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The Digital Future: Schools Without Teachers?

In response to what he sees as multiplying signs of public schools'—and teachers'—failures, David Gelernter, a professor of computer science at Yale University, envisions the rise of "local Internet schools." These, he explains in a Wall Street Journal piece, would be one-room neighborhood schools in which students from a range of grades would learn mainly from high-quality online courses, with occasional help from patched-in tutors and teaching assistants. Actual classroom teachers would be expendable:

In front sits any reliable adult whom the neighbors vouch for—often, no doubt, some student's father or mother, taking his turn. He leads the Pledge of Allegiance, announces regular short recesses to clear everyone's head, proclaims lunchtime. He hands out batteries and Band-Aids and sends sick children home or to a doctor. He reloads the printers and futzes with malfunctioning scanners, no doubt making any problem worse. But these machines are cheap, and each classroom can deploy several.

Will Richardson, while calling Gelernter's vision "troubling," says it points to the need for educators to define schools and teaching in ways that go beyond delivering traditional curriculum and raising standardized test scores. At least in perception, he warns, those things can be accomplished just as well, if not better, by technology.

As a recent Education Week article notes, some cash-strapped districts are already beginning to take steps in that direction.

Update, Aug. 14: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Momania blog today highlights a mixed-grade hybrid school in Georgia that sounds a lot like one of Gelertner's local internet schools. It's a kind of homeschooling co-op that meets in a Baptist church. This school does apparently have a certified teacher on site, though.

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