Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: Apple Classroom of Tomorrow: A Glimpse into the Past

Apple Classroom of Tomorrow (ACOT) began in 1985 with three classrooms in which every student had access to a desktop computer at school and at home. This 1:1 ratio in a classroom at this time when most schools had 125 students per computer was not only innovative but rare.  As the head of the Apple-sponsored research said: “we set out to investigate how routine use of technology by teachers and students would affect teaching and learning.”

While much has been written about the pluses and minuses of ACOT after it shut down a decade later (see herehere, and here), a glimpse inside one of those classrooms in its first year is like seeing a fossil preserved in amber.

Researcher Jane David described her visit in May 1986 to a fifth grade classroom in Blue Earth school (then a K-12 school housing all students in the rural Minnesota district). One of three initial classrooms chosen to participate in the experiment, David’s description of  her two day visit to the classroom raises questions that in 2017 are just as relevant about routine use of devices in the nation’s classroom. Here is, in part, what she had to say.*

The ACOT classroom is one of three fifth-grade classes in Blue Earth’s only school, a K-12 school with roughly 1000 students and 250 computers.** The number of computers reflects the fact that Blue Earth has been in the forefront of computer use in schools even prior to ACOT….

The ACOT fifth grade class consists of advanced students who averaged in the 99th percentile on previous standardized tests and began the year with keyboarding skills ranging from 30-80 words per minute. These students were introduced to keyboarding in the third grade and participated in the Project Beacon classroom in the fourth grade [part of large, three-year state grant called the Beacon project]. Moreover, ACOT is enhanced by school leadership and hence a climate that encourages innovative uses of computers. From the classroom to the library, cafeteria, nurse’s office andcentral office, computers are am integral part of the daily routine.

The ACOT [fifth grade] teacher began teaching in 1980 with no computer background. Seeing computers at the school, he purchased an Apple and taught himself Appleworks. With $100 from Apple, he took a course in Logo.

In the ACOT classroom, the computers are arranged in five rows going away from the teacher’s desk; four of the five rows are adjacent (with monitors back-to-back). All computers are on three-shelf work stations, with storage beneath and monitors on top. A printer is located at the end of the double rows and a large monitor above a chalkboard in the front of the room and a second large monitor on one side wall.

The computers in the ACOT classroom are used roughly 50% of the time. Word processing is the main use, with applications ranging from daily journal writing to dictation in which students enter answers to oral questions and then reorganize the information into a story or poem. Students have also created a class newspaper using Newsroom and have personal dictionaries (databases which sit on the desktop)consisting of the words they have difficulty spelling (which they quiz each other on). The most advanced students use a math CAI program with a spiral of math skills….

David also looked at a classroom in Eugene (OR) and described that as well in her report to Apple. After summarizing the information she gathered from the two visits to these classrooms, she offered research questions that she felt needed to be answered when a full study of the half-dozen or more ACOT classrooms were done. The research questions covered the influence of computers on how teachers taught, how students reacted to computers, and how organizational and physical arrangements affect the use of computers.

These questions, I believe, are just as relevant for researchers to investigate as for practitioners to consider now as they were then. For example,

#Do computers change the way teachers teach?

#How are computers used instructionally?

#Do computers simplify or complicate teaching?

David also was sensitive to the organizational constraints teachers faced in using 1:1 devices within the confines of the age-graded school within a district and state that had its own requirements. For example, she says:

A number of ingrained characteristics of the existing system seem to run counter to a vision of students using computers as vehicles for exploration, independent learning, and individual pursuits.

-teacher-centered classrooms;

-curricular objectives required by the district or school;

-individual and school evaluations based on traditional standardized tests not sensitive to new kinds of learning;

-the need to ‘stay with’ the other classes in the school at the same grade level (pressure from teachers and parents);

-the need to prepare students in the way that the next grade’s teachers expect (and ultimately graduation requirements.

All of the above questions–there are more in her report–and the imperatives of the Blue Earth age-graded elementary school nested in a district and state in 1986 are, in my opinion, not only a glimpse into the past but also a pointed reminder that efforts to integrate computers into daily lessons must reckon with these questions and imperatives in 2017.



*Jane David is a long-time friend, co-author, and colleague. She provided me with a copy of her 1986 report to Apple from which I excerpted these sections.

**Blue Earth is now a district with three schools: an elementary, middle, and high school.

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Larry Cuban

Larry Cuban is a former high school social studies teacher (14 years), district superintendent (7 years) and university professor (20 years). He has published op-ed pieces, scholarly articles and books on classroom teaching, history of school reform, how policy gets translated into practice, and teacher and student use of technologies in K-12...