FAQs for a Skeptic on Technology

Over the years, readers and students have asked me about the work I have done on school reform and technology. I want to answer  these Frequently Asked Question (FAQ) here. But first some background.

I began doing research and writing on teacher and student uses of technology in the early 1980s when the first personal computers appeared in classrooms. That writing turned into Teachers and Machines: The Classroom Use of Technology since 1920. I then began working on a larger study of teacher and student uses of new technologies in preschool and kindergarten, high schools, and universities. That became Oversold and Underused: Computers in Classrooms (2001). In 2009, one chapter of Hugging the Middle: How Teachers Teach in an Era of Testing and Accountability dealt with teacher and student uses of technologies across four school districts.

Those writings on teaching and technology put me squarely in the bin labeled Skeptic. And comments were testy. Promoters of new technologies, be they vendors, practitioners or policymakers, would curtly dismiss concerns I and others raised by calling skeptics “Luddites.”

No more. Public scorn for anyone who would probe the prevailing beliefs in the magical efficacy of computers in schools has become unfashionable.  I have found educators and non-educators who deeply believed in classroom computers as engines of learning, willing to listen to critics when concerns were raised about the many goals of schooling in a democracy, implementing new technologies, and insufficient research to support expansion. I find these changes encouraging but hardly a game-changer.

Why? Because in my experience, there are fewer skeptics than true believers in new technologies. Perhaps because I am in the minority, the FAQs that I have been asked are more of a personal character seeking elaboration of why I have explored technology and school reform and what technologies I use.

1. Why did you begin writing about technology in classroom lessons? In the late-1970s, I began doing research and writing about the history of classroom instruction. In 1984, I published How Teachers Taught: Constancy and Change in American Classrooms, 1890-1980. In that book, I tracked the repeated (and failed) efforts of progressive reformers over a century to change classroom practice in urban, suburban, and rural classrooms from teacher-centered to student-centered lessons. In doing the archival research, seeing photos of teachers teaching, and reading accounts of how teachers taught different lessons, I saw the classroom use of different technologies from blackboards, stereopticons, and textbooks to overhead projectors, films, radio, and instructional television. The idea that reforming teaching was linked to the introduction of new technologies intrigued me. Was introduction of new technologies another way that reformers had in moving teaching away from traditional lessons? I found out that the answer was yes.

2. Do you personally use any electronic technologies?

At home I have a desktop and laptop computer, an iPad, and an iPhone. The desktop I use at home; the laptop and iPad when I travel, and the iPhone daily. I use all of them for personal, business, and professional work such as this blog. Please do not ask me how many times I check my email.

3. When you taught high school history and social studies and graduate classes at Stanford, did you use technologies in your instruction?

Yes, I did in the past and do now. I used regularly (daily and weekly) both old and new technologies between the 1950s and 1980s in high school teaching. Films (16mm), film strips, overhead projectors, and videocassettes. Currently, I use my laptop and LCD in seminars for examples of points to make, quick polls of students, video clips, etc. I do not, however, do PowerPoint presentations.

4. If you are (and have been) a regular user of technologies, why are you skeptical of their use in classrooms?

Like past electronic technologies, vendors and enthusiasts have hyped them to solve problems from low academic performance to alienation among students to traditional teaching practices. Hype is over-promising; over-promising inexorably leads to disappointment; disappointment builds cynicism. I am allergic to hype.

Second, new technologies are experiments–alpha and beta versions–used to find out whether they are workable and even useful on students who are compelled to be in school and know little about consequences. Combine hype and experimentation and that is a potentially toxic combination. Thus, hard questions must be asked of those policymakers who buy and deploy electronic devices for classroom instruction.

Third, the enormous amount of money spent on new technologies without much evidence of their efficacy on teaching and learning means that other options such as investing in more teachers and their professional development are lost. That is inefficient and ineffective policymaking.

Given these three reasons, I remain skeptical of new technologies applied to teaching and learning in public schools.


Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies, technology use

32 responses to “FAQs for a Skeptic on Technology

  1. Larry,

    Thanks again for a great posting!

    What you say deeply resonates with me. As someone who took to the ed-tech route when I started ES and MS teaching in ’01, I have to admit, I’ve seen more facile learning with technology than deep engagement (as the enthusiasts would argue of our “digital natives”). When one takes a historical perspective, the great scientists and mathematicians and writers did their work without computers, calculators and the like. Of course they built their work on others; no one’s denying that. I think we have to keep in mind that engagement with learning is not per force technology-dependent.


  2. hi dad, thanks for reminding me of this. Writing about the contrasts between schools and the ways libraries adopted new technologies, both to their detriment and success made me realize what unique institutions schools are…

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Sondra, for the reminder about new technologies driving libraries since the 1960s. Our “Partners in Literacy” showed both similarities and differences between and among public schools and libraries.

  3. Thank you for an excellent post with great explanations of your use of technology. Teachers, at all levels, act as role models and guides in the use of technology for our students. That means we have to be thoughtful in our choices and reasons we use technology.


  4. Doug Reaves

    I, too, am a skeptic for all of the reasons that you mention (and more),even though I was the person responsible for introducing and maintaining computers in a K-12 school from 1989 to 2011. I am always amazed at the unquestioning enthusiasm with which most administrators embrace the use of new gadgets in the classroom. And you are correct, the opinion of anyone who questions the expense or outcomes of the new technology is dismissed as that of a crackpot.

    In this article you say, “Thus, hard questions must be asked of those policymakers who buy and deploy electronic devices for classroom instruction.” I would love some help with those questions. Could you, in your next piece, give suggestions for questions that I could put to policymakers who are implementing expensive new technolgies in our school district?

    Thanks for your commitment to education.

    • larrycuban


      Here are four questions that I would put to decision-makers who have adopted and implemented reform-driven policies for a school and district:

      1. Did reform structures and programs aimed at improving student achievement get implemented?
      Without complete implementation, no determination of policy success or its validity as a theory of change can be made.

      2. Have teaching practices changed in the intended direction? Without altering typical classroom routines consistent with policy assumptions and strategies, chances of students learning more, faster, and better are slim.

      3. Did changed classroom practices account for what students learned? Without systematic inquiry into which classroom practices have changed, it is impossible to determine whether student learning, even if only measured by test scores, is due to a close match between what teachers did daily (e.g., deeper probing into subject-matter content, focusing on test preparation) or to some other factors.

      4. Did what students learn achieve policy makers’ desired outcomes? Do higher test scores for students translate into a reduced achievement gap between minorities and whites, fewer students dropping out of high schools, and more graduating seniors going on to college?

    • Doug, Having been involved in numerous technology interventions on the commercial side, I would add two key questions to Larry’s.
      Can you articulate clearly in what ways teacher or pupil practice will differ after the full implementation of the programme?
      Can you provide the required funding for the programme to last more than five years?

  5. The question Larry is simple. Does the technology increase student learning?

    But learning has to be more than “getting the answer” Larry. Learning is also about understanding. Understanding is having a depth of knowledge. Putting numbers into a template to get an answer is using technology. Understanding how the answer was derived is learning.

    • larrycuban

      You hit the hardest part about the connection between technology and learning, Rickey: how the meaning of the word “learning” varies among educators, voters, parents, and policymakers.

  6. Pingback: FAQs for a Skeptic on Technology | Larry Cuban on School Reform ... | college and career ready | Scoop.it

  7. sonia

    Larry, your work is informing my fourth year studies (my interest is the responsible use of technology in high schools), and is a ‘go to’ when I feel ‘alone’ in my ‘skeptic box’. Your work is always a rejuvenating tonic! I am endeavoring to understand, why, when there is no evidence to support the ICT promise, that school leaders still run with hype and experimentation. I am observing that school leaders are not clearly or consistently able to articulate or justify their reasons for the realization of ICT in schools. Nor do they appear to follow a guiding framework (their own ICT policy, ethical model, ICT decision model or otherwise). It seems that there is much work to be done to empower school leaders to maker more informed technology decisions. Thanks again for your inspiring work.

  8. Larry

    As someone who has followed your contribution since I started teaching in the mid-80s I appreciate once again the succinctness of your communication. I must confess to being a ‘believer’ ever since as a mid-80s Mathematics teacher I observed profound differences in engagement and learning not only in my learning, and student learning when digital technologies are used in constructive ways.

    I have spent my career seeking to understand and utilize such power. This has included engaging with ‘Luddites’ (who weren’t against technology per se, but rather how it affected their lives), and being willing to risk (which is part of the curriculum requirement that I work within). What has always concerned me is skeptical views that attack short comings in an imperfect world, without appreciation of complexity, diversity or realism. In this I am just as concerned with school school system administrators, and technology advocates (be they commercial or bureaucratic) for the same reasons. We can get a bit tied up with bureaucratic shortcomings and miss the opportunities and challenges that technological change provides.

    Schooling and education are debatable ever since at least the times of Socrates. A good future lies not in blame, but in contribution. I agree maybe we are not as advanced over the past quarter decade as some would have hoped or contended, but change is much more part of the school dynamic and it is up to educators to make sense and add social value in what is a complex milieu. Harkening back as justification of learning value limits the 360 degree view needed.

    Perhaps like climate change the game is changing while we as frogs boil. I see the fundamental difference between the skeptical view and the believer view of computers in education as akin to a late 19thC view that an engine would ever be able to make a car fly. Many were working to show this was a limited, often unsuccessful, view. I see the role of educators as supporting such opportunity creation.

    Once again, appreciate the chance to think about areas of common interest.

  9. Pingback: Digital Technologies in schools > Skeptic, Believer or ….. « Light Offerings

  10. Larry, I’ve just directed a review of research looking at what impact technology interventions for socially disadvantaged groups in schools has had, the millions spent on bridging that marketing gem, “the digital divide.” Answer… I’ll leave you to guess.

  11. Bob Calder

    Larry, have you thought of talking to an evolutionary biologist about technology adoption? Someone with that knowledge might say something worthwhile vis a vis enthusiasm for change.

  12. larrycuban

    Thanks for the suggestion. When Stephen Gould came out with the concept of “punctuated equilibrium” to explain evolution in the early 1970s, I recall how some folks (including myself) subsequently applied it to school reform and technological changes in schooling. I will do some more poking about.

  13. NPedro

    A suggestion for a final question: Regarding technologies & education, were you always skeptical? did you learned to be? and what changed in our way of thinking about it through the process?

  14. Pingback: FAQs for a Skeptic on Technology | Educational Technology News | Scoop.it

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