No End to Magical Thinking When It Comes to High-Tech Schooling

Few high-tech entrepreneurs, pundits, or booster of online learning, much less, policymakers, would ever say aloud publicly that robots and hand-held devices will eventually replace teachers. Yet many fantasize that such an outcome will occur. High-profile awards to entrepreneurs, the occasional cartoon, and  advocates who dream of online instruction anywhere, anytime transforming education feed the fantasy.


Consider Sugata Mitra, Professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University (United Kingdom). He recently received the TED award of $1 million for creating learning environments where illiterate Indian children had access to computers in actual holes-in-walls on streets of New Delhi slums. Some of the children told him: “You’ve given us a machine that works only in English, so we had to teach ourselves English.” Believing that children’s sense of wonder and intrepid curiosity would spur them to use computers and learn English, science, and whatever else they were curious about on their own, Mitra said to his audiences and funders: “My wish is to help design the future of learning by supporting children all over the world to tap into their innate sense of wonder and work together. Help me build the School in the Cloud, a learning lab in India, where children can embark on intellectual adventures by engaging and connecting with information and mentoring online.”

The million dollar award is not an accident when so many vendors, enthusiasts, and dreamers are willing to spend large sums of money to advance the spread of Mitra’s initiative and similar ones through both the developing and developed world.

More magical thinking–another noble dream–occurred nearly a decade ago with the  One-Laptop-Per-Child initiative (OLPC). Nicholas Negroponte, MIT professor and former director of the MIT Media Lab, designed the project to put inexpensive, solar-powered laptops (running now around $200) in the hands of children and youth in least developed countries in Africa, Asia, and South America.    images

No shortage of critics, however.

i-6c7a585f87d73de69a303a2d7666d8a7-OLPC joyoftech

Thus far, the largest distribution of laptops, nearly a million, have gone to rural and poor children in Peru over the past few years. A recent evaluation of the effort concluded:

*The program dramatically increased access to computers
*No evidence that the program increased learning in Math or Language.
*Some benefits on cognitive skills

Results for other developing countries such as Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Uruguay have similar mixed results. At best, it is too early to say what the benefits have been; after all, laptops are slowly becoming obsolete since smart phones and cheaper devices have nearly replaced them in many parts of the world; at worst, OLPC approaches what Mike Trucano, ICT specialist for the World Bank, listed as one of the 9 worst ed tech practices in the developing world: Dump hardware in schools, hope for magic to happen.

I certainly saw that with instructional television in the 1960s, desktop computers and labs in the 1980s, 1:1 laptop programs since the mid-1990s and I now see a similar pattern with iPads, other tablets, and smart phones. Magical thinking about transforming teaching and learning–dumping teachers and traditional schools disappearing–is close to make-believe even when children have these powerful devices in their hands.

Vendor-driven hype and wishful policy thinking over robots, increasingly sophisticated artificial  intelligence software, and expanded virtual teaching feed private and public fantasies about replacing teachers and schools. Taking a step back and thinking about what parents, voters, and taxpayers want from schools–the social, economic, political, and individual goals–makes magical thinking more of a curse in the inevitable public disappointment and cynicism that ensue after money is spent, paltry results emerge, and machines  become obsolete.

I end with the obvious point that magical thinking and the accompanying curse afflicts not only educators but also the rest of us, as these homeowners found out:



Filed under Reforming schools, technology use

37 responses to “No End to Magical Thinking When It Comes to High-Tech Schooling

  1. Pingback: Sugata Mitra faces quite a backlash | From experience to meaning...

  2. The past 2+ decades of my career have been spent working on my province’s k-12 distance education system. It is a technologically-complicated affair that has enjoyed success, not primarily through the magic of technology (although that has certainly played a part) but, rather, through the dedicated efforts of a large team of people. In August of this year I shall retire from the k-12 system and if there is just one thing I have learned it is this: k-12 teaching and learning only works when all involved (parents, administrators, teachers and students) dig in and do the large amount of work that is required. In short there is no ‘silver bullet’ and there never will be.
    By the way, if you are interested in that distance education system (I think it is worth looking at) you might consider a visit to my blog as the majority of the posts since January have been a step-by-step detailing of the history of the system since I joined it in the late eighties. I believe there are lessons there for anyone who wishes to become involved in eLearning in our time.

  3. Oh, and Larry, I echo your opinion about other modern technologies.
    My stance on Interactive whiteboards is here:
    My stance on iPads and other tablets is here:
    Neither post is ‘negative’ in nature; both are cautions that run along your theme: these things are just more tools. Good ones, yes, but by no means the focal point of our endeavours.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Maurice, I will look at your posts that you noted including the history of distance learning in your province.

  4. Raelynn Johnson

    You are right – it’s not enough. Simply exposing children to hardware is not the magic bullet. Yet, exposure is a start. What is the teachers had a newer set of teaching skills that allowed them to educate learners with this technology?

    I’m always taken back by posts like this. Mitra saw a need and attempted to solve a problem. What are you proposing would be a better plan? Not to do anything? It’s a valid argument that not all have the reformers have the best intentions to better lives, but yet, there are many traditional educators with the same lack of intentions.

    It would appear that when talking about education reform, there are two types of contributors: 1) Those who “do” by taking chances by providing new opportunities, 2) Those who complain about those who do. Yet the latter rarely can come up with anything tangible to provide as an alternate plan.

    I’m an advocate for online education, but I actually have taught online in higher education. Therefore I know that what I do is hardly replaceable by robots. Anyone who’s actually taught a well-constructed and effective online course would agree that it can’t be done without a teacher. But go on, and became an alarmist. Tell all that we believe in rainbows and butterflies because we are doing something that deviates from the status quo. As with anything, there’s good change and bad change with reform… but not all NEW change is bad. There may not be a magic bullet, but there are often bbs of positive change when we try to change lives through empowerment.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Raelynn, for taking the time to comment. With nearly five decades of miles on my odometer spent in schools, I have been part of the status quo, challenged the status quo and seen the innovations become the status quo. Strangely enough, the status quo is seldom static. Seems to me that the larger issue is the high value that Americans–and so many others–place upon new technologies solving problems ranging from houseware to traffic to economic inequality. Turning to a new device first rather than seeking other ways–getting first-rate teachers for example–is a tic that afflicts many educators. Nonetheless, even as we disagree Raelynn, I appreciated your passionate comments.

      • saurilio

        Yes I agree Larry, the larger issue is the “the value put on new technologies solving problems.” It’s foundational to the American identify, and to the country’s economic and political goals. There’s no impetus then to ask the kinds of questions that need to be asked.

      • larrycuban

        Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  5. Bob Calder

    I think people often mistake the intent of Negroponte and Papert as some kid of tecno-utopian thing which misses the target. I don’t think they intended to drop computers on millions of children to create an American Suburban Miracle. What they intended to do, and succeeded, is to put puzzles in the hands of children in the hope of creating the seed of a culture that will grow on its own and in its own way.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Bob, for the comment. When it comes to motives of reformers, I always assume they are mixed–not just one.

    • saurilio

      Bob I agree, particularly about Papert, who’s early work I’m fairly familiar with. MOOCs have suffered the same interpretive fate I believe. Siemen’s theory of connectivity, which underpins the original MOOC idea is born of a culture of learning that’s evolved with the internet. But education, schooling, they’re something else. I think the general public knows this, but the belief in technological solutionism distracts them.

  6. Pingback: No End to Magical Thinking When It Comes to High-Tech Schooling | Education3.0 |

  7. Ian Rae

    Technology often does improve things. Who would want to go to a 1960s era hospital with no MRI, or vaccines for pneumonia (1977), hepatitis B (1981), etc? Or drive a 1960s car with leaded gas, no seat belts and air bags.

    The problem is, as you say, the magical thinking about technology. Rolling out new technology needs to involve the entire organization, with the people who will actually use it having a major say. Too many top-down initiatives that are half-baked and underfunded. Or bottom-up initiatives that try to scale up home-made solutions. I’m not sure what the answer is. In the software world it was solved by open-source, where people just built their own tools. That’s not going to happen with teachers, but perhaps they
    could be allowed to vote on which tools or technologies are pursued in their district.

  8. Pingback: No End to Magical Thinking When It Comes to High-Tech Schooling | Personal [e-]Learning Environments |

  9. Pingback: No End to Magical Thinking When It Comes to High-Tech Schooling | [ gregg festa ] |

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  11. Pingback: No End to Magical Thinking When It Comes to High-Tech Schooling – Larry Cuban | David's Research Blog

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  13. I completely agree with you Larry. Very informative and detailed analysis.

  14. Hi Larry, You are not the only one who has doubts about Sugata Mitra and Negroponte

    Have a read of Donald Clark’s blog

    “Sugata Mitra-slum chic-7 reasons for doubt

  15. I was employed a couple of years ago by an Australian organisation to look at the OLPC initiatives globally before they committed themselves to funding any in the Pacific region. I recall discovering that not one had put anything in place to measure impact or assess the educational benefits or outcomes. I also seem to recall that at any one time, 27% of the machines in Uruguay were out of action.

    Worth pointing people to the conclusions of the Azim Premjy Foundation, arguably the world’s largest non-profit organization dedicated to working with computers in education, whose CEO concluded in his report last year that their entire effort had been “at best a qualified failure”. He added, “At its best, the fascination with ICT as a solution distracts from the real issues. At its worst, ICT is suggested as substitute to solving the real problems, for example, ‘why bother about teachers, when ICT can be the teacher’. This perspective is lethal.”

  16. Good piece Larry. For more evidence of failure & detail on Sugata Mitra (and his angry responses) see and for Negroponte’s Ethiopian madness

  17. Pingback: Worst practice in providing educational technology, especially to developing world | Computing Education Blog

  18. Larry, I like the way you are emphasising that the problem is not so much with the tech itself (bits of which can, of course, be very useful in the appropriate situation) but with the magical thinking about the tech. In the old days, of course, we called this ideology. We might prefer to call it mythology. Mitra’s February TED talk played with a number of myths. One that we took objection to was his mythical reading of empire (tarring all of mainstream education with the blackest of Victorian brushes). We try to explode that myth in the post below:

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Torn, for taking the time to comment and send along your analysis of Mitra’s talks.I will read your post.

  19. Pingback: Education and technology – Self-teaching / multitasking | Ideas and Events

  20. Pingback: Me as a teacher | The Weblog of (a) David Jones

  21. Pingback: Selections in E-Learning: Guerra Scale and Sugata Mitra | Yin Wah Kreher

  22. Pingback: Sugata Mitra: Child-Driven Education | Yin Wah Kreher

  23. Pingback: Setting the Stage for Learning: the Hole-in-the-Wall Program – A Pass

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