I've enjoyed reading Matt Richtel's series of in-depth articles on the industrial complex pushing educational technology at school and in the home. Research -- including my own -- has shown that access to home computers is detrimental to student achievement in fundamental academic subjects. And there have been many studies of educational software programs, only a few of which show any significant benefit to learning-by-computer versus the old-fashioned way.
Computers may be pretty good at using information provided by a student to figure out how best to use that student's time. A good teacher can do the same thing. A great teacher can do even better than that.
Here's the problem, though. Great teachers are more expensive than computers. A desktop computer equipped with top-notch educational software might run $2,000, tops. The computer probably lasts for about four years, and each year it can probably serve an average of four students -- that's the computer-to-student ratio in the typical American school. So, to educate one student for one year, the technology option runs somewhere around $125.
By comparison, the cheapest kind of teacher -- an inexperienced rookie, who is not very likely to be "great" in the first year on the job -- runs at least $30,000. Even in a class of 30 students, that's a cost of $1,000 per student per year. The "great" teachers will typically have more experience, and might also have spiffy credentials like Master's degrees that pump up their pay without really helping them become better at their job. What's more, for every "great" teacher there will also be teachers a few rungs below the "great" level who are nevertheless paid just as much, because they have the same experience and degrees.
Given the budget crunch underway in most school districts, the movement away from expensive teachers and toward about-equally-effective-but-much-cheaper computer instruction is inevitable.
The real trouble with this trend is that computers are best at instructing kids to do things that computers already know how to do. A computer can figure out whether you got your math problem right, but it has a harder time figuring out whether you've properly parsed Descartes. And if all you know how to do is stuff computers can do instead, your economic fate doesn't look all that much better than the teacher your computer replaced.