers are nowhere to be found.

The high school principal who opted for this approach does hope to hire teachers for her unstaffed language courses soon, making it clear that the software cannot answer students’ specific questions or connect the content to students’ lives the way a live teacher could. But in the absence of qualified teachers, the software-based solution is far better than not offering foreign language instruction.

While software like Mindspark and Rosetta Stone cannot replicate many of the rich learning experiences that an effective teacher might provide, it’s time we embrace technology in more open-minded ways to ensure that students still receive much-needed learning opportunities while we tackle larger issues plaguing the teaching profession.

Tom Arnett is senior education research fellow with the Clayton Christensen Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank dedicated to improving the world through disruptive innovation.

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