Another Round of Predictions about High-tech in Schools in 2020

Image representing iPad as depicted in CrunchBase

Image via CrunchBase

For the past quarter-century, I have written about teacher and student access to, and instructional use of, computers in schools. In those articles and books, I have been skeptical of vendors’ and promoters’ claims about how these ever-changing electronic devices will transform teaching and learning.

Amid that skepticism, however, I have noted often that many teachers adopted the latest devices and software not only for home use but also to become more efficient in planning lessons, using the Internet, grading students, communicating with parents and other educators, and dozens of other classroom and non-classroom tasks. Nor have my criticisms of policymakers’ decisions to purchase extensive hardware (far too often without teacher advice) prevented me from identifying (and celebrating) teachers leading classes in computer graphics, animation, and computer science as well as classroom teachers who have imaginatively and creatively integrated new devices and social media seamlessly into their daily lessons.

My allergy, however, to glowing scenarios of a future rich with technology (or dystopias that predict machines triumphing over humans) remains. I can only imagine how painful it must be for those hard-core advocates of more-technology-the-better who predicted the end of schooling years ago to see that public schools are still around. So what might 2020 look like?

For the past two years, I offered predictions (see December 26, 2009 and December 30, 2010 posts) of what I saw around the corner for high-tech in schools.

Predictions about future use of computers are often made by projecting existing trends into the next decade. This tactic embraces a conservative view of the future since it is rooted in the here-and-now. That is what I do.

Others have predicted the disappearance of schools and classrooms–a highly unlikely outcome. Such extreme scenarios leapfrog the present and stretch unreasonably the potential of the new technologies, thereby painting utopian (or dystopian) pictures. So given my allergy to rosy (or grim) scenarios that depend upon huge leaps of imagination, I will stick with current trends–the evidence at hand–acknowledging that they, too, may end up in a pile of debris should major unplanned events occur.

Clear trend lines for U.S. classrooms in the next decade are the continued growth of digital textbooks downloaded on hand-held devices and tablets (smartphones, iPads, eBook variations) and expanded online learning. But not the disappearance of public schools.


Small and powerful devices in the hands of students will permit the digitizing of texts. Student backpacks will lighten considerably as $100 hardbound books become as obsolete as the rotary dial phone. Homework, text reviews for tests, and all of the teacher-assigned tasks associated with hardbound books will be formatted for small screens. Instead of students’ excuses about leaving texts in lockers, teachers will hear requests to recharge their devices. Note that Korea has already committed itself to digitize all texts.


Proponents talk about how this form of teaching and learning as a powerful innovation that will liberate learning from the confines of brick-and-mortar buildings. Estimates (and predictions) of online learning becoming the dominant form of teaching turn up repeatedly yet somehow, fade. Surely, there will always be students and adults drawn from rural, home schooled, and adult populations that will provide a steady stream of clients for online courses. And even more evident is that many schools, particularly those catering to low-income students, will have blended programs of classrooms with teachers and computer labs with aides where online instruction is tailored to individual students. Much less of blended learning, however, in affluent districts.

Even with this expansion, by 2020, well over 90 percent of public school students will be in places called schools going at least 180 days a year to self-contained classrooms where a teacher will be in charge.

The error that online champions make decade after decade (recall that distance learning goes back to the 1960s) is that they forget that schools have multiple responsibilities beyond literacy. Both parents and voters want schools to socialize students into community values, prepare them for civic responsibilities, and yes, get them ready for college and career. Online courses from for-profit companies and non-profit agencies, while creating imaginative short-cuts to achieve these ends online, overall cannot hack those duties and responsibilities.

So by 2020, uses of technologies will change some aspects of teaching and learning but schools and classrooms will be clearly recognizable to students’ parents and grandparents. Digital textbooks will surprise the older generation but turning in homework, taking quizzes, asking teachers questions will remain familiar.  Even with exposes of for-profit cyber-schools, online instruction will continue to expand incrementally, particularly for certain kinds of students but, overall, will still be peripheral to regular K-16 schooling.



Filed under technology use

11 responses to “Another Round of Predictions about High-tech in Schools in 2020

  1. Bob Calder

    So. Will this be the year of Michael Millikin or rather his sock puppets?

  2. The students who can use various online learning effectively are those who possess fairly high levels of skill and motivation. When you are stuck in the learning process, you need feedback/guidance/help from a teacher. The online learning program with which I am minimally familiar, PLATO, will respond according to the users level of knowledge but if the student isn’t motivated or gets discouraged, he will not get far with it without teracher assistance.

    • Bob Calder

      This seems like a good time to talk about the arc of adoption.

      At some point we have to consider how the process we have adopted breaks down. Adoption won’t be the same for everybody. Certain pieces of the process will be universally adopted and others won’t. For instance, this won’t work without universal broadband on one hand and lots of teachers interacting at their own computers on the other. Chat and conference will work wonders up to the point where a student avoids the computer. Then it’s over. It’s over already for working mothers that need the child care service provided by schools. Broadband does not look like it will ever gain “right of access” status in the US given the power of industry and the willingness of our government to sell off our common property to “lower taxes”.

    • larrycuban

      Yes, what research I have read about online students supports what you say.

  3. Happy New Year Larry….I hope 2012 brings many more of your blog posts to inform this debate.

    Once again you have given a balanced and pragmatic view of how technology will continue to impact on teaching and learning in and out of school.

    On this side of the pond we are expecting our Education Secretary to open the BETT show “powering learning”
    by announcing a new “Harnessing Technology policy” which whilst having no money is the first high profile recognition that technology can improve teaching and learning. (if used effectively by teachers).

    There is also a growing “consumerisation of educational technology” movement sometmes summarised as BYOD (Bring your own device).

    What is inescapable is the fact that faster and faster wireless broadband,cheaper and cheaper mobile devices,cloud computing and the digital expectations of pupils and learners (my 84 yr old Mum has just facetimed me on her ipad 2) means our schools and colleges will have to embrace the technology and teachers will have to make professional decisions about pedagogy.

    Have a great 2012 🙂

  4. Hi again Larry, Just remembered this paper from 2010 which I know will be of interest to you and some of your readers?

  5. Pingback: A New Year, A New List of Trends « Chalkdust101

  6. I am far less concerned with the misguided prospect that schools might one day cease to exist but rather the changes they are forced to make due to disruptive technologies. I suspect the rise in both homeschooling and unschooling can be attributed to the same technologies that account for the rise in online schooling. All three of these draw students away from brick and mortar schools forcing schools to make cuts. Those cuts coupled with the pressures put on schools to test prep mean that students in most schools, but particularly those in economically depressed schools, will see less arts, less project-based learning, less authentic assessment, and more drill and kill all of which increases the incentives for those students already at risk of dropping out to leave. I am so frustrated that whenever the topic of technology in schools comes up that almost no one talks about schools as technology including the design of curriculum, school policies, standardized testing, grading systems, and schedules. Each of these is a technology that arguably has more influence on the learning environment than the introduction of a gadget.

    • larrycuban

      Seeing “technology” as you do (e.g., schools as designed instruments to achieve societal purposes)and not as a succession of gadgets is at the heart of much of the current misunderstanding of “technology” in schools and classrooms. Your definition of technology has had a long hard slog over the decades; most policymakers, practitioners, researchers,and parents–in my opinion–do not define technology as you do.

      The tension you see between public schools and online learning, particularly over dollars following students, is one that pinches greatly during budgetary retrenchment. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

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