No More PCs, No More Books, No More Teachers’ Dirty Looks?

Two pictures capture the future of desktop computers in schools and the eventual move to cloud computing.

Bart Simpson and classmates, sitting in rows of desks facing the teacher and a blackboard filled with arithmetic problems, all have mobile devices. They are seemingly connected to servers on data farms watching and listening to things far removed from providing answers to the multiplication and division questions on the board. The cartoon’s peek into a future mirrors Steve Jobs’ announcement of Apple’s forthcoming iCloud. Google Docs, of  course, has offered  teachers similar access.

With iCloud, no more cabling wires strewn around classrooms and labs. No more rooms filled with desktop computers and students tethered to their machines. iPads and similar tablets will replace laptops. No more textbooks, notebooks, and transferring paperwork from one desktop to another. Just students with hand-held devices. Now take a look at this photo.

This is a snapshot of a sidewalk graveyard of cell phones, remote controls, calculators, and other devices in Seattle. A portrait of obsolescent technologies embedded in cement.

What do the cartoon and graveyard photo have to do with the dream of putting new technologies into schools and students learning more, faster, and better?

Two answers occur to me. The photo reminds me that public schools have never been able to keep up with the latest technologies in the work world. Consider the sorry record of vocational education in the industrial era of the late-19th century and now with the growth of the information-based economy.

In the 1940s, I took print shop, metal shop, and woodworking courses in junior high school using tools and machines that were so out of touch with the labor market as to be laughable yet persisted as required subjects. Fast forward to the 1960s when students took high school vocational courses on automobile maintenance and repair with obsolescent equipment. In the 1970s and 1980s, television and media courses outfitted with the most recent technology were out-of-date a few years later as new media technologies swept the industry. That story of public schools being always a few steps behind in equipping classrooms with the latest machines is both familiar and a reminder that tax-supported public schools cannot keep pace with the ever-changing work world. But should they?

Business and civic elites and bipartisan policymakers have answered “yes” unequivocally for the past three decades. They want graduates prepared for knowledge-based jobs in the 21st century just as earlier elites and policymakers wanted skilled graduates for industrial era jobs. Parents  echo elites in wanting schools to be stepping stones to well-paying jobs. The primary purpose of schools has been to prepare students for the workplace for the past three decades. With the U.S. economic recovery stuttering, President Obama recently reasserted that purpose for high schools and community colleges:

“We launched Skills for America’s Future to bring together companies and community colleges around a simple idea: making it easier for workers to gain new skills will make America more competitive in the global economy….[New]partnerships … will be … opening doors to new jobs for workers, and helping employers find the trained people they need to compete against companies around the world.”

No longer are there separate vocational schools and curricula as in the 20th century. Now all elementary and secondary public schools are vocational in preparing students for college, the all-inclusive pathway to well-paying jobs.

Which brings me to Bart Simpson and my second observation based upon my knowledge of persistent school reform efforts over the past two centuries. In all of that time, one question has yet to be answered with a single voice: What are schools for?

For early 19th century public schools, the answer was to produce literate, law-abiding, and patriotic citizens out of a potpourri of rural and urban Americans. By the end of that century, the political purpose had shifted to an economic one of making skilled workers for an industrialized nation–but not forgetting the aim of citizen formation. By the late-20th century, however, the economic purpose of preparing skilled workers and providing individual choices for parents that would permit their sons and daughters to climb the social ladder of success had become primary. Occasionally, rhetorical bows to the political aim of preparing engaged and knowledgeable citizens would be heard in June at graduation ceremonies.

So why do Americans pay taxes for public schools? Do schools=jobs? Schools=social mobility? Schools=civic competence and engagement? Schools=thoughtful, inquiring, and independent thinkers? Schools=national and community values transmitted to next generation? The answer shifts repeatedly.

As new technologies sweep across schools in the years to come, the historical lesson of vocational education and obsolete machines needs to be kept in mind as surely as the troubling and mixed answers policy elites and Americans have given over the past century to the question: What is the central purpose of tax-supported public schools?

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12 Comments

Filed under technology use

12 responses to “No More PCs, No More Books, No More Teachers’ Dirty Looks?

  1. Paul Muench

    The difference between the machines you mention and modern machines is software and the internet. This does not eliminate the potential for problems, but it does open the possibility that new tools can function well enough on older physical devices. This is the typical strength of Linux and open source software in general.

  2. Sue Inglis

    On the other hand, explain to me why my husband, who is a talented woodworker, loves the tools he has acquired which date back to the 50’s and 60’s and how every tool dated back to that era sells on ebay within hours and days. I’m not saying we should embed ourselves in old technology, but I am saying that lots of administrators are in a very big hurry to throw out established and very good technologies.

  3. The primary push for charter schools comes from the White House. That is an agenda that they have for the future. That is what they know. Unfortunately charter schools don’t always work. It seems to me that the White House has given up on Public Schools.

    There are still schools that teach as if the computer revolution or the technology aids have never happened. If you want to know why? Think who decide how to teach, that is what the teachers should teach. Those who decide curriculum. Those who insert the tools that we use for technology. There are hopefully some people somewhere in the school system who are mentors , teachers who are technofluent and deep in content.
    We are talking about the cloud and the only connection some schools have to the cloud would be the fog of indecision and the lack of understanding anything that is being talked about in the Dept, of Education Technology Plan. Nothing wrong with the technology plan unless you live where there is no broadband. It becomes a dream then and not reality.

    Another problem is the technology map. Broadband? It is not everywhere. Even on the National Technology Map which is a self reporting kind of thing, the data is wrong. The telcos told us that we were all connected. They lied using statistics.

    M-Lab
    http://www.measurementlab.net/
    Here is a tool that one could use to create advocacy for national broadband in reality.
    M-Lab | Welcome to Measurement Lab
    Measurement Lab is an open platform for researchers to deploy Internet measurement tools. By enhancing Internet transparency, M-Lab helps sustain a healthy …
    http://www.measurementlab.net

    So there then is the content divide, the information divide, the digital divide so many hurdles and so many different people even in a school system making decisions who may have never taught or have classroom experience.

    So then dare I talk about the difference in universities and colleges that teach teachers.
    I need to go there, because many professors are our guide to more informed teaching practices.

    I bet in Washington DC and some other urban areas the way we taught long ago
    is still happening. Transformational understanding is not happening. So they took out the labs, and shop and beauticulture..

    The problem is all of those divides. The problem is the people who are talking about it may all be on line. The Native Americans with limited connectivity , the urban schools with less funding, the rural and distant people are probably working as back in the day.

    I am not sure that the tools will all be relics the way they were shown. I think
    no one walks around with a boom box, few people have rotary dial phones. The first smart phones have died.. that’s the way of technology. I threw away my laser discs because my husband insisted. Change happens.

    Bonnie Bracey Sutton

  4. Sandy

    The push for technology innovations is not coming from administrators. Those of us in schools know that there are competing interests in a school: closing the achievement gap for example. No principal can ever focus her total energy on just one learning solution. The technology push is an external one. Public education is the last frontier for technology companies who can’t find any more businesses to push their products on because business won’t invest in new technologies or see no reason to do so. So what better way to draw on taxpayer monies than to create the vehicle for standards-based testing, then create the etext books for the curriculum and then develop the curriculum planning software to make lesson plans that will teach to the tests. I think Larry raises a pertinent question: what’s the purpose of a public education. It would appear to me after 31 years as a teacher that the purpose today is to soothe the public into believing that if all students go to college, our economy won’t fail.

    I’m convinced parents in our high achieving high schools believe that their child will be protected from an uncertain future with that college degree. I am not so confident. We aren’t producing enough computer scientists or engineers, so Oracle, IBM, and their ilk are hiring in India where salaries are cheaper. But what about the liberal arts major? Will everyone just become a lawyer who majored in psychology? Just google the statistics for the number of college graduates finding jobs that are commensurate with their education, or the climbing student loan default rate.
    http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2011/05/23/student_loan_default_rates_rise_sharply_especially_for_for_profit_colleges

  5. Paul Muench

    I follow the CTA on Facebook. They posted a link to the following story. So I don’t think it is just corporations interested in using technology in the classroom.

    http://www.cnn.com/2011/TECH/social.media/06/08/twitter.school/index.html?hpt=us_t1

  6. Steve Davis

    The U.S. economy would be rosy, if it weren’t for the failure of public schools. What’s that you say? We have more college graduates than ever and a good portion of them can’t find work that’s commensurate with their education. Well, that must be because schools aren’t teaching the right things; They must not be teaching 21st century skills that employers value. Everyone should go to college, unless you have a million dollar idea. We have tech moguls paying students $100k to stay away from college. What?

    All that the public expects from public education is everything. As William Reese puts it, “Schools are expected to feed the hungry, discipline the wayward, identify and encourage the talented, treat everyone alike while not forgetting that everyone is an individual, raise test scores but also feelings of self-worth, ensure winning sports teams without demeaning academics, improve standards but also graduation rates, provide for the different learning styles and capacities of the young while administering common tests, and counter the crass materialism of the larger society while providing the young with the skills and sensibilities to thrive in it as future workers” (William Reese, History, Education, and the Schools, Palgrave Macmillan, 2007, p. 159).

  7. The problem lies with persistent misunderstanding of just what “Technology” is. To the average school district administrator and to the man on the street, technology is a device.

    In reality, technology is the supporting infrastructure of science. To put it in legalese, technology is the “instrumentality of science” as roads and bridges are for transportation. If you look at it this way, using old machines is a useful historic exercise where you can feel the reality of the shirtwaist fire when you visit the sewing classroom.

    Today, an old computer can be as useful as a new one, though students that think they are being introduced to exciting careers in animation may not be the right students for the classroom. Technology is difficult to pin down in a conversation because yesterday’s tech is embedded in “today” and invisible. Today’s tech is probably not even affordable by k-12 standards. Grid computing, cloud storage of terabyte data files, quantum logic circuits, and building custom organisms aren’t even part of the conversation. *sigh*

    As my favorite video editor told his client, “You pay me $25 an hour to know which button to push, but you pay me $150 to know when to push it.” (This was quite a few years ago.)

    • larrycuban

      Bob,
      Like most things over which folks disagree, definitions matter. Your distinguishing between technology as a device and technology as applying science and engineering to practical problems is, again, useful to me and readers. Each definition carries a lot of baggage. I often err by equating technology with machines and devices. Thanks for the reminder about how we define the terms and take them for granted.

  8. I think schools should be for personal development. Meaning whatever an individual student is good at. So it’s different for every one. Once we accomplish, all the other things (social mobility, civic competence and engagement, etc.) will follow. Technology, like pen and paper, are just tools which we should to the best of our advantage.

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  10. Annette

    I think it is important to use technology in our schools. They will need the knowledge at some point in their life and probably sooner rather than later. But, I do think it is important to not go over board and we have to work with what we are given, even if it is out dated. There is no way to completely keep up with the ever changing technology.

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