Is ICT a Revolution or Fool’s Errand?

The following post on ICT (Information/Communication Technology) appeared as part of a forum with the above title hosted by Education Technology Debate. Other contributors are listed there.

If ICT means the use of computers in schools and classrooms and if learning means what academic content, skills, and behaviors students can perform in and out of school, then the massive investment over the past 30 years in wiring schools, buying computers and the latest hand-held device has fallen far short of being a “revolution” in students’ learning and teachers’ teaching (Failure of computers PDF 1995). While not a fool’s errand–the idea that ICT would revolutionize schooling was, at worst, sloppy thinking and, at best, ardent wishfulness.

Note I said “use” of ICT, not access to it. For access to ICT in the U.S has been an unvarnished success. From a national average of 125 students per computer in the mid-1980s now there are about 4 students per computer (2009 tech survey).  In fact, many districts and a few states now give each student a laptop.

So while access has been a success, actual use by most teachers and students in lessons has disappointed ICT champions. Without regular use in classrooms, ICT advocates cannot even hope for increases in student academic achievement, transformed teaching, and technologically proficient students entering the job market.

Instances of falling far short of “revolution” :

*After spending $30 million on computers in Louisville (KY) schools, two-thirds to three-quarters of the teachers did not regularly use computers in their lessons in 2006. Subsequently, new  technologies have been purchased and improvements have been claimed  (Tablets for Teachers 2010).

*When researchers directly observe classrooms rather than relying on teacher reports of use, they have found a fraction of teachers integrating the use of computers into daily lessons. Most teachers, however, used machines occasionally for instruction. Researchers also found that even now with abundant access, large numbers of teachers seldom use ICT in lessons.

These patterns of classroom usage occur in spite of the easily observable fact that nearly all teachers and administrators use their home computers and smart phones dail (2009 tech survey).

Why in the face of abundant access to machines at school and home is there such limited student use of ICT for instruction in schools?

The reason is that technology-driven policymakers, educators, reformers, and vendors err in their thinking (or care less) about the role of schools in a democratic society and the nature of classroom teaching and student learning.

First, they overestimate the importance of students’ access to technology in schools and underestimate teachers’ influence on students’ learning.

Most policymakers, parents, and reformers assume that when machines are available, they are used. That error in equating access to use has bedeviled decision-makers for decades.   The crucial link between any announced policy, deployment of machines, and classroom learning is not devices, it is the teacher.

In fact, current Utopian hype about “disruptive innovations” and “Liberating Learning”  through online instruction and hybrid schools tries to outflank teachers by focusing on parents and students as home consumers rather than upon teachers using devices in classrooms regularly.

The second error technological enthusiasts make is seeing public schools as only about learning.

Surely, learning concepts, facts, and skills is a central task of tax-supported public schools. Preparing students for college is important. But voters, taxpayers, and parents expect more of their public schools. They want schools to socialize the young into the workplace and community, provide for their personal well-being, and produce civic-minded, engaged adults. As multipurpose institutions that serve the community, schools, then, do far more than teach content and academic skills. Utopian claims that bringing new technologies into schools—laptops, iPads, etc.—will transform school learning fail to consider the all-important social and political tasks that teachers and principals face every day.

The third error they make is to indulge in magical thinking.

Researchers have failed again and again to show that students using computers in classrooms will improve test scores, lift graduation rates, and reduce dropouts. The lack of evidence-based practice in students using computers in classroom lessons, however, has seldom stopped policymakers or vendors from promoting even more devices for classrooms. These Utopian fantasies spin out beautiful scenarios of individually tailored lessons for students but are divorced from current school and classroom realities.

These three errors add up to sloppy thinking about ICT in schools. Sloppy thinking leads to careless policymaking about technology’s link to learning. While no “revolution” has yet occurred in schools, a “fool’s errand,” technology is not.

Why? Because schools are social institutions that have to be responsive to voters and parents who provide funds to build schools, hire educators, and insure that children get taught what the community expects. What every U.S. community now expects from its schools is for their children to be technologically literate, college-educated, and skilled to step into the labor market upon graduation. With these expectations, public schools, dependent upon voters and parents, must make some effort to buy and deploy the most recent technological tools even as school boards and superintendents know that they cannot keep up with constant technological changes.

So no “revolution” yet and not a “fool’s errand.” Just more muddling through as ardent educators, decision-makers, and entrepreneurs wrestle with the complexities of using new technologies to implement abiding political, social, and economic goals in highly vulnerable but essential public schools.



Filed under school reform policies, technology use

5 responses to “Is ICT a Revolution or Fool’s Errand?

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Is ICT a Revolution or Fool’s Errand? | Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice --

  2. Interested readers of Larry’s blog, will find some of the reasons explaining how this situation has come about here.

  3. Larry, I’m surprised. I don’t know what your intent is, but that you pick and choose what you use to support your ideology is appalling. First, let me say that I agree about the degree to which teachers are using technology in their classrooms. However, the failure does not lie with the teachers but with the administrators who fail to offer, provide, and support teachers with professional development and other means of support. Administrators have an even greater lack of knowledge about technology integration than teachers. One example is their expenditure of large sums of money on whiteboards when the same amount of money could be spent on more effective technologies and the professional development to support them.

    Second, technology will never raise test scores. Technology supports teaching and learning and it is teaching and learning that supports student achievement and performance. Technology can only enhance the use of learning strategies and the learning of content. It cannot be associated with test scores thus that point is quite the red herring.

    Why do you not think technologies can support work force development? Have you not seen the emphasis on STEM and how technologies can support teaching and learning? Again, if you focus only on the technology and note the lack of knowledge by administrators and good professional development then of course it cannot support the task of citizenship development.

    You are absolutely correct in that technology will not improve dropouts, graduation rates or test scores. Never will since that is not how they should be used and not how research supports their role in teaching and learning. Look at research addressing technologies and teaching and learning. It’s there an there’s quite a bit of it. It is teaching and learning that can be tied to achievement, it is the professional development and administrative support that can be tied to teacher usage.

    Why not focus instead on administrator’s knowledge of technology that supports teaching and learning, administrators who provide effective support and professional development. Please don’t use red herrings as evidence of your views because it shows a lack of knowledge of the research.

    I would hope that you are not on the revisionist bandwagon like folks such as Michelle Rhee but you have me wondering now.

    • larrycuban

      Dear Dr. Bob,
      I do not blame teachers for limited use of technology for instruction. No need to document the first sentence since I have been writing about access and use of high-tech devices in classrooms since the mid-1980s. My record is clear. How you arrive at the conclusion that I do blame teachers puzzles me–you say: “the failure does not lie with the teachers but with the administrators who fail to offer, provide, and support teachers with professional development and other means of support.” You blame administrators. I do not.

      Look again at the three reasons I offer to explain the conundrum of both teachers and administrators using devices at home far more than at school. Those reasons, many of which fall upon a unholy coalition of policymakers, vendors, academics enamored with Utopian dreams of no bricks-and-mortar schools, and uninformed reformers–represent my argument. Not blaming teachers.

  4. Pingback: Something Short of Revolutionary | assortedstuff

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