If you don't have a lot of time to read right now, I'll cut to the chase.
The topic is being heavily discussed because, for many folks, "shortage" is spelled o-p-p-o-r-t-u-n-i-t-y. As in, golden opportunity to push TFA, alternative certification, and technology in (or instead of) the classroom. As the teacher "shortage" story has continued to bounce around the edusphere, some writers have stepped up to talk about how technology and blended learning could help solve the problem.
First off, we don't really have a teacher shortage. We have a shortage of employers offering the working conditions necessary to attract people to the teaching profession.
The worst pockets of unfilled teaching positions are not marked by leaders saying, "How can we attract and retain more high quality teachers?" Instead, they're asking, "Where can we find people who will settle for working under the conditions that we're offering?"
There are plenty of creative answers to that question, including fast track programs, lots of alternative certification programs, and even proposals that some classes be taught by people who have only a high school diploma. But of course the people who are most willing to fill teaching jobs under even the lowest of conditions are not actual people at all, but pieces of technology.
But there are several large obstacles to using technology to plug the teacher "shortage." Here we go.
Tech Is More Expensive Than You Think
Remember when we were all excited because instead of paper books, we were going to use electronic versions of texts. Instead of having to buy new copies of High School Handbook of Tedious Grammar every five-to-ten years at a cost of Good God They Want HOW Much For This Dollars, we would have awesome digital copies that would never wear out. It was going to save the district millions.
But then it turned out that the company was going to make us license the e-copies of the text every three years for You Can't Be Serious Dollars, and the savings from going to to e-books were going to be somewhere between Modest and Non-existent. And that was before it finally sank in that netbooks or chromebooks or tablets or whatever we were using would only survive a few years before either needing to be replaced or being abandoned by the company that provided them. So actual savings turned out to be negative dollars.
Oops! Too Late!
Staying ahead of the technology curve is hard enough for people who work in that sector. But in my school, we do our classroom budgets almost a full year before we actually use the stuff we're budgeting for. I can look around right now, do my market research, find out where my students are in terms of apps and programs, and design something really cool for next year, and it will be absolutely quaint by the time next September rolls around. High school administrators may think that getting laptops in their students hands will be a big step forward; meanwhile, the students are trying to remember how to use this odd kind of device that they haven't touched since they were five.
It's Only Technology
The other mistake that oldsters make over and over and over again is to miscalculate the Wow Factor of computer tech. As repeatedly noted, our students are digital natives, and that means that a tablet and a computer and a smart phone are all about as novel and Wow-worthy as books or trees. I still meet people who think that a worksheet will be compelling to students because it's now a drill program on a computer. Nope. Not even a little. Doing that drill does allow the teacher to collect and crunch data is new, speedy, useful ways. But for the student, it's just same-old, same-old drill.
The other mistake oldsters (digital immigrants?) make when considering digital natives is to assume the digital natives are deeply interested in and knowledgeable about computer tech. Well, fellow oldster-- let me ask you this: when we were young, how many of us got really interested in the processes of printing and bookbinding? That's right-- almost none. We just used the tools in front of us without thinking too much about what and how they worked. My students know very little about computer tech except how to use the apps they like to use. Everything else requires my instruction, explanation, incentivization and general, you know, teaching in order for them to use it successfully.
There's No Successful Path To Follow
Rocketship Academy bet its entire existence on blended learning, on a model that set students in front of computers and let them ride that technobooster to the stars. They've had almost a decade to show us all how it's done. Instead, last year they had to scale back their aspirations. They threw everything they had at the idea, and it has just bounced off the wall and landed with a thud.
In short, if there's a really good scaleable way to use technology to reduce teacher staffing, nobody has been able to demonstrate it yet. KIPP and Rocketship have both demonstrated that computer-aided test prep works well and can be done with fewer meat widgets (huge hat tip to @hackerhuntress for that replacement for "human resources"), but there are no signs that blended learning works as well in actual schools as it does in reformster thinky tanks and blended learning advocacy groups.
The biggest issue in replacing teachers with tech is relationships.
The foundation of teaching and learning is relationships. It is true that once a person has learned how to learn, how to teach herself whatever it is she wants to know, then a real connection to another real human becomes less critical. But it takes a long time to get to that place, and as our system swings more toward giving students an external locus of control, it will take longer. In other words, if you are being taught that the whole point of school is proving to other people that you know and can do things, it will take longer to get to the point where you are accountable to yourself for your education.
Our students need to have a relationship with a teacher, a connection to another real live human. It is an absolutely essential part of learning and, as yet, computer technology can't reproduce it. In this area, technology has absolutely nothing that can substitute for a teacher.
Don't Mistake Me For a Luddite
You can take the computer-based technology out of my classroom when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers. It provides me with innumerable valuable tools that help me extend and improve my instruction. But I don't feel as if I'm being excessively egotistical to say that the critical element, the central factor in my classroom complex of netbooks and tech and smartboardery and worksheets and reading and all the rest-- the central elements that ties all of that together is the teacher. Without me, the tech is pointless. With the tech, I am the equivalent of the classroom six million dollar man; but without me, it's just a bionic leg flopping around on the ground by itself. Tech can really help me, but it cannot replace me.