A Puzzling Fact about High-Tech Use in Classrooms

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After decades of school and classroom use of new technologies, some facts have emerged that puzzle me.

Here’s one.

Since the early 1980s, the federal government, states, and districts—not to mention philanthropists—have invested billions of dollars in wiring schools, buying and deploying machines, and preparing teachers and students to use high tech devices. Nearly all teachers now have access to one or more computers at school. As for students, the number of students per computer across the U.S. has gone from 125 per computer in 1983 to 4 per computer in 2006. Teacher and student access to computers has increased even more in the past decade with thousands of schools issuing computers to each and every student and teacher.

With increased access to new technologies, there is little reliable and valid evidence showing that these technology investments have yielded gains in student achievement.

Why?

One answer is simply that access to machines does not necessarily lead to teachers regularly using high-tech devices in daily lessons. Consider that after nearly 30 years of access to computers in the U.S., based on national surveys and research studies (here and here) of schools, about 40 percent of teachers are regular users, that is, using computers for instruction one or more times a week. These teachers use interactive white boards, laptops, and hand-held devices to have students do Internet searches, turn in typed rather than hand-written homework, take notes on lectures, watch videos, and other familiar classroom activities. A small sub-set of these teachers, however, do use electronic devices weekly in far more creative and imaginative ways inside and outside classrooms with their students. That’s the 40 percent of the teachers.

But the majority of teachers, most of whom–paradoxically–use their home computers a few hours each night, are either occasional or non-users in integrating available machines into their daily lessons.

So one explanation for the first puzzling fact is the flawed assumption that deploying computers to teachers and students will lead to teachers regularly using high-tech devices for instruction. Note that without regular use by teachers, establishing a causal relationship between computers and, say, student test scores, is impossible.

Another explanation for the puzzle of so little linkage between computers and student achievement examines how researchers go about studying the connections between technology and student outcomes.

Many researchers fail to consider that the common designs and methodologies they use to determine linkages between classroom technology use and student achievement cannot capture the inherent complexity and unpredictability of teaching and learning. So researchers use shortcuts to get around that complexity and unpredictability.

I need to unpack the previous sentence. Consider that teaching students involves many factors relating to who the teacher is, what content and skills are taught, and what activities and tasks occur while teaching. Also consider student factors: who they are, what experiences, motivations and interests they bring to the classroom, and what they do during lessons. Then consider the school itself, its organization, culture, and its neighborhood. Finally consider the district, its resources, leadership, and culture of learning or non-learning that it cultivates. All of these interacting factors, sometimes unpredictably, affect classroom teaching and learning.

Yet look at the majority of research designs and methods used to determine the effects of teachers using computers with student. Most common are surveys of teachers and students who report their perceptions of classroom use supplemented by researchers’ descriptions of practices, and interviews with teachers and students. Some researchers set up comparison groups of classes that use computers to study a topic with classes not using computers studying the same topic. Then the classes using and not using computers are pre- and post-tested.

Both research designs have serious defects. Short of establishing an experimental and control design with students and teachers randomly assigned to each group, it is nearly impossible to establish a causal linkage between the use of high-tech devices and student achievement. Such experimental or quasi-experimental designs are uncommon and usually too expensive to mount.

Because surveys and class-comparisons are less expensive in dollars and labor, thousands of studies have been done since the introduction of desktop computers into schools in the early 1980s. Many show minute gains or “no significant difference” in test scores from student use of computers. The results, however, are correlations—associations between presence of computers and gains in test scores, not evidence that student use of the machines caused a rise in test scores.

Here, then, are two ways to make sense of the puzzling fact over the paltry results in student outcomes of so much investment in high-tech devices and so little return on those dollars.

Have I missed another explanation? Is what I say flawed? If so, how?

34 Comments

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34 responses to “A Puzzling Fact about High-Tech Use in Classrooms

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  3. Well, I can think of another possible explanation: the use of high tech in classrooms simply doesn’t lead to better educational outcomes. I think low-tech Finland is a perfect example of why this might indeed be the true explanation!

  4. Ann

    As with any tool that is used for teaching and learning, they should be used by students and teaching to support research -based strategies. Examples include , but are not limited to, the role of feedback and peer-tutoring.

  5. Julie Mueller

    I agree with Dr. Cuban about the lack of research evidence identifying any substantial impact of technology on test scores and the very real analysis of the difficulties inherent in research aimed at acquiring that evidence. What we need to look at is the pedagogy and learning tasks that digital technology supports, the student and teacher behaviours that demonstrate effective learning and instruction, and then measure the degree to which we they are exhibited in learning and teaching with technology. The “21st century skills” that Dr. Chris Dede and multitudes of others discuss are not necessarily measured by standardized test scores that are often used as a measure of success in research studies examining the impact of digital technology.

  6. Thank you Larry. More substance for my debate at an elearning conference in which I’ll be opposing the House’s motion: “The public sector has failed to use ICTs effectively in education and training.”

    The purpose of the research is akin to that in the pharmaceutical industry, wouldn’t you say?

    A side note, I just stumbled across this.
    Clark R E (1983)Reconsidering Research on Learning from Media
    REVIEW OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH Winter 1983 vol. 53 no. 4 445-459

    • larrycuban

      Suzanne,

      The Richard Clarke piece in 1983 is the first substantial critique of the designs and methodologies used by researchers investigating technological innovations. I have agreed with Clarke’s critique on many public occasions. Unfortunately, few policymakers, practitioners, and–sadly–even researchers are familiar with that article and his subsequent work. Thanks for noting it.

  7. Steve Davis

    Consider the fact that teachers are teaching students state content standards. California, home to Silicon Valley, has paltry technology standards. Here’s the extent of CA’s English-language Arts (grades eleven and twelve) Research and Technology standards: 1.6 Develop presentations by using clear research questions and creative and critical research strategies (e.g., field studies, oral histories, interviews, experiments, electronic sources), 1.7 Use systematic strategies to organize and record information (e.g., anecdotal scripting, annotated bibliographies), 1.8 integrate databases, graphics, and spreadsheets into word-processing documents, and Writing Applications 2.4 Deliver multimedia presentations. And none of those technology standards will be tested on the high-stakes tests that “matter.” They will be tested using a #2 pencil and a Scantron form. Don’t worry, they won’t have to write actual sentences on a keyboard or even with a pencil. They just need to fill in the correct bubble. And they better fill in enough of the correct bubbles that my value-added scores keep rising with the rate of inflation.

    Now take into account that I have to teach 50-odd other divergent and sometimes conflicting standards. You would think that technology might facilitate the teaching of these other standards, but often the technology actually hinders the mastery of these other standards. Although today’s students are supposed to be “digital natives,” many of them lack basic computer literacy beyond using MySpace, Facebook, and various games. Sure, some students know more than I do about technology, but many fall into the former category.

    I can teach students technology and I can teach them literature and I can teach them rhetoric, but I can’t teach them all of those things well in one course in one year. Often what passes for technology integration is having students create an iMovie to demonstrate mastery of a standard. I don’t buy it. In the real academic world, students need to demonstrate their understanding through equations, speaking, and writing. If technology integration could facilitate the myriad and conflicting goals set for teachers then they would integrate technology more fully into the curriculum.

    What’s your source? Google. Oh right, Google isn’t a source.

    • larrycuban

      Steve,
      Again, your comment gives many specifics drawn from your classroom teaching over the years. That you are a regular and discriminant user carefully figuring out what is appropriate, given the curricular standard and tasks to be done in the classroom, helps me and other readers. Even those who may disagree with you.

  8. Steve Davis

    Check out this video of student voices that GF Brandenburg shared on his blog.

  9. Bob Calder

    Some observations:
    1. Think of computers as a social device.
    2. Consider adoption to be a social phenomenon rather than an issue of ownership.
    3. The question of appropriate use versus inappropriate use is germane when you consider total time usage of a device (any electronic). Thus computer use isn’t necessarily appropriate computer use.

    The same goes for cell phones, mp3 players, and gaming platforms. Gaming platforms can be hacked to become usable for general purpose computing. I’m noting this just to point out there is a flow in both directions. Considering these things, I wonder why it isn’t obvious that adoption isn’t monolithic and technology has little to do with learning and everything to do with access which is only a part of learning.

    When Larry mentions the initial investment in Internet access for schools, I am reminded of the conversation between Reed Hundt, then chairman of the FCC and William Bennett, Reagan’s head of education. Reed Hundt argued for “access” if anybody recalls. Bennett refused to consider it because public schools were doomed to failure. What a guy. But the use of network access is a key concept. Schools were not getting “computers” although they were. Schools were not getting “programs” although they were getting these as well. They got the fire hose (Yankovich, “VHS”).

  10. Diana Senechal

    Two thoughts come to mind. First, what does “achievement” mean here? What in fact are students supposed to achieve? Some of it may be aided by technology, some not. (This point is similar in some ways to your second answer and to Steve Calder’s point.)

    Second, there are ways in which technology could impede learning. In many cases it allows students to avoid abstractions. Being able to work on a problem in the mind is essential to many kinds of learning; an abundance of visuals and step-by-step aids can get in the way.

    One area where technology could be of great help is in language study. I envy students the resources they have now. But in literature class, for the most part, I see no need for anything but the book. Audio recordings now and then can enhance a lesson (great to hear a poet reading his or her work aloud), but I’m not sure they will improve “achievement.” In other subjects, technology may help or hinder learning–it depends on how it is used.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Diana, for the comments. “Student achievement,” as you know, is in this climate short-hand for test scores, graduation rates, college admissions, etc. Quantitative measures, for the most part. The most common studies, using pre- and post-tests, use standardized achievement tests as the outcome measure.

      Your other point about differences in secondary subject matter courses and the degree to which interactive white boards, laptops, and hand-held devices using software, videos, and other sources get revealed in teacher use. You mentioned language study as a natural area for dipping into a rich array of resources available to foreign language teachers. Less so literature. Math, science, and social studies teachers tend to be heavy users of software and other web sources. I may have missed a lot of the studies, but I do not see many comparison and contrast inquiries into these disciplinary differences in secondary school subjects that you raise in your comment.

  11. A great piece, Larry. You certainly aren’t the only one who is puzzled here.

    From my wobbly perch inside one of the major international donor agencies that is often asked to fund large scale ICT/education programs of various sorts in middle and low income countries around the world, part of what I do is to advocate for more attention – *any* attention, really – to rigorous evaluation of ICT/education interventions. If and when we are actually successful in convincing countries to dedicate sufficient monies to support rigorous evaluation, we then almost always find that the types of designs and methodologies critiqued by you above are the ones that are eventually approved and funded. As to why this might be the case, I have many possible answers, but ultimately none that I find particularly satisfying.

    One of the commenters mentioned the Clarke (1983) paper, and you noted that “few policymakers, practitioners, and – sadly – even researchers are familiar with that article and his subsequent work.” I expect that your statement is based largely on your experience in the United States. For what it’s worth, my experience tells me that this statement holds true in much of the rest of the world too – only more so! I am not referring here to Clarke and his work per se (as a practical matter, I find that most policymakers and practitioners dealing with ICT/education issues in the places I work don’t really pay much attention to what academics have to say about these topics — they tend to listen to other voices), but rather to the nature and direction of his criticism, which is (I find) only rarely considered during related discussions in this area.

    Unfortunately (at least from the perspective of policymakers and practitioners outside OECD countries, few of whom have easy access to academic journals), this seminal piece does not appear to be available anywhere on the Internet for free. Thankfully, Professor Clarke has made available much of his recent academic output on his web site via http://www.cogtech.usc.edu/recent_publications.php.
    (In case anyone is looking for a place to start, an article that I pass around is the one on “Five Common but Questionable Principles”).

    Thanks for the post, and for the blog, which I find is a real ‘global public good’ for the community of people interested in educational technology issues.

    Cheers,
    Mike

    ps I imagine you already have more than enough material for the blog, but if you are ever searching for inspiration in a given week, your thoughts on http://atc21s.org might be good for a post or two. This *is* work that I find policymakers are paying attention to.

    • larrycuban

      Mike,
      Thanks for your comments and the easier access you provided to Richard Clarke’s work. You are in a better position to judge how widespread policymakers and researchers have been in considering Clarke’s views, particularly outside of the U.S. Whether decision-makers agree or disagree with Clarke is less important than reading the critique of why so much research on technological innovations is misbegotten. That is all I would want–simply giving more exposure to his critique.

      Your statements about policymakers’ selective cherry-picking of research or simply deciding on ideological grounds and then using research findings that provide political cover is clearly obvious in the U.S. Then, why should it be different elsewhere? Again, thanks.

  12. Bonnie Bracey Sutton

    I read the article.

    Random thoughts. There are so many divides. I enjoy the technology, but a lot of it is vendor driven. Much of the professional development is like an inoculation, and even if it is sustained.. the technology moves on. There is little balance in the way in which teachers are instructed, to use or ways in which they are allowed to use technology. Professional development may be wonderful in many places . In many places it is not good. In many places the subjects that lead to STEM have never been taught well to teachers. I remember sitting in the crowd at the convocation on the Gathering Storm thinking… well ok, change will come. Now I am not sure.
    There is the content divide. Many teachers are not have not had deep learning experiences and the use of technology does not help that.

    Some people are in love with the tools, not the pedagogy.
    I believe in it in the use of instructional technology because I don’t want to be left behind in a place where everyone has smart tools and know how so I am again at the edge working with Supercomputing and games and visualizations and modeling. But that is not the norm. It probably does not make a difference because the data shows that only one percent of minorities are involved, gender stats are not much better. For a long time
    we seemed not to care about broadening engagement. Computational thinking skills, problem solving math and science are rare in curriculum sets. There is Shodor.org. But, who is using it, and how do teachers know
    that they can without some interface, some mentor, some permission within school systems??

    Do teachers even know what computational thinking is, or care? I don’t know. I don’t think so. Perhaps the big question is what do the
    school boards and the community know or think?

    If digital equity is the new civil rights the CEO’s of the big groups are tired of talking about it. I have been told that no one wants to hear the sad stories of have and have not. The stories of inner cities are not as compelling as those of those in distant lands and .. frankly people will trip over 100 USA minority kids in the inner city to get to a child in a land far far away. No understanding of the need, or maybe no caring about it. Ceo’s at big conferences tell you that they can hire worldwide.

    I have worked in various countries where the elite get to learn technology. It is not so much a problem as it is here because everyone does not presume to get an education and in many countries the best and brightest at 13 are already on a track to a workforce of some sort as determined by school tests, by class, race etc. Getting into Jordan on early morning I saw the bus from the New York Institute of Technology that picks up the students from their homes. At the time I thought I was jet lagged. There is a set of schools in Jordan, the Discovery schools that has been funded by the Davos crowd. I hope there is such an effort somewhere in the inner cities but I am not sure. There are some successful charter schools. Some. THere used to be parochial schools now replaced by KIPP. But KIPP is more expensive. Sorry Sister Mary Alice. Same methodology, but the churches had smaller budgets they did not have to pay the teachers.

    We had all the hoopla about Michelle Rhee, but few really dug into the
    background to know and to determine what the level of teacher support, what the workplace was like, the competency and resources that were in the places where her teachers worked. What was required, who required it, what change was to be made and then how was it supported. With her it was mostly walk the plank for those teachers who before that were said to be “other mothering” the students. For a decade the teachers did just that in some places with some good results, but the world has changed. Not much was said about technology in DC for a good reason. Of course, there are political reasons that DC does not work but that is hard to write about.

    For places like Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Los Angeles there are national problems that we have that slice and dice the opportunities that the kids get. Perhaps no one wants to say that the legacy teachers who stood in inner city schools were often from the separate but equal schooling era. Many of us made ourselves over but the costs and time were quite a price to pay.
    Community problems? Poverty, drugs, lead in the water, class struggles..Lack of language facility and yes the abilities of the teachers based on a variety of reasons. The skills based career education were taken away in many places. Carpentry, electrical shop, sheetmetal working and the various vocational skills were gotten rid of I suppose for a good reason.

    I certainly don’t believe that those who don’t know much about education are the best leaders for our students. But I am sure that makes me unusual. People go to Ted and Aspen and to various digerati conferences, but what perspective do they have? Does what they think always work? PopTech was interesting when I went. Solution? Maybe more entertainment of good ideas. Good networking happened. Their ideas do get funded. Maybe they work. Don’t know.

    . I have been told there is no funding for digital divide because the vendors are not keen on it. STEM gets a little action because of the threat to the economy, but before you can say STEM, others are saying STEAM. Nothing wrong with that , but… an ever moving target is hard to nail. We wired the schools, we did not educate the staff, the teachers , the administrators and often the IT guy and the teachers were and are at odds.

    Dreaming..

    The new technology report is a big dream, and probably it needs to be because there is not enough broadband , for the kinds of things we know the technology can do. I get depressed when a young new teacher tries to teach me things I knew back in 1993. Sad but true.

    The new technology report is great in theory. But without broadband and access I am not sure how it will work. Perhaps in the technology circles we all know what can happen . Perhaps the people in need don’t go to conferences , or make their concerns know. The concept of the cloud works. In rural areas where there are not libraries , and long distances between resources and school, there is a problem. There is no cloud and no devices. What then?

    I have worked with professors in the schools of education. Some of them are not there yet and we teach as we are taught , I like to think. Tranformation has not taken place in many schools of education at all.

    But then there is the infrastructure divide. This year there are the mobile devices. In so many schools in the nation they are not even welcome, nor do people know how to use them. Lots of random thoughts.

    I know the good use of technology works.. but it is not everywhere. I know that it can make a difference but who gets to use it? I know that the participatory culture should make a difference as in Globaloria.org. That is about communities, collaboration and the celebration of learning in a community. I am sure that does not happen often.

    So, my random thoughts probably create more confusion.

    Bonnie Bracey Sutton

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Bonnie, for commenting on technological and political issues that inevitably intersect when it comes to school improvement.

  13. Jas

    May I venture to suggest a few practical limitations? I am an inner-city math teacher who find online virtual manipulatives and graphing programs to be exciting and effective educational tools. Yet I am often loathe to use the computers in the laptop cart in my classroom. Why? Internet access by any one laptop on any given day is highly unpredictable, and during any given class period, possibly half of the computers cannot get online (and that’s not even counting the days when the school’s entire wifi system is down). Try dealing with that in a room full of squirmy and distractible middle school students. Combine with that
    • the time required to unlock, unplug, pass out, collect, re-plug and re-lock the computers in a 40-minute period,
    • the need to police the students who are amazing adept at using various websites to circumvent the proxy servers blocking Facebook and other no-nos, and
    • the tendency of students to quickly convert a computer’s desktop to a violent, titillating, or downright perverse image.
    You have a strong disincentive to use technology!
    I personally believe that online instruction and practice tailored to a student’s weaknesses and strengths can be much more effective than one teacher in a class of 27 students. But our technical ability to use such programs is just not there.

    • larrycuban

      Jas,
      Thanks for your comment on the continuing practical obstacles that willing, able, and enthusiastic teachers committed to using these powerful tools to further learning still face. Steve Davis has raised similar issues that connect curriculum standards to teacher decisions on when and for which tasks laptops should be used. These on-the-ground practical issues are seldom considered by those who beat the drums for teachers “integrating” technology into lessons.

  14. Stephen Lane

    I teach in a smallish, wealthy suburban district (one high school, 1200 students) that is spending money on technology like sailors on shore leave. So this is an interesting issue. I have a number of conflicting thoughts on technology in the classrooms.
    First, from a teacher’s perspective. Technology is a tool to make a job easier. So, if the technology of interactive boards, embedded clips, etc., makes my job easier, that’s great. Even if nothing shows up in terms of gains in student achievement, if I’m able to effect the same level of student achievement while putting in less time (or ‘easier’ time), that’s a gain. A big IF, that. But if one is careful and discerning about how one applies technology, maybe you can do this. I think measuring student achievement is the wrong thing to try to measure. I don’t know how you would do this, but I think you should try to measure faculty time use – do those who have integrated technology into their teaching practice spend more or less time lesson-planning? More or less time grading? If they spend less time, what do they do with the new-found surplus? If they spend more time, what activities did they sacrifice – personal time, or professional time devoted to other parts of the job?

    Second, what is the technology for? I don’t think it’s necessarily to improve student achievement. Maybe we just want students to have a comfort level and facility with new technologies as a way to prepare them for what’s next. The tools will keep changing – and if students are afraid to jump in and learn how to use the next tool, or if they can’t figure out how to adapt a certain tool to make their lives easier, then what’s the good of a tool? We assume students are facile with new technologies, and they are within their own carefully constructed world. So maybe measuring student achievement is the wrong thing to measure – how would you measure the value of comfort level with new technologies (and how would you measure ‘comfort level’?)

    Third, this is a really strange time – the technology is changing so rapidly, and there’s no real established standards. In some ways, nothing has been ‘locked in’. What is the standard method of communication? What is going to be the dominant media platform? How do we access information? A lot of this is up in the air. My sense is that schools are casting about too – changing platforms, trying to keep up, trying to find the elusive ‘best practice’. Possible that, in 10 years, when the tumult settles, we’ll have a better idea how to use technology effectively? Just as possible not, but it’s a thought.

  15. larrycuban

    Stephen,
    Thank you for your thoughtful comment that offers three different criteria to judge the worth of technology beyond whether using high-tech tools in classrooms increases student achievement. The three I extracted from your comment: teacher efficiency in use of time, student ease in using high-tech tools, and school’s adaptability to ever-changing technology of accessing information and communication.

    • Stephen Lane

      Larry,
      Mostly correct in summing up – much more succinctly than I can ever manage!! The third point I was trying to make was that, since we don’t know what’s best (and maybe we never will – though I think innovation will start to follow certain locked-in tracks), and schools tend to change technological platforms fairly often, it is difficult to evaluate the results of technological use at any given school, because teachers haven’t had time to effectively adapt the technology to their practice.

      • larrycuban

        Thanks for the clarification on the third criterion for evaluating high-tech devices used in classrooms, Stephen. Since researchers who inquire into uses and outcomes of technology depend most heavily upon surveys (teacher and student self-reports) they should be able to get at the first two of your proposed criteria for evaluating the use of ever-changing tools in classrooms. The third, as you say, would be too difficult to evaluate since the high-tech tide rolls in so quickly and erases traces of what has occurred. I guess I would not be too optimistic about the direction of research shifting very much in this area since policymakers for the past four decades have been fixated on test scores and outcome data.

  16. Bonnie Bracey Sutton

    We used to have an office of technology , OTA where there was a vendor free evaluation of software. Now I am not sure how most people decide what is the software that works for them , or that is best for their situation. Many of the big education groups have vendor sponsors, so I am not sure how that works.

    Perhaps there are state evaluators who are vendor free, and perhaps word of mouth is the way we go now. I am not sure.

    Bonnie Bracey Sutton

    • larrycuban

      Yes, Bonnie, the Office of Technology Assessment, an arm of the U.S. Congress, was killed in 1995 after the Republicans’ victory the previous year. Like yourself, I used their reports on technology in schools often. Its history and possible resurrection–the law authorizing OTA is still on the books–remains a hope. Not promising, however, in these lean, politically polarized times. See: http://www.scienceprogress.org/2009/03/restart-ota/

      Otherwise, vendor-free assessments of software have to be gotten from social scientists. See: http://ies.ed.gov/ncee/pdf/20074005.pdf

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  18. Here’s another puzzling fact about high-tech use in education.

    Over the last three decades, universities have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to install Internet access and computer labs in universities–including at your very own Stanford University. Yet, in this entire time, there has almost no experimental or quasi-experimental research that shows that campuswide wireless Internet access improves educational outcomes. Where is the research, for example, comparing universities that do NOT offer Internet access with universities that DO offer it?

    Now, tell us Larry, why is the lack of that research any more or less interesting than the lack of the research you point to? Shouldn’t we be questioning Stanford University’s decision to provide Internet access to its faculty and students?

    • larrycuban

      Dear Mark,
      Thanks for taking the time to comment and ask a fair question. “Where is the research, for example, comparing universities that do NOT offer Internet access with universities that DO offer it?” The short answer is that I do not know of any such research. And if I am correct that such research either does not exist or, at best, is rare, there are at least two reasons for its absence.

      Comparing higher education’s major investments in infrastructure (beginning in the 1950s) and deploying computers to faculty and staff since the early 1980s with similar K-12 investments, albeit, slower and on a less ambitious scale (1:1 ratio in computers to students came to higher education nearly a decade before entry into public schools) makes sense because of a common mission to educate. Both educational institutions cannot afford to ignore swift changes in information and communication technologies since they are in the business of preparing youth for future civic, economic, and social participation in society. Why “cannot afford?” Because both K-12 and higher education are politically and economically dependent upon public support. Since the 1960s, massive technological changes in manufacturing, finance,the military, commercial transactions, medicine, and communication have occurred in the U.S., and the public expects their schools and universities to keep pace with these seemingly irreversible changes.

      Beyond that political and economic vulnerability that, in part, explains the major investments, I have yet to address your question about the lack of research on whether higher education investments have produced desired outcomes. Two reasons come to mind:
      1. Public schooling in the U.S. is compulsory. K-12 policymaker decisions to invest in innovative technologies because they will improve teaching/ learning while preparing the young for adulthood in an ever-changing society–the dominant rationale–requires public justification since tehse decisions use taxpayer funds and, more importance, there are consequences for children who are required to attend school. Thus, enters research. Policymakers need to have evidence–facts and data–to convince parents and taxpayers that such decisions to invest public monies are “good,” “effective,” or whatever word you wish to supply. Lacking such research findings from vendors, academics or in-house staff (or all three), policymakers are vulnerable politically.

      You know where I am going with this, Mark. Higher education in the U.S. is not compulsory. While both elite universities and community colleges depend upon public and private support, parents are not under penalty of law to send their sons and daughters to higher educational institutions. This major institutional difference between K-12 and higher education helps to explain why there is little incentive for colleges and universities to undertake research to justify investments in new technologies (beyond the all-purpose justification of preparing youth for the labor market, civic participation, etc.)
      2. The major reasons elite universities like Stanford, Harvard, and similar institutions invested heavily in computers–aside from the contracts they had with U.S. agencies to do military and defense research requiring computers–is that new information and communication technologies were transforming the act of doing research itself not only in the hard sciences but the soft ones as well, the humanities, and, yes, the applied disciplines of education, social work, and library studies. In short, universities invested in technological infrastructures and machines because they are primarily research institutions where faculty are expected, first and foremost, to do research and second, to teach. At Stanford, when I came in the early 1980s, I did not have to buy a desktop computer, the University gave me one. Why? Not for teaching my four courses but to do research more efficiently and publish.

      Sorry for the long response, Mark. It is a fair question and I wanted to offer an answer to it.

      P.S. By the way, I have read your studies of uses of computers in schools and classrooms and have found them most helpful in my own work.

  19. Yaniv

    Here’s how I look at it, as a non-educator, an Israeli parent of two schoolchildren, a graduate of some 18 years of public education, and a translator of a lot of educational material (including this here blog).
    I’m looking at your question and thinking – why would anyone think that computers or any other high-tech device, *in and of themselves*, would enhance learning and improve the measurable outcomes of that learning?
    Computers are very expensive tools. They are pens, pencils, erasers, notebooks, workbooks, books, newspapers, maps and much much more – rolled into one sexy machine.
    My own household has 3 laptops and 2 desktops (for 4 people and a baby!). I myself spend hours upon hours with computers every day, working, reading, practicing guitar.
    But when it comes to school, you’d need to talk about *specific* applications of technology to specific areas of study in order to show what sort of improvement you’d expect of students’ outcomes. How would a computer aid students in History or Geography, for example? Granted, Google Maps is a very cool tool. Google earth too. But for the price of one computer you’d easily purchase 30 globes and 30 atlases as teaching aids for an entire class. Low tech and just as effective in the hands of an effective teacher; but then again, what use would a computer be to you without an effective teacher?
    You can probably use specific software to aid students in math, language studies perhaps, maybe certain other fields as well. But you’d have to show specifically for each and every application that it can boost outcomes in a specific field. You’d never be justified in saying that “computers” in general help “outcomes” in “schools” – because these terms are simply much too broad to be tied together in any meaningful way.
    As for computers and wifi access in higher education – as Mr. Warschauer wondered previously – universities deploy them because students and professors *want* them. Do they help outcomes in general? Of course not, and they’re not supposed to either. They are powerful tools in statistics, for example, or economics in general; they make taking notes in class easier, also reading typed essays instead of hand-written ones. And of course, research is made that much easier with computers and the internet. But do we have better lawyers or doctors or teachers or historians today *because of* computers? I highly doubt it. And were computers ever intended to provide us with better lawyers or doctors or teachers or historians? Or even better scholars? Are your ideas and thought processes rendered any better through the use of computers and the internet, or could you have been just as good a scholar using a well-equipped library?

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Yaniv, for your comments about use of computers in schools and universities, in subject areas, and especially for the cogent questions that you ask.

  20. Bill Storm

    Having followed the research on tech in education for some years, as a practitioner I have had to conclude that the only constant has been change, not only in the technology but in those we are measuring to determine our efficacy. The K-12 child today is not the K-12 child of 1980, but our instructional standards and the assumptions about technology remain unchanged, e.g. the idea that numbers of computers or other devices in a classroom mean something about instruction or effective use of the technology.

    In my effort to justify my existence as a instructional tech professional, it’s always a little unsettling that the two factors most strongly influencing student achievement are (1) students’ and teachers’ sense of belonging in a learning and caring environment, and (2) the application of best practices by teachers.

    But this idea of what constitutes a “student” is a moving target, and consequently so is the one of “best practices.” Over any period of time, an effective teacher grows with his or her student population because the focus never deviates from the child in the room. That means that an effective teacher senses that students are becoming increasingly networked in their social environment, that they learn differently than the typical child of the 80s, and that instructional practice must shift. It doesn’t require a machine to facilitate that teacher’s awareness, nor does it require one to let a child know the teacher cares about his or her learning.

    In my own education, my best teachers and professors were powerful models of thinking and learning practices. My learning was as influenced (if not more so) by those teachers’ own relationship to a particular technology or topic than my infant-steps with it. Their momentum and intent with a particular tool was the teaching device, and my understanding the analytical power of that use was the learning I achieved. In my own experience, it did not require a class set of electron microscopes to inspire a class-full of college seniors to delve into the mechanics of a cell membrane. By the same token, the technology was not limited to magnifying glasses.

    Whether the modality is online, brick and mortar, hybrid, whatever, learning is still about a relationship between the teacher and the learner. If teachers depend on outdated assumptions about the students in front of them, teaching as they themselves were taught for instance, no modernization of their hardware can save the students in front of them. By the same token, effective teachers cannot serve students coming of age in a digital, heavily networked, information-oriented world by depending on obsolete technologies. Students who connect with teachers (that belonging piece) who dare to engage their students’ world effectively will learn for their lives to come.

    Those teachers need powerful technology to do this well, but the technology itself is not the answer. We’ll only find that in courageous and engaged teachers with evolving skills, both pedagogical and technological.

    • larrycuban

      Dear Bill,
      A most thoughtful comment that, I believe, goes to the heart of the issue on the role of ever-changing technology in classroom teaching and learning. Thank you.

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