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Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: Teaching with Technology in Public Schools

Since the early 1980s with the appearance of desktop computers in schools, questions about their presence in classrooms have been debated. Access to, use of, and results from new technologies have been central issues for a motley coalition of  high-tech vendors, technophile educators, and policymakers eager to satisfy parents and voters who want schools to be technologically up-to-date with other institutions. And this coalition has surely been successful in increasing teacher and student access to desktop computers, then laptops, and now tablets and smartphones.

First, a quick run through the initial goals and current ones in putting new technologies into the hands of teachers and students. Then a crisp look at access, use, and results of the cornucopia of devices in schools.

By the  mid-1980s, there were clear goals and a strong rationale for investing in buying loads of hardware and software and wiring buildings . Those goals were straightforward in both ads and explicit promises vendors and entrepreneurs made to school boards and administrators.

*students would learn more, faster, and better;

*classroom teaching would be more student-friendly and individualized;

*graduates would be prepared to enter the high-tech workplace.

By the early 2000s, evidence that any of these goals were achieved was either scant or missing. It became increasingly clear that promised software in math and English fell far short of raising students’ test scores or lifting academic achievement. The promise of algorithms and playlists of programs tailored to each student’s academic profile had faltered then and even now remains a work in progress (see herehere, and here).

And the goal that learning to use hardware and software applications would lead to jobs in technology became another casualty of over-promising with few returns to high school graduates. That jobs were hardly automatic for those students who knew spreadsheets and BASIC (Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code) became obvious to students with diplomas in hand. By the 2010s, teaching coding to children and getting the subject of computer science into the high school curriculum spread across U.S. schools.

Those initial goals and rationale for flooding schools with new devices, lacking substantial evidence to support them, have now shifted to another rationale for computers in schools: Devices are essential since all standardized tests and other assessment students take will be on computers. Learning to use machines and applications in schools–including coding–will give a leg-up for graduates to get entry-level jobs in most businesses and industries.

The shift in rationales over the past three decades is another instance of techno-optimism that has plagued K-12 schooling for at least a century (think about the introduction of film, radio, and television into schools).

Beyond the shift in goals over the years, have changes in schools occurred (but not necessarily improvements) since the introduction of new technologies into schools? The answer is yes: expanded access to hardware and software; varied uses in classrooms; and ambiguous results.

Expanded Access

In 1984, there were about 125 students for each computer in U.S. public schools. In 1996, that ratio had been reduced to 10 students per computer. According to an OECD report, in 2012, the U.S. had two students per computer.

Of course, these are national averages. variation by state, in districts and schools exist. Over the past three decades, the huge “digital divide” between schools enrolling poverty- and non-poverty students has closed considerably but continues to exist. Most families have home computers with Internet access, some do not. Nearly all children have access to computers in school when they lack devices at home. Moreover,  smartphone access among students (particularly as they get older) rises to 95 percent with some differences due to race, ethnicity, and social class. For a teacher who started teaching in 1984 and retired 35 years later, she would have seen the availability of computers steadily increase to nearly one-to-one.

Varied Uses in Classrooms

Teacher and student use of electronic devices in classrooms range from the doing online worksheets to team and individual research projects. While there are differences in classroom use noted between schools enrolling low- and high-poverty children and youth, for the most part, depending on available computers (e.g. each student has one, classroom carts, Bring Your Own Device), teachers have students do many things with the devices they have in reading, math, science, social studies, and foreign language lessons. Students watch videos. They do individual worksheets on screens. They submit assignments to teachers electronically. They report on books and projects using PowerPoint slides. And on and on.

In 2016 when I observed 41 teachers in Silicon Valley schools recommended to me as aces who have integrated hardware and software into their lessons, I saw and then described what they did. In these lessons, tablets, laptops, smart phones were in the background not the foreground of teacher and student talk and activities. Devices were used routinely as paper and pencils had been in prior decades.

Ambiguous Results

Research studies continue to report findings that leave policymakers awash in doubt over the results of spending so much money on hardware and software. To say that the results of oodles of studies about outcomes of computer use in schools are mixed is to repeat a well-worn cliche about educational research (see herehere, and here).

With these fuzzy results, doubts emerge for policymakers, practitioners, parents, and researchers about all of the monies spent for making new technologies available to teachers and students

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This condensed history of new technologies in public schools is my take on what has occurred. Others may interpret the past differently than what I presented here. Whatever interpretation readers may tilt toward, one policy question, however, remains from this swift recounting of the past decades.

Could funds that went for hardware, software, professional development of teachers and administrators, wiring of buildings and installation of Wifi, and replacement of obsolete hardware have been better spent on increasing capacity of teachers to teach effectively or reduction of class sizes, or other policy alternatives?

The question cannot be answered but doubts about technologies in schools, often hidden from public view, remain.

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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...