Online learning is the wave of the future, but teachers unions still have a Paleocene mentality.

In his extraordinary book Special Interest, Terry Moe writes about the massive power of the teachers unions. After much gloom and doom, in the final chapter of the book, he manages to convey some hope about the future. Emerging technology-based education, he asserts, is the “long-term trend…, and the unions cannot stop it from happening.” Online teachers from different states and countries will be much harder for the unions to corral and control.

However, according to a post on hotair.com by Tina Korbe, the University of California chapter of the American Federation of Teachers hasn’t gotten the message yet. University of California schools, which are in dire financial straits, have begun using online education programs as a way to save money. As a result, some lecturers’ jobs could be done away with. However, their union is using its collective bargaining power to ensure that every job, no matter how unnecessary, will be saved.

“… the California lecturers, who make up nearly half of the system’s undergraduate teaching teachers, believe they have used … bargaining power to score a rare coup. The University of California last week tentatively agreed to a deal with UC-AFT that included a new provision barring the system and its campuses from creating online courses or programs that would result in ‘a change to a term or condition of employment’ of any lecturer without first dealing with the union.”

In other words, the union is determined to keep all its dues-paying members on the payroll whether they are needed or not, whether we can afford them or not. The fact that there are some excellent online classes and that their use would save the beleaguered taxpayers of California bushels of money is of no interest to UC-AFT.

Online learning is not just for college level students; it has entered into our K-12 schools. Backed by Bill Gates, Salman Khan, founder and guiding light of Khan Academy, has gained a foothold in several schools in Los Altos, a community in Silicon Valley. There, a new program using “blended learning” – a combination of computer tutorials and classroom teacher instruction – is off to an excellent start. There is much agreement in reform circles that this type of education is the wave of the future; fewer classroom teachers will be needed as much of the instruction will be done via a gifted online teacher.

What we are seeing here is an example of “creative destruction,” which is the term Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter used in 1942 to describe what happens when certain jobs and goods become obsolete and are replaced by new jobs requiring new skills. If we didn’t follow this logical progression, we would still be living in caves, clothed in loin cloths. Clayton Christensen modernized this idea with his “disruptive innovation” or “disruptive technology” concept.

From the Pope Center’s Jane Shaw

“… I have presented examples of some disruptive technologies highlighted by Christensen, such as the transistor radio, which destroyed companies like RCA and Zenith. Those companies could not absorb the disruptive technology into their business models; instead, they relied on what Christensen called “sustaining” innovations—improving existing products. As long as transistors were weak and primitive, the old companies could prosper by serving their existing customers. But over time the transistor got a lot better and ultimately snatched those customers away.”

So we see that some products become obsolete, but at the same time new opportunities arise; hence dynamic people will adapt and continue to find work and the intransigent types will fade away. This doesn’t mean that the industrial-style teachers unions will go away easily; they will spend their abundant resources to maintain the status quo and thus their power well into the foreseeable future.

But just as the horseshoe business became much less relevant with the advent of the automobile, K-16 education is slowly but surely starting to undergo a similar major transformation. The Luddite unions can stick their fingers in the dam for only so long before becoming latter-day dinosaurs. If you can’t adapt to the inevitable changes that history brings, you become a museum piece. Just ask any Brontosaurus.

About the author: Larry Sand is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.

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