Answer: When those teachers are replaced by an online-learning program.
While the decision of the 6,200-student Eagle County school system in Colorado to use Aventa Learning software to replace the services of three foreign-language teachers appears largely budget driven, it's sparked teachers and their supporters to come to the defense of the whole field of face-to-face teaching, according to the Vail Daily newspaper.
And although many online-learning proponents insist virtual education can only be effective if it is used to enhance teachers—not replace them—there persists a widespread and at times justifiable fear among teachers that it will eventually replace them.
Folks like Joel Rose, the brainchild behind the School of One program, will tell you their work involves rethinking the way the teaching force is organized, a subtle way of saying they believe with adaptive technology you can teach effectively with a smaller number of fully certified instructors (but also a higher number of teaching assistants).
We're also by no means seeing a first in Eagle County, with relatively recent research telling us that principals are often interested in exploring online-learning options despite misgivings about quality, largely due to budget pressures.
What is the answer, then, in the public relations war for online and blended learning?
Perhaps it is for the field—or a portion of it—to adopt a new moniker that enables casual observers to delineate between programs geared toward improving instruction and those geared toward providing a cheaper version of academic triage. There's very little similarity between the educational approach of a school that can afford to infuse adaptive learning software and 1-to-1 computing tools into a fully staffed classroom, and one so cash strapped that it uses an admittedly less dynamic online-learning option to replace teachers it can no longer afford to pay.
Yet, given the nomenclature, it's entirely possible for educators to read about the Eagle County school system and develop a bad impression of a completely dissimilar situation, like the blended schools run by Rocketship Education in the San Jose, Calif., region, for example.
The field might also benefit from more diverse leadership. Currently, the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, or iNACOL, has the unenviable task of acting as the main advocacy group for a ballooning number of virtual education groups that have increasingly disparate interests. Consider alone the difference between a private company like K12 Inc., which reaches hundreds of thousands of students through a variety of public and private school pathways and models, and the Virtual High School Global Consortium, which is essentially an online-learning version of a communal farm, where participating schools share the labor and the results.
And lastly—and this might sound radical—those companies and organizations that do specialize in methods of online learning that promise to reshape the teaching force should embrace that identity publicly, rather than dancing around it. It might not be popular, but it would erase a lot of speculation. And often, people are more afraid of the bad things they think might happen than those they know will occur.
Otherwise, the sins of a few programs will continue to affect the reputation of many; sins that, as online learning supporters know, can be uncovered with a click of a mouse.