Confessions from a Skeptic on Computers in School

A quarter-century ago, I wrote Teachers and Machines: The Classroom Use of Technology since 1920. In that book I described and analyzed the history of machines deployed in classrooms (film, radio, instructional television, and the newly arrived desktop computer) to help teachers teach more, faster, and better. Then I did something foolish in the final chapter. I predicted future uses of the computer in classrooms from my vantage point in 1985.

Of course, I was not alone in making predictions. Seymour Papert dove into the same empty pool that I did a year before my venture into prophesying:

“There won’t be schools in the future …. I think the computer will blow up the school. That is, the school defined as something where there are classes, teachers running exams, people structured in groups by age, following a curriculum—all of that.” (Popular Computing, October 1984, p. 11)

Based upon my research in schools and experience as a teacher and superintendent, however, I was far more skeptical about the penetration and use of computers than Papert. Here was my crystal ball look in to the future of computers in schools:

“I predict that … in elementary schools where favorable conditions exist, teacher use will increase but seldom exceed more than 10 percent of weekly instructional time [roughly 3 hours a week]. Pulling out students for a 30-to-45-minute period in a computer lab will, I suspect, gain increasing popularity in these schools…. In secondary schools, the dominant pattern of use will be to schedule students into [labs] and one or more elective classes where a score of desk-top computers sit…. In no event would I expect general student use of computers in secondary schools to exceed 5 percent of the weekly time set aside for instruction. I predict no great breakthrough in teacher use patterns at either level of schooling” (p. 99).

As events unfolded in the next quarter-century, my prediction flat-lined. Access to computers–desktops, laptops, hand-held devices, and interactive white boards–soared. In writing Oversold and Underused; Computers in Classrooms in 2001, I did find higher percentages of students and teachers using computers in preschools, secondary schools, and universities that ruined my 1985 prediction.

Since then hundreds of thousands of students and tens of thousands of teachers across the country have received 1:1 laptops and white boards. In researching classrooms since 2001, again, I have found higher use by teachers and students in both elementary and secondary classrooms. More teachers—my guess is over 30 percent across different districts—use machines for instruction (I include the whole panoply of available high-tech devices) regularly, that is, at least once or more a week. Another 30-40 percent use computers occasionally, that is, at least once or more a month. The remainder of teachers—still a significant minority—hardly ever, if at all–use machines for instruction. This continues to puzzle researchers and policymakers since they know that nearly all teachers have high-tech devices at home.

So my 1985 prediction on teacher and student use of computers for classroom instruction was inaccurate and died a quiet death. Compassionate readers seldom remind me that I flopped in peeking into the future. The facts are clear that students and teachers use high-tech devices for instruction more than I had foreseen.

Moreover, a quarter-century ago I ended the book by urging a moratorium on buying more computers. Whoa, was that a loser of a recommendation! Worse yet, I even repeated the call for a moratorium on deploying computers in schools—for largely the same reasons—in 2001. Of course, these calls were ignored then as they would be now.

One final confession. I stated clearly in Teachers and Machines and subsequent writings that the uses of new technologies for classroom instruction would seldom satisfy those advocates of more instructional use in schools because teacher use would tend toward the traditional,  blending both teacher- and student-centered approaches but still called unimaginative—not all teachers, by any means—but enough to be a central tendency of classroom practice. Both of these predictions have turned out to be accurate, yes, accurate….so far.

Let’s say that if this were baseball, I would be batting .500, a number which sounds so much better than 50 percent wrong in crystal ball gazing.

I confess to my errors in foreseeing the future for no other reason than to remind readers, both champions and skeptics of computers in schools, that memorable predictions are rare. Except for the one I made last month about the state of computers in schools in 2020. Then again with 50 percent wrong in the past…..

5 Comments

Filed under technology use

5 responses to “Confessions from a Skeptic on Computers in School

  1. Larry:
    Don’t feel bad. Predicting that computers will result in transformative change in education is like predicting that we would have flying cars by now. They have changed the lives of students far more outside of school where teachers don’t control their use. To the extent that they let students leave school altogether and study at home, they can make a difference. Kids schooled at home who can proceed at their own pace using computerized learning software are much better off than those in school who are either bored or frustrated much of the time. One reason for little transformative change can be traced to staff development efforts that just show teachers how the computer works rather than showing them how to teach different. Any prediction that keeps public education in the industrial age is where I put my money. Changing organizations where the workers have masters degrees is more than the available change agents have up their sleeves.

    I just posted my summary of Daniel Pink’s new book on motivation (Drive). Check it out at DrDougGreen.Com
    Best
    Douglas W. Green, EdD

  2. Teaching is a relational, human profession. The Gutenberg Press didn’t take away the need for teachers (or even the use of lecture). The telegraph and “instant access to information,” didn’t take away the teacher as an authority, either.

    I still scoff when I hear someone tell me that my job will be outsourced or tech-sourced (partly because I know that, if nothing else, society needs warehouses to hold kids will grown-ups work – no amount of tech-sourcing can or will change that).

    I am not against computers in school. I use a 1:1 ratio in my class and it’s worked well (or so I believe) but I am a skeptic about the transformative power of any medium. The social, political, economic and cultural forces are all greater than any grand prediction from technocrats and cyberphiles.

    Incidentally, I admit that my thinking on technology in schools has been largely influenced by reading your work.

  3. It is interesting to read your reflection on Teachers and Machines, as my class at William & Mary is reading this book now. As a high school teacher, I see the situations you describe here. Teacher use as traditional and unimaginative…

    One of the problems I see in K-12 education is that imaginative uses are actively discouraged by district-based technology policies that restrict access and make it nearly impossible to create change. The heavy workload and other duties assigned to teachers make finding the energy to enact change while the establishment works against you a burden that most teachers are unwilling to bear.

    • I often hear the access issue cited as a barrier to a the creative use of technology. While we are only an example of 1, we have open access but there’s no flood of creative adoption. We DO have overwhelmed teachers.

  4. Pingback: Ordinadors a l’aula « Cop d’ull al món

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