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Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: Covid School Closures and Reliance on Remote Instruction: Boon, Bust, or a Peek into the Future?

The recent UNESCO report on the widespread use of computers during school closures across the globe takes a position seldom heard in the U.S. Countering the love affair that most Americans have had with devices entering public schools since the 1980s and their current dominant position in how most teachers teach and student learn, this report raises serious questions about devices’ uses in classrooms and at home during and after Covid-19 closed down schools and switched to remote instruction. Distance learning became the only choice for most teachers to teach and most students to learn.

In America, school uses of computer devices has, more often than not, been hailed as a boon to both to teachers and students. Not so during Covid-19, says this report entitled: An Ed-Tech Tragedy? Educational Technologies and School Closures in the Time of Covid-19. Of course, the question mark in the title asks readers to answer the question. But the fact is that this report paints a grim picture of teaching and learning during 2020-2022 in nations across the world.

Here’s the report’s Short Summary:

An Ed-Tech Tragedy? is a detailed analysis of what happened when education became largely reliant on connected technology during school closures stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, the largest global disruption to education in history.Many claim that this experience was chiefly one of forced progress and transformations that have, however haltingly, helped propel education into desirable digital futures. Others underline an experience of imperfect salvation – technology saving the day in an emergency and preserving learning continuity for significant numbers of students, even if not all students were helped. But the global evidence reveals a more sombre picture. It exposes the ways unprecedented educational dependence on technology often resulted in unchecked exclusion, staggering inequality, inadvertent harm and the elevation of learning models that place machines and profit before people.

Not a “sombre picture,” dear readers. It is a gloomy report. One word that best sums it up is “funereal.” The report documents the reliance upon technology in closed schools during the pandemic and the untoward consequences of teachers and students relying upon computers.

Part of me says that this is too harsh a judgment of what happened to public schooling across the globe during an unprecedented, earthquake-like crisis that few were prepared for. Another part of me says: hey, reliance upon technology during the pandemic sped up the trend that already had become apparent to observers of teaching and schooling in various nations: remote instruction will be the go-to alternative to face-to-face teaching whenever man-made or natural disasters close schools. Or when public monies run low to fund schooling.

Yet this “sombre” report offers an optimistic lining to these grey clouds. The reliance upon and expansion of technology during Covid-19, the report explains “was necessary, unavoidable, and desirable” (p. 424).

“Desirable” is not because there is high correlation between technology use and academic achievement (none exists). Nor is “desirable” used because greater student and teacher use of devices increase student participation in lessons (no correlation exists). Finally, technology use in classrooms has little to no linkage to the substantial gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students in the U.S. and other nations. Computer use during and after lessons bears a minuscule, if any, connection to students’ academic performance.

What the report underscores as “desirable” is resilience. That is what occurred when Covid-19 led to school closures and what happened at home and in schools. Resilience is a concept that has been a constant in the history of U.S. public schools. Here is what the report said about an often overlooked organizational feature of schooling:

Resilience … meant maintaining education while minimizing disease transmission…. In a few short months, technology catapulted from a messy, makeshift, stopgap response to the educational disruptions of an unparalleled global health crisis to an essential ingredient of ‘building back better’. Ed-tech was no longer an experiment but the foundation or backbone of forward-looking, resilient education systems (p. 426)

And it is the resilience of tax-supported public schools in the face of disasters that is too often ignored by pundits and even participants about this remarkably stable institution in a capitalist-driven democracy.


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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-...