Framing the School Technology Dream

I wrote the following commentary for Education Week. It appeared on April 17, 2013. The printed ads appear in a slideshow. See below.

For more than a century, educational technology ads have glistened with hope. Newly invented devices from the typewriter to film projectors, from the overhead projector to instructional television, from the Apple IIe to the iPad, have painted pictures of engaged students who will learn more, faster, and better. They have pictured teachers using new technologies to teach effectively. Of course, it is the nature of advertising to promise a rosier future, appealing to what policymakers, administrators, and, yes, parents yearn for … a better, easier, and even enjoyable way for teachers and students to teach and learn. And that is what these ads do. They assure readers that both teachers and students will be better off using these machines.

Take the Royal Portable typewriter ad from over a half-century ago that shows a joyful teenager looking at a report card with Mom and Dad in the background beaming. The ad announces: “A new Royal Portable can raise her marks up to 38%.” The first paragraph adds: “It happens every day! Many so called ‘slow students’ learn to type and then show up on the honor roll.”

Or consider the 1960 ad for a new filmstrip projector. Next to the image of the projector are reasons for buying this cutting-edge device. “Your teaching efforts are more effective. … Pupils comprehend faster with the brighter, more detailed image.” (See the film-projector ad and others in an online slideshow.)

Or the recent ad for the All-In-One iPad app that swears the application “seamlessly combines interactive instruction, formative assessment, progress tracking, and longitudinal reporting against standards with ANY content so the quality of instruction is measurably better and students make authentic performance gains.” Engaged students, higher achievement, and effective teaching are constants in ads for new technology over the past century.

Not to be ignored, however, is the explicit message of lower costs. Consider a 1986 Apple ad (not shown here or online; Apple did not grant permission to republish its advertisements) for a network package connecting the teacher’s desktop station to as many as 30 students’ computers. The ad proclaims: “Now Apple makes it easy to become attached to your students.” Best of all, the ad went on, the Apple SchoolBus network does “it all at 20% less than the cost of individual standalone systems.”

Sure, it’s easy to analyze and even poke fun at ads for high-tech devices ranging from overhead projectors in the 1930s to interactive whiteboards in the early 2000s. I do not want to do that. Instead, I will ask two simple questions about these ads: Who are they aimed at? Why do these ads for new technological devices over the past half-century have these constant dreams of students learning and teachers teaching more, faster, and better?

The answer to the first question is easy. An overwhelming majority of such ads are directed toward those who have the money to buy these devices: school board members, administrators, and parents. The claims for the new technology, including visuals of engaged students and the prospect of higher achievement at less cost, clearly attract school policymakers and administrators. For parents who seek an edge for their children in climbing the ladder to economic and social success in life, these machines shine with that promise. These ads are seldom aimed at either children or teachers (one exception is the filmstrip projector).

If parsing the words advertising copywriters create is important because the words stir hopes of educators and parents, and if knowing that the primary audiences for these ads include policymakers, administrators, and parents, then why do these ads decade after decade cling to the same message of enhancing classroom effectiveness and efficiency?

What helps explain the half-century of promises made in these ads is knowing about the love affair Americans have had with new technologies in life and in schools. Consider the early-19th-century Frenchman who wrote of his travels in America. He said: “Every new method which leads by a shorter road to wealth, every machine which spares labor, every instrument which diminishes the cost of production, every discovery which facilitates pleasures or augments them” impressed Americans. Alexis de Tocqueville saw the practical side of this nation in the early 1830s when he toured it with a companion. Americans’ subsequent embrace of steam engines, railroads, turbines, telephones, assembly lines, automobiles, airplanes, and one technology after another right up to the iPhone 5 and beyond is a history of falling in and out of love with the latest device that will “lead to a shorter road to wealth.”

Inventors from Thomas Edison and Henry Ford to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs have become iconic heroes in this country. Each developed a device, a process that “spares labor … diminishes the cost of production … [and] facilitates pleasures.” As for schools, it was Edison who said in 1922:

“I believe that the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system and that in a few years, it will supplant … the use of textbooks. … I should say that on the average we get about 2 percent efficiency out of schoolbooks. … The education of the future, as I see it, will be conducted through the medium of the motion picture where it should be possible to obtain 100 percent efficiency.”

Those who produce ad copy and images for the newest laptop, tablet, and smartphone, aimed at enabling students to learn more, faster, and better at less cost, tap into a technology-filled past where heroes spun dreams of using the newest of new tools to advance both the individual and society.


For a visual tour of the school technology products and pitches aimed at educators since the 1950s, view an online slideshow, “The Promises of Ed. Technology Ads.” To view, click here ….


Filed under Reforming schools, technology use

29 responses to “Framing the School Technology Dream

  1. Michael Cowley

    Yes so much more is possible with this medium. Here is a positive experience from our school: We had introduced new Math games for teachers to add to their tool kit. The games as a strategy were very purposeful but had only reasonable momentum with teachers, however, school leaders expected a greater uptake by all teachers for all classes. We trialed making a few short movies. The students filmed other students giving the instructions, showing the equipment needed and playing the game for about a minute. The films were then made available to teachers online the result was that by the end of the same week 100% of classes had the games in their Math sessions. It seems the visual slow down and the ability to replay instructions was the link the medium provided on this occasion.

    • larrycuban

      Your experience, Michael, shows anew that without teacher involvement at the front end of the process–choosing math games–much re-working, what you call “visual slow down” and “reply instructions” has to be done. Thanks for commenting.

  2. The K-12 system is such a huge market there’s no way it will ever stop being a target audience for communication technology. As I see it the best we can do is to try and ensure that the equipment money we spend is done through a transparent vetting process that places the system’s goals (particularly student achievement) ahead of everything. My experience is that’s not generally the case. Offhand, here are a couple of ‘triggers’ that result in school equipment purchases:
    – hunches on behalf of administrators: it ‘occurs’ to them that some piece of tech will prove useful so they raise money or spend existing budgets to get it in the absence of a solid roll-out plan. Bottom Line: not well thought out; based on sketchy information.
    – sell jobs: in particular, two major computer hardware manufacturers come to mind as being particularly aggressive in this area. Key reps from DOEs and districts are courted by the companies and subsequently initiate district, province or state purchases based on the sell-job alone: Bottom line: impetus is manufacturers bottom line not student achievement; purchase often way off-base.
    – lobbying: on behalf of special interests. Bottom line: someone else’s agenda altogether.
    Layer in there (1) the fact that many purchases fail to follow acquisition transparency guidelines–that is, no tendering or requests for proposals; just a decision made in the absence of replicable process and (2) the ‘research’ that is touted by the manufacturers is generally flawed (sponsored by the manufacturer probably) if it even exists at all.
    No wonder that we find ourselves wasting so much public money with so little to show for it in the end.
    This is not intended to spin your well thought out article into a call for people to stop investing money in ed. tech. and ‘get back to basics.’ Absolutely not! I truly believe in the value of educational technology but it must be acquired through a transparent selection and purchasing process to meet needs that are well-understood and agreed upon by the various layers within the system and then deployed effectively.
    The implication is clear: DOEs, districts and states/provinces need to mature a bit more in their policies and practices regarding ed. tech. It’s a system-wide issue, not an individual, whimsical pursuit.

    • larrycuban

      I found the breakdown of how and why schools purchase technology hardware and software very helpful, Maurice. Thank you for that comment. I still marvel at the virtual absence of teachers in that process except for advisory committees or informal checking with contacts who are in the classroom.

      • Many higher level administrators, mostly former teachers themselves, seem inclined to see themselves as ‘above’ teachers in ways that, to me, are almost laughable. They sometimes feel that they, alone, possess the complete ‘big picture’ that enables them to make better decisions. While there’s no doubt that their focus is, indeed, on that big picture, I can’t but marvel at the fact that they no longer see the need to confer with those most intimately familiar with how the devices are intended to operate, how they will likely be implemented and the potential needs and barriers that will be encountered along the way. Arrogance or the blindness that results when you limit the scope of whose with whom you associate? For now I’m choosing #2 and hoping that my ‘higher up’ colleagues will strive to collect the best information available before rendering decisions.

      • larrycuban

        Nicely put, Maurice.

      • Michael Cowley

        I have discovered that the teacher involvement is a major key. The technology has to taken up by the teacher so at some point teachers have to be able to participate in the consultations otherwise the technology risks being piled to the left and never finding it’s target use. It reminds me of a family member who doesn’t use a certain social media claiming he is not signing up as he is waiting for the next big thing. Truth is he hasn’t got he time to get started and senses a new time commitment to remain savvy.

      • larrycuban

        Thanks, Michael, for commenting.

  3. Jeff Bowen

    The reported events of the last week highlight several fascinating aspects of the American character–from united willpower in the face of immediate tragedy and adversity to almost ferocious political defensiveness about human or constitutional rights, from incredible generosity to incredible cruelty. One strong American theme seems to be abounding confidence in technology to solve problems and enhance learning. You capture this entertaingly in your essay. My hope would be that we constantly recognize the basic purpose of much of that technology: to communicate , to channel information. Whether it is used for ill or good, the facility of its communication defines its strongest connection to American character. And by the way, our love affair with cars and weaponry.entertainingly in your ess

  4. An important conversation, and I hope I get a chance to contribute more later on, but a few thoughts off the top of my head for now.

    The critical factor is always who controls the technology — does the latest thing facilitate communication between individuals or does it provide yet another means for the few to control the many? The life cycle of any new technology tends to pass from a phase where the first factor prevails to a phase where the last factor finally kills off its liberating potential. This does not arise from the nature of the innovation and it does not happen by accident — it is brought about through the deliberate design of those who seek control, dominance, and power over others above all other values.

    • larrycuban

      In U.S. public schools, it is clear that the few–policymakers and administrators–determine when, under what conditions, and where technological innovations will be adopted. Teachers, the many, implement and adapt greatly, moderately, minimally, or not at all what the few decide. Thanks for the comment, Jon.

  5. Mary

    This post provides an interesting overview of the long and rocky road of technology implementation in education. It has not been easy and no one has had 20/20 foresight. Would you prefer to still be back in the age before the portable typewriter writing everything by hand? I would not, as we would never be able to have this discussion.
    If you want an interesting technology education experience this summer try signing up for a Coursera class ( on a topic you have some familiarity with. It’s free, and as anonymous as you wish (no one will know if you drop out or only get a just passing grade). I have no ties to Coursera or any other MOOC; I just like to experiment with new things. I started a course last week and have already discovered some interesting education techniques.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Mary, for taking the time to comment. I have taken one MOOC and did drop out. Today’s New York Times had a piece “Two Cheers for MOOCs” that shares your point of view.

  6. John Concilus

    Love your post on this, Larry, as I’ve used several of these same examples when I talk to school administrators and teachers. I am the head of a school district Ed Tech department. You are pointing out what is really a well-oiled marketing machine in a billion dollar industry with significant lobbying power and influence at the federal and state level. Educational technology vendors continually bombard and school district administrators with ads for “that special product” which will raise achievement magically in print, at conferences, through their professional associations, and vendor-funded “industry magazines” that are really just targeted product placements.

    Vendors now even market directly to school board members and other decision makers for the magic of one-to-one devices and other shiny solutions. I am an advocate for better teaching and learning, and there are teachers who make marvelous use of the current tools of our time. Those tools are only considered “technology” when they are new, and will change over time. But, any of these are just tools to assist good teachers with instruction. There is enormous pressure on school administrators now to utilize their grant funds to purchase packaged online learning systems, web-based “intervention” solutions, one-to-one laptops or tablets, and so on.

    I would suggest, though, that you add interactive whiteboards on your next version of that timeline. Another thing that is currently being heavily marketed to school districts is the 3D projector. Amazing? Sure. Ads tell us these are – like everything before it – going to raise achievement. I think not.

    In my opinion, the most promising innovation currently marketed is how to use data more effectively and easily for tracking student learning in real time, as it can assist by informing instruction if used correctly. Even these online database tools, like Pearson’s AIMSWeb, are just slicker versions of Curriculum-based Measurement (CBM) probes and charting. The technique itself is not new at all, and I remember (and still tell teachers about ) resources for low cost, classroom-friendly CBM practices from the 1970s – 1990s. The promise in the latest Rti tools, however, seems to come from making the process far easier for teachers and school administrators to use, and therefore more likely to take action on the data. Educators still need to see why they should use these data tools, and decide what to do differently to for the “intervention” part of the equation – that darn teaching part – to have a meaningful effect. Just monitoring the data probes, and printing the pretty graphs the systems produce does nothing to change what’s happening in the classroom. I’m afraid that the impact of good teaching on achievement is still the only “magic” decision makers should still be seeking.

    • larrycuban

      John, thank you very much for your rich comments including examples that I did not have (and others with which I am unfamiliar).

  7. Pingback: Framing the School Technology Dream | [ gregg f...

  8. Larry,Leaving the heavier issues aside for a second, I read the article originally in EducationWeek and just found your blog when I tried to find it again. I run a blog which takes a retro look at old educational technology and I quoted (I hope appropriately) from the original piece. Take a look:

  9. Pingback: The more things change… » Educational Insanity

  10. The promise of technology began early. The April 1925 issue of Elementary English touted the value of the radio: “Think of having …educational features daily being broadcasted” all available by inserting a radio in your Victrola. We wrote about the promise of technology in our “Tools or Toys” article that appeared in the April 3, 2012 issue of Education Week. Thank you for describing the history of these efforts.

    • larrycuban

      Thank you for commenting and quoting the nearly century-old admiration for the radio in the classroom. Also your piece in Ed Week.

  11. Obviously, technology has made life easier for everyone and more interesting in a lot of cases but your thesis that it always has the same promise of change and improvement in learning is bang on. Not all that much has changed in the delivery of education in today’s classroom. We have more tools but the process of learning has not altered substantially. We recognize that people learn differently but they still have to learn and of course, like all inventions, technology has a downside. One example: my students were wonderfully adept at finding information on the internet but many of them believed that the process of copying and pasting was enough, they didn’t want to read it, let alone think about it.
    In spite of everything that is available, many people would be shocked at how traditional the average high school class still is -there’s a reason for this and it has nothing to do with funding or reluctance on the teacher’s part.
    Loved your last sentence, Larry; it has a Great Gatsby ring to it!

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Cathy, for your comment about stability in classroom practices, especially in secondary schools, even with the newest high-tech devices. A conundrum to those who fail to see the impact that the age-graded school, societal expectations, and school structures have on daily lessons.

  12. I think technology can play a very important role in education. One role technology covers well is content delivery. This post discussed numerous technologies that provided new ways to deliver materials to students. Technology provides us with an opportunity to deliver material, content, and ideas in a new and different way. Technology allows us to combine the use of different communication mediums (video, audio, visuals, etc) to provide an interactive learning experience that caters to all varying learning styles. Now, this does not mean that there isn’t a place for traditional learning, but technology can be used to supplement the learning that is already taking place in the classroom. Educators must use all the resources available, in varying combinations to provide the best learning experience from students.

  13. Pingback: Framing the School Technology Dream | Moving Fo...

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