High Tech Blinders about Students and Purposes of Schooling

Perceptions of Student in 21st Century

The cartoon was originally run to satirize many professors’ narrow view of doctoral students as receptacles of information–note I did not say knowledge–whose single purpose in life was doing research. The student as information processing unit (IPU). If one aim of satire is to get people to laugh and then get them to think by inquiring further about what they are laughing about, then the cartoon fits–especially if I broaden its target to include K-12 schools and replace “most professors” with “most school reformers.”

Ardent reformers, including the current and past U.S. Presidents and their appointees, are determined in getting U.S. schools to produce engineers, scientists, and mathematicians who can  successfully compete with Asian graduates. The high-tech enthusiasts among them believe that online instruction will “customize” schooling to the degree that the bricks-and-mortar schools that we have known for two centuries will diminish and, if luck would have it, eventually disappear. Online instruction as a “disruptive innovation” will mean that teaching and learning will occur in homes, community centers, at work, on rooftops and cellars–not necessarily in places called schools. National leaders, hedge fund founders, social entrepreneurs, and philanthropists–policy elites–see online instruction in K-12 schools as the virtual salvation of  U.S. education and its role in boosting innovation and economic growth. These policy elites, in pressing for more and more online instruction in K-12 wear blinders–like the cartoonish professor above–because they reduce the social and political purposes for schools in a democracy to stuffing information into children, oops!, brains on sticks or IPUs.*

Sometimes it takes a dramatic example to make this important point.

Can you imagine a city where elderly residents of a retirement home lined the sidewalk and clapped, even cheered, high school students arriving for the first day of school?

The city is Joplin, Missouri. On May 22, 2011 a tornado swept a path of carnage through one-third of the city of 50,000 destroying thousands of homes and killing 160 people. Six of its 18 schools were so badly damaged that they had to demolished. Within 55 days, using space undamaged by the tornado, schools re-opened. In extreme situations, what gets taken for granted is stripped bare and the truth of the moment reveals itself.

Civic joy in Joplin at the re-opening of its schools after storm-inflicted devastation less than three months earlier shows clearly how important public schools are in the life of a community beyond the ABCs, AP Calculus, and handing out diplomas every June. Sure, these are important tasks schools perform. Public schools, however, do far more in every community big or small. They transmit social, political, and cultural values to young children and youth; they encourage groups to mingle in ways that segregated neighborhoods and gated communities cannot. They help children and youth grow emotionally and socially. You get the picture of where I am heading. I do not have to spell it out.

I am not naive nor entranced with a golden age of public schools that never existed. I know of too many suburban, rural, and urban schools, past and present, that failed (and fail) to help the next generation become responsible, civically engaged adults, who with a sense of personal well-being are prepared to enter the workplace with marketable skills. It is, however, when natural catastrophes occur that the social, political, economic, and individual purposes of schools become clear as communities as  disparate as New Orleans and Joplin work hard at school recovery.

Which brings me back to the popular mantras of “disruptive innovations,” “customizing” learning, and “blended”schools. Online instruction will continue to spread among adults and in K-12 schools. Incentives to increase students taking online courses and establish hybrids of blended and regular school schedules are plentiful now with cuts in district budgets and increasingly sophisticated technologies. The undeniable fact is that delivering online courses is far less costly than providing live teachers to students. But the hype and hullabaloo surrounding online instruction’s steady advance as a learning and cost-cutting tool cannot substitute for the role that public schools with its multiple (and, yes, competing purposes) play in a democracy.  Students are more than “brains on a stick” and schools are more than bricks-and-mortar.


*I do believe it is fair to ask how much customized online instruction during the school day ardent reformers such as Bill and Melinda Gates, Michelle Rhee,Whitney Tilson, and Eli Broad would accept as reasonable–if at all–for their children and grand-children.


Filed under school reform policies, technology use

10 responses to “High Tech Blinders about Students and Purposes of Schooling

  1. The cartoon reminds me of much of the content in “Academically Adrift” by Arum and Roksa. See my summary at http://bit.ly/iuACmH. Their study shows that many colleges put a low priority on undergraduate education and that most students learn little or nothing when it comes to problem solving, critical thinking, and writing skills. Great post. Keep up the good work. Douglas, W, Green, EdD

  2. tkilbourn

    A favorite student and recent graduate from the high school where I taught sent me this web site: http://expositions.bnf.fr/utopie/feuill/index.htm

    The images were created in 1910 and are projections of what life will be like in 2000. A patient search will reveal one of image of what schools will be like.



    • larrycuban

      Yes, Tom, the image from 1910 about a classroom with kids wearing hearphones and what appears as the teacher grinding up books is spooky. Thanks for sending it along

  3. The key is purpose. What purpose does our public institute of education serve?

    If you believe that the sole purpose of schools should be to impart information to students, then the new reformers are right, their innovations will accomplish this (at the expense of the poorer classes which have limited access to the disruptions).

    If you believe that having a common meeting ground for our democratic values to be practiced, modeled, and inspired in students, then the new reforms are harmful, since they are intended to destructure public education.

  4. Larry; Why do you spread mis-information. You say it is an “undeniable fact that delivering online courses is far less costly than providing live teachers to students.” Again, you paint online with a single, very, very, broad brush. (Haven’t we had this discussion before?) The online courses I’m familiar with, that I help to design and build aren’t far less costly than providing a live teacher. In fact, there is an online teacher and class size is limited to about 25. The infrastructure and time to build the course needs to be factored into the costs too. So, please stop characterizing all online education with the one negative model you’ve got in your head.

    On your main thread of disruption, I know, when we created the country’s first virtual high school that we were working to make as little disruption as possible. We needed the acceptance of the existing on-ground structures. We fit brick-and-mortar schedules. We made sure course descriptions sounded like those of the on-ground program of studies I created when I was a brick-and -mortar school administrator. I know the other virtual education programs were also working to fit, rather than disrupt. The fact that virtual education has been identified as a disruptive innovation means that even without trying we were able to disrupt the status quo. Would you say the status quo should be disrupted, or left to remain the status quo?

    • larrycuban

      Hi Ray,
      I say that the status quo is always changing. Whether the changes satisfy some and not others is another matter.

      As to cost, sure, there is variation .I have no reason to doubt what you say about programs you ran but many states legislate far less pupil expenditure for online instructional reimbursement than for kids attending regular school. See Gene Glass’s report “Realities of K-12 Virtual Schools” (2009) and John Watson’s report for the North American Council for Online Learning called “National Primer on K-12 Online Learning Instruction” (2007).

  5. tkilbourn

    Mr. Rose:

    Though I am not familiar with your work (I did google your name but that did not help), I do wonder if you are familiar with the concept of “disruptive innovation” as articulated by Clayton Christensen? Your comment, “we were working to make as little disruption as possible,” suggests to me that you have not read Clayton Christensen. I mean no offense. Here is an easy access to Christensen’s view: http://forum-network.org/lecture/disruptive-innovation-and-way-we-learn


  6. Hi Larry, It was good to meet up in the summer and Kieran says thanks for the Brownies.

    I am sure the start up cost of the Stanford Virtual High School would not have been “far less costly” than providing face to face teachers?

    However I am sure you and your readers are aware of the claims of Carol Twigg in her article “Improving learning and reducing costs”?

    “Preliminary results show that all thirty institutions reduced costs by
    about40 percent on average, with a range of 20 percent to 84 percent”


    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Bob, for the reference to the Twigg article. Should help to clear up confusion over costs–particularly distinguishing between start-up costs and annual costs.

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