Can Online Learning Replace Substitute Teachers? A Few School Districts Are Testing the Concept

By Cait Etherington
January 06, 2019

Finding outstanding substitute teachers has long been a challenge. For years, substitutes teachers have been in short supply but as fewer people chose to pursue degrees in education, the situation is growing increasingly dire. Now, a few U.S. school districts are test-driving an innovative solution: replacing substitute teachers with online learning. But is the solution viable?

The Substitute Teacher Crisis

If there is a currently a growing shortage of substitute teachers, it is directly connected to a larger crisis: The declining number of people training to be teachers.

Citing U.S. Department of Education statistics, The Buffalo News recently reported that there was a 40% decline in enrollments in teacher preparation programs in New York State between 2010 and 2016. In addition, fewer people who started teacher education programs completed their degrees. California’s teacher preparation programs have experienced an even greater decline in recent years: Between 2010 and 2015, the state’s teacher preparation programs reported a 53% decline in enrollments.

The overall decline in certified teachers has fueled the substitute teacher crisis on two levels. First, there are fewer qualified teachers on the market looking for work. Without a surplus, the number of qualified substitutes has naturally also declined. Second, schools are increasingly not only struggling to find substitutes but also, in many instances, already using substitutes to fill long-term positions.

In the end, the people who suffer most are students. In many but not all U.S. school districts, short-term positions (under two weeks) can be filled by individuals with a high school diploma and no formal training in education. Longer substitute positions must be filled by qualified teachers. But as the substitute teacher crisis grows, some districts are being forced to cut corners. This means that there are now more unqualified teachers spending more time in K-12 classrooms nationwide.

Replacing Substitute Teachers With Online Learning

Like many U.S. school districts, the Nashua School District in New Hampshire continues to struggle to find and retain enough substitute teachers to fill its classrooms. Now, the school district is among those considering an innovative solution: doing away with substitute teachers altogether.

As recently reported on New Hampshire Public Radio, some Nashua teachers are proposing the establishment of digital learning centers in Nashua’s high schools. These would be places where students can gather to complete their schoolwork online when their regular classroom teachers are unavailable. New Hampshire Public Radio’s Rick Ganley talked to Ray Guarino, a member of the district’s Board of Education, about the teachers’ proposal.

Guarino emphasized that at this time, the Nashua board is only considering the program for secondary-level students. As he explained, the program would run as follows: “The students go into an auditorium. It’s a much bigger class. And they each have a Chromebook and they already have their assignments from their teachers, and they do independent learning electronically.” Guarino also noted that if Nashua adopts the program, they won’t be the first to do so. Similar programs already exist in several other states, including Massachusetts. In addition, one Texas district with an especially dire teacher shortage has even considered relying on online learning and virtual teachers as a long-term solution.

The Potential Challenges

While theoretically a great idea, districts that attempt to replace substitute teachers with online learning will face several obvious challenges. First, the onus will be on schools to provide access to laptops for students and some cash-strapped schools may find the cost prohibitive. In addition, space will likely be a challenge in many schools since the proposed model generally entails using an auditorium or another common space as an online learning center. Finally, the proposal will require considerable buy-in from teachers. While teachers are already technically required to leave lesson plans for substitute teachers, many do not or only leave general guidelines. For online learning centers to successfully replace substitute teachers, teachers will need to do more than leave a list of films to screen in their absence. If these challenges can be overcome, however, districts currently grappling with substitutes teacher shortages may find online learning does offer a sustainable and cost-effective alternative.

Photo by Kelli Tungay on Unsplash.