Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: Silicon Valley Takes Over Classrooms: Yes and No (Part 1)

In a series of articles (see hereherehereherehere, and hereNew York Times reporter Natasha Singer reveals how Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, and Oracle have provided devices, services, and incentives to the nation’s school districts and in doing so, as one headline put it, “Took Over the Classroom.”

I found her articles richly detailed in their interviews and profiling of teachers and administrators. I learned a great deal about how these companies influenced teachers and school officials to use their products and pressed for district policies that required students to learn coding and take computer science courses and even build a public school on a business site. Using techniques refined by pharmaceutical companies in getting doctors to use their medications, these high-tech firms succeeded in placing digital products into schools and classrooms.

Singer gives plenty of examples of how school officials and teachers tip-toe around conflicts of interest. She recounts instances of entrepreneurial teachers having contracts with software companies for whom they are “ambassadors” treading a line where perceptions of conflict of interest cast long shadow over these teachers.

Journalist Singer makes a credible and persuasive case in exposing how Silicon Valley companies  get their hardware and software into the nation’s schools. My research over the past thirty years supports what she writes. For whatever reasons, the spread of digital devices in schools has nearly ended the perennial problem of students lacking access to new electronic hard- and software.

Recall that in the early 1980s when desktop computers became available–there were 125 students per computer in 1984–teacher and student access to devices were severely limited. School computer labs served an entire school giving students occasional time on machines. Just over three decades later, that ratio of students to devices is about 3:1  and in many instances across the country it is 1:1 now (see here). District officials with the help of donors and corporate giants have moved ever closer to ubiquitous access to digital tools for U.S. students. That is the “yes” part of the post’s title.

But  access is not classroom use. Singer’s well researched and written pieces blurs access and classroom use. She not only implies that companies like Google, Microsoft, and Facebook putting their digital products in classrooms have had a decided effect on how teachers teach their daily lessons but also explicitly says:

Through their philanthropy, they are influencing the subjects that schools teach, the classroom tools that teachers choose and fundamental  approaches to learning.

I disagree. And that is why I say “no” in the title of this post.

Before classroom use can be discussed, however, it is worthwhile to consider changes over time in the stated goals for students using digital devices.

Goals: Bait-and-Switch 

In the early 1980s, promoters of desktop computers including the above companies gave three reasons why students should have  classroom machines. Computer use, they claimed, will:

*improve students’ academic achievement;

*lead to more, faster, and better teaching;

*prepare students for jobs in an information-based society.

Over the ensuing decades, it has become clear that the first two goals for using computer  have not panned out. In Singer’s reports, she does say “there is little rigorous evidence so far to indicate that using computers in class improves educational results.”

No evidence that I have seen establishes that students who use computers once a week or daily have higher test scores (see herehere, and here). Nor have I seen any evidence (lots of inflated claims and self-reports by teachers but not rigorous before-and-after observations of teacher lessons) that teachers teach more, faster, and better as a result of  regular use in lessons (for example of claims, see here).

So that leaves the the goal of preparing students for jobs in an ever-changing labor market.

School boards and the general public take it for granted–it seems so obvious–that using computers often in school will simply lead to higher paying jobs since every business now depends upon technology to conduct their daily work. Yet even learning to code and taking computer science courses in high school hardly guarantees any job in the field–save for examples cited below–unless one majors in the subject in college.

I have yet to see studies that show students who took keyboarding classes, used laptops regularly, and learned to code or took computer science get hiring preference over other applicants once they graduated high school. Sure, there have been high-tech companies who have worked closely with school districts to certify students for entry-level jobs  such as Cisco and Microsoft but these programs are minuscule given the number of students graduating high school. So the evidence of students using regularly such devices in school leading to jobs is painfully lacking.

What I have noticed in the past few years is a shift in goals for computer use. Although students using computers in order to get jobs still remains as a goal, no longer are academic achievement and better teaching cited as reasons for buying devices and software.

Replacing the computer-sparks-achievement goal is that digital tools “engage” students as if iPads and Chromebooks will hook students into learning and then accelerate academic achievement. While student engagement may–that is the operative word–lead to achievement in many instances, it does not. Worries over student technology use in and out of school shortening students’ attention span and encouraging distractions weakens the “engagement” argument.

What has replaced the other goals is the old standby of testing. That is, since all standardized tests will be online shortly, every student has to have access to an Internet connected device (see here and here).

Two previous goals, then, for using digital devices and software in school have disappeared, one has remained and another has been added. The lack of evidence supporting this mix of old and new goals for buying digital tools is stark.

Part 2 takes up my “no” response to reading the New York Times series of articles on Silicon Valley companies taking over U.S. classrooms and altering how teachers teach.

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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...