Three Ways of Integrating Technology in Schools

“There won’t be schools in the future …. I think the computer will blow up the school. That is, the school defined as something where there are classes, teachers running exams, people structured in groups by age, following a curriculum—all of that…. But this will happen only in communities of children who have access to computers on a sufficient scale.”

That’s Seymour Papert, cognitive scientist and designer of software application Logo, writing in 1984 about dramatic changes in schooling with the advent of the desktop computer. Nearly 30 years later, the U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, spoke at the Association of American Publishers Annual Meeting in 2010 on the national plan for technology.

“We have the opportunity to completely reform our nation’s schools. We’re not talking about tinkering around the edges here. We’re talking about a fundamental re-thinking of how our schools function and placing a focus on teaching and learning like never before.”

Claims about the power of new electronic devices to “revolutionize” schooling are a dime a dozen. Yet, if they are nearly worthless, why have smart people said them over and over again?

The answer is deeply embedded in American culture: a love affair with technology as the elixir of everlasting improvement in all things personal and institutional. In the past quarter-century, quasi-miraculous changes have occurred in communication, information accessibility, business and commercial activities, combat operations, medical diagnosis and treatment, and so many other activities. Why not schooling?

But schools have changed. There are far more electronic devices in schools than when Seymour Papert wrote in 1984. Students use cell phones, personal computers, and tablets at home and in school. Ditto for teachers. Classrooms have been equipped with interactive whiteboards. So why is Arne Duncan calling for a “fundamental re-thinking of how our schools function?”

The reason is that while there is much hardware and software in classrooms, how teachers teach and students learn have remained remarkably stable over the decades. Schools have not yet blown up.

Technology advocates like the U.S. Secretary of Education want teachers to integrate these powerful devices into their daily lessons and have their students learn more, faster, and better; they want schools to customize learning through online instruction to such a degree that students could learn at home, in the neighborhood, and, if necessary in a classroom. They do not want more stability; they want dramatic change.

High-tech champions attack stability in teaching and learning because schools have integrated the use of technology in three ways. One has disappointed promoters, the other two point to a far more promising future.

The first way is in the classroom. Most teachers with abundant access to electronic devices have integrated desktops, laptops, interactive white- boards, and clickers into their lessons. Students search the Internet, research projects, present PowerPoint slides, use whiteboards and on and on. But these forms of technology integration frustrate high-tech advocates.

Teachers have incorporated powerful devices to do what they usually do in lessons: give homework, present illustrated lectures, guide whole class discussions, assign seatwork, and, of course, use textbooks and test students. Not too much different than parents and grandparents experienced in their schools. While such adoption of the new to sustain the old occurs in other occupations, high-tech enthusiasts deplore such limited use of powerful teaching and learning devices.

The second way of integrating technology is in the school. Combining online instruction for individual students tailored to their academic needs and interests with regular classroom instruction have emerged in past few years as “blended learning.” The “School of One” in New York City, Carpe Diem in Tucson (AZ), and Rocketship charters in San Jose (CA) are exemplars of this form of technology integration.

Such “blended” schools have been praised by high-tech advocates who see the customization of lessons in “learning labs” for up to half of the school day as a possible future for all schools.

The third way are for-profit and non-profit K-12 cyber schools such as Agora (PA) and Florida Virtual School where students receive online instruction at home or elsewhere and get their diplomas without entering school buildings.

So here are three ways of integrating technology in classrooms and schools. Most high-tech promoters praise “blended” schools, a few believe in a future where online learning ends schooling as we know it; both advocates loathe teachers’ unimaginative uses of powerful devices to maintain existing classroom lessons.

What technology enthusiasts, however, forget, neglect, stumble over—pick a verb–are the multiple purposes of tax-supported schools in a democracy. They and many others futurists err—my choice of the verb—in equating access to information with becoming educated. Even worse, these very smart people ignore the crucial and historical purposes public schools have served in a democracy.

Tax-supported public schools have been and are social, political, and moral institutions whose job is to help children and youth acquire multiple literacies, enter the labor market well prepared, vote, serve on juries, contribute to their communities, think for themselves, and live full and worthwhile lives.

A century ago, these purposes for public schools were obvious; now they remain in the shadows. Few policymakers, philanthropists, technology futurists have challenged (or are willing to challenge) the swelling embrace of online instruction, including “blended learning,” that promise transforming schools into information factories.


Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools

36 responses to “Three Ways of Integrating Technology in Schools

  1. Jeff Bowen

    Thank you for these insights! Those who unabashedly embrace educational technology may underestimate the historical durability of American schools as dynamic communities where social, emotional and academic learning create a comprehensive, and value-infused growing experience — one not found in most other countries we are compared to. Technology is an incrdibly effective way to communicate and share information and even grow knowledge. But the wisdom that dervies from the history of American communities limits technology to being a means, not an end. You just can’t capture the vital life of a community via technology.

  2. Thank you for this interesting post Larry. Are these schools adopting techno-practices that universities have been instituted for some time now–for example, online learning or blended learning, or are they coming from some other place?

    • larrycuban

      Yes, K-12 schools are adopting online instruction (less blended learning) but not necessarily from universities which have had online for decades. Homeschooling, rural students, and disabled children and youth in K-12 have been using online for years because it connected them to teachers and subject matter they needed and could not (or chose not to) get from bricks-and-mortar buildings. The impetus comes less from copying universities and more from necessity and, now, budget retrenchment. Thanks for the comment, Sondra.

  3. Elson Liu

    In “Teachers and Machines” you used a quotation by Thomas Edison – from 1922 – to provide a similar historical context to the over-enthusiastic claims of educational technology futurists. Having said that, what do you think about the growing prevalence of student-owned devices – “Bring Your Own Device” models and the “Consumerization of IT” trend? Do you think those trends will have any more potential to transform instructional practice than the historical, top-down efforts at education reform with technology?

    • larrycuban

      Elson, if you can tell me how widespread this “growing prevalence” of BYOD is across nearly 15,000 districts, 100,000 schools and 3.5 million teachers’ classrooms, I would be more than willing to answer your question. Yeah, you are right if you said to yourself, no one really knows. What happens is that both of us have read the same media reports and they do not indicate how widespread BYOD is nor how lessons change as a result of such use.

      • Elson Liu

        Indeed, no one really knows. I certainly can’t speak for the other ~15,000 districts, nor do I have what I would consider meaningful data. Anecdotally, I have observed significant growth in students bringing their own devices to our district over the past 2 years, especially coming back from Christmas breaks. I struggle with the question, “Is this any different?” Maybe from a “market penetration” point of view, but in terms of “transforming instructional practice,” it is so difficult to separate (potential) reality from hype.

      • larrycuban

        I certainly agree with your last sentence, Elson.

      • Steve Davis

        There are two problems with Bring Your Own Device (BYOD)

        First, it perpetuates inequities. In schools with high percentages of students who qualify for free and reduced lunch, there may be something close to a 50/50 split between smart phone/iPod/tablet haves and have-nots. In such scenarios, BYOD may actually widen achievement/skill gaps.

        BYOD (when not at a near 100% student participation threshold) also introduces new classroom management/monitoring challenges. The option of using personal devices without direct instruction leaves many of the most academically vulnerable students with a ready escape hatch from the heavy lifting of academics into the undemanding world of social networks and entertainment.

        The classroom teacher without access to institutionally provided technology for every student in their class has a couple of options: try to create lessons that somehow engage the BYOD haves and have-nots simultaneously, cater exclusively to the BYOD haves or exclude the use of (student-centered) technology.

      • larrycuban

        Steve, thanks for taking the time to comment.

  4. Rick Gaston

    Thanks for this post Larry, especially the important points in the last three paragraphs. I would also suggest that many online learning opportunities neglect the important role of the teacher, and give short shrift to developing a classroom community of learners. Such a community, if developed and facilitated well by a skilled teacher, can be a valuable place for students to hone their skills in academic discourse. I think this further adds to your point that education is not just about access to information.

  5. Larry, I’m not really sure what your point is. You state, ” how teachers teach and students learn have remained remarkably stable over the decades.” But, research supports the notion that we know a whole lot more about how kids learn and teachers teach, yet this is not reflected in instructional practices. Our one size fits all model that we still use fits in a time and day where society has grown beyond it. There are very few places in this country where kids in a classroom are all alike. Technology is and will always be a form of media whose effectiveness on achievement is tied to the strategies and methods used by teachers. If they are still teaching in the same old ways then technology/media will be largely ineffective. If I give you a tool and you use it for an unintended purpose, it’s likely to be ineffective and if I don’t provide you with training so that you can use it effectively who is to blame here.

    You say, tax-supported public schools have been and are social, political, and moral institutions whose job is to help children and youth acquire multiple literacies, enter the labor market well prepared, vote, serve on juries, contribute to their communities, think for themselves, and live full and worthwhile lives. Yet, we focus on accountability and teachers spend time teaching to the test, ignoring subjects that are not tested, ie social studies. Oh wait, social studies, isn’t that the one that was supposed to teach our kids about citizenship etc. Oh and wait, if we are teaching content in ineffective ways what does that do to those literacies you mentioned. Oh, and if most people don’t have their kids in the system and we are largely teaching kids who come to us largely unprepared and without support at home.

    So forgive me if I make no sense but I fail to see the connection that technology has anything to do with your point.

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  8. Also interesting how the democratizing types of technology (social media platforms like Facebook and twitter) are traditionally blocked in schools with tech access.

  9. Just a couple of thoughts that might add value. I think BYOD is inevitable. The way ICT has been funded by OECD countries in the last two decades is simply unsustainable. Purse holders should have appreciated this five years ago and acted much earlier. Secondly, I don’t believe BYOD runs the risk of inequity. I have recently been directing a research project on technology and social exclusion which has included working with staff at two large secondary schools with very high levels of social deprivation, in the UK. Not one single child was without a mobile phone and most had Blackberries.

    Finally, I think this comment by Bob speaks volumes. “If I give you a tool and you use it for an unintended purpose, it’s likely to be ineffective.” I’ve worked in the industry now for a long time and most tools used by schools were never designed for educational purposes, and those precious few that were, once you look, were usually pressed into service from elsewhere or had absolutely minimal experienced educational input into their design.

  10. Danny Glick

    When considering the integration of new technologies into classroom instruction, policy makers and educators must keep in mind that unless the integration and implementation processes are based on a clear, solid pedagogical rationale, new technologies will have little or no impact on learning outcomes. Nearly 30 years ago (1983) Clark famously argued that “media have no more effect on learning than a grocery truck has on the nutritional value of the produce it brings to market”. For technology to have the potential to significantly affect students’ learning outcomes, it (1) should be based on a solid pedagogical rationale; (2) the role of the teacher in the technology-enhanced learning environment should be clearly defined; (3) the role of the student should be re-defined; and (4) a course model detailing when, how and how often the new technology should be used needs to be defined.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the comment, Danny.

      Funny, I had thought that many of the promoters of PCs and laptops in the 1990s and since did believe that these new devices would transform teacher-centered to student-centered teaching–your number 1. They had a pedagogical rationale for introducing high-tech devices. Were that transformation to occur, the role of the teacher would shift from being central to being a coach or some other similar word. Your number 2. Ditto for the role of the student being more central to learning and doing. Your number 3. As for your number 4, I seldom saw a “course model” laying out how the new technology should be used.

      • Danny Glick

        Thanks for your comment, Larry.

        A mistake policymakers and technology promoters often make is that they consider student-centered teaching as pedagogical rationale. Student-centered teaching, at least the way I see it, is only a teaching method. Pedagogical rationale, on the other hand, is linked to a theory of learning, learning goals (objectives), teaching methods (process), the learning environment (technology), and assessment (outcomes). In Teaching for Quality Learning at University, Biggs (1999) describes the task of good pedagogical design as one of ensuing that there are absolutely no inconsistencies between the curriculum we teach, the teaching methods we use, the learning environment we choose, and the assessment procedures we adopt. Technology-enhanced courses which fulfill those requirements are more likely to have positive impact on students’ learning.

      • larrycuban

        Your comprehensive way of seeing a “pedagogical rationale” differs, as you say, from most advocates of teachers using computer devices in their lessons. Where are the schools (K-12) and teachers using the “pedagogical rationale” that you describe? And are there studies of such places that support your last sentence. I am most interested in finding out about such places.

    • This pedagogical rationale sounds like uber control. Today’s technology changes things because it flips the table on who does the creating of content. Pedagogical rationale shouldn’t be used to support a hierarchical top down flow of information; the theory doesn’t necessarily need to work that way, even though, in practice, it is too common.

      The reason we don’t have reports yet on how BYOD can change education is that so few places are actually implementing the policy and practice. It’s not easy to implement, either, because it fundamentally challenges many of presuppositions of our current system – the same one we’ve been using for many years, a hierarchical paper based communication system.

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  13. Additionally, a great deal of technology has been distributed to teachers with very little assistance in fulfilling the potential benefits of having it in the first place. By the time teachers get a good feel for how to use and what works with a new piece of technology, it is an old piece of technology. Software is worse, as it is often purchased by a district for a year or two and then dropped, wasting teachers’ investment in that software.

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  15. Cary Hartzog

    Educational Technological devices of today may be compared to the new innovations of education in times past. Imagine the blackboard allowing increased participation of the pupil over writing or the use of an eraser to provide the reuse of paper without crossing out or blotting out the changes. Technology allows the innovative educator to use tools that are presently available. The education itself is still dependent on the learners response to the educators stimuli to think, absorb, and use.

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