Confessions of a Skeptic of Computers in Schools (Part 2)

Exactly five years ago I wrote Part 1 of why I was a skeptic on computer use in schools.For this post I look back at that confession and update it to where I  am now in 2015.

A quarter-century ago, I wrote Teachers and Machines: The Classroom Use of Technology since 1920. In that book I described and analyzed the history of machines deployed in classrooms (film, radio, instructional television, and the newly arrived desktop computer) to help teachers teach more, faster, and better. Then I did something foolish in the final chapter. I predicted future uses of the computer in classrooms from my vantage point in 1985.

Of course, I was not alone in making predictions. Seymour Papert dove into the same empty pool that I did a year before my venture into prophesying:

“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.” (Popular Computing, October 1984, p. 11)

Based upon my research in schools and experience as a teacher and superintendent, however, I was far more skeptical about the penetration and use of computers than Papert. Here was my crystal ball look in to the future of computers in schools:

“I predict that … in elementary schools where favorable conditions exist, teacher use will increase but seldom exceed more than 10 percent of weekly instructional time [roughly 3 hours a week]. Pulling out students for a 30-to-45-minute period in a computer lab will, I suspect, gain increasing popularity in these schools…. In secondary schools, the dominant pattern of use will be to schedule students into [labs] and one or more elective classes where a score of desk-top computers sit…. In no event would I expect general student use of computers in secondary schools to exceed 5 percent of the weekly time set aside for instruction. I predict no great breakthrough in teacher use patterns at either level of schooling” (p. 99).

As events unfolded in the next quarter-century, my prediction flat-lined. Access to computers–desktops, laptops, hand-held devices, and interactive white boards–soared. In writing Oversold and Underused; Computers in Classrooms in 2001, I did find higher percentages of students and teachers using computers in preschools, secondary schools, and universities that ruined my 1985 prediction.

Since then hundreds of thousands of students and tens of thousands of teachers across the country have received  white boards and 1:1 laptops. In researching classrooms since 2001, again, I have found higher use by teachers and students in both elementary and secondary classrooms. More teachers—my guess is over 30 percent across different districts—use machines for instruction (I include the whole panoply of available high-tech devices) regularly, that is, at least once or more a week. Another 30-40 percent use computers occasionally, that is, at least once or more a month. The remainder of teachers—still a significant minority—hardly ever, if at all–use machines for instruction. This continues to puzzle researchers and policymakers since they know that nearly all teachers have high-tech devices at home.

So my 1985 prediction on teacher and student use of computers for classroom instruction was inaccurate and died a quiet death. Compassionate readers seldom remind me that I flopped in peeking into the future. The facts are clear that students and teachers use high-tech devices for instruction far more than I had foreseen.

Moreover, a quarter-century ago I ended Oversold and Underused by urging a moratorium on buying more computers. Whoa, was that a loser of a recommendation! Worse yet, I even repeated the call for a moratorium on deploying computers in schools—for largely the same reasons—in 2001. Of course, these calls were ignored then as they would be now.

One final confession. I stated clearly in Teachers and Machines and subsequent writings that the uses of new technologies for classroom instruction would seldom satisfy those advocates of more instructional use in schools because teacher use would tend toward the traditional,  blending both teacher- and student-centered approaches but still be called unimaginative—not all teachers, by any means—but enough to be a central tendency of classroom practice. Both of these predictions have turned out to be accurate, yes, accurate….so far.

Let’s say that if this were baseball, I would be batting .500, a number which sounds so much better than 50 percent wrong in crystal ball gazing.

I confess to my errors in foreseeing the future for no other reason than to remind readers, both champions and skeptics of computers in schools, that memorable predictions are rare. Except for the one I made in 2010 about computers in schools in 2020. Then again with 50 percent wrong in the past…..

  1. Larry:
    Don’t feel bad. Predicting that computers will result in transformative change in education is like predicting that we would have flying cars by now. They have changed the lives of students far more outside of school where teachers don’t control their use. To the extent that they let students leave school altogether and study at home, they can make a difference. Kids schooled at home who can proceed at their own pace using computerized learning software are much better off than those in school who are either bored or frustrated much of the time. One reason for little transformative change can be traced to staff development efforts that just show teachers how the computer works rather than showing them how to teach different. Any prediction that keeps public education in the industrial age is where I put my money. Changing organizations where the workers have masters degrees is more than the available change agents have up their sleeves.

    I just posted my summary of Daniel Pink’s new book on motivation (Drive). Check it out at DrDougGreen.Com
    Douglas W. Green, EdD

  2. Teaching is a relational, human profession. The Gutenberg Press didn’t take away the need for teachers (or even the use of lecture). The telegraph and “instant access to information,” didn’t take away the teacher as an authority, either.

    I still scoff when I hear someone tell me that my job will be outsourced or tech-sourced (partly because I know that, if nothing else, society needs warehouses to hold kids will grown-ups work – no amount of tech-sourcing can or will change that).

    I am not against computers in school. I use a 1:1 ratio in my class and it’s worked well (or so I believe) but I am a skeptic about the transformative power of any medium. The social, political, economic and cultural forces are all greater than any grand prediction from technocrats and cyberphiles.

    Incidentally, I admit that my thinking on technology in schools has been largely influenced by reading your work.

  3. It is interesting to read your reflection on Teachers and Machines, as my class at William & Mary is reading this book now. As a high school teacher, I see the situations you describe here. Teacher use as traditional and unimaginative…

    One of the problems I see in K-12 education is that imaginative uses are actively discouraged by district-based technology policies that restrict access and make it nearly impossible to create change. The heavy workload and other duties assigned to teachers make finding the energy to enact change while the establishment works against you a burden that most teachers are unwilling to bear.

    • I often hear the access issue cited as a barrier to a the creative use of technology. While we are only an example of 1, we have open access but there’s no flood of creative adoption. We DO have overwhelmed teachers.


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

16 responses to “Confessions of a Skeptic of Computers in Schools (Part 2)

  1. JoeN

    Fresh from my annual, obligatory torment around the BETT Show in London, I’m just dismayed that the hype and the marketing are so effective on what look like perfectly normal, even well educated human beings, who are presumably like me (at least) in being interested in high quality education. Judge for yourself Larry here:

    My prediction. Until HR people in the major suppliers (and minor) are able to discern skilled, experienced, professional educators from techno-zealots and furthermore, value them and trust their judgement. The evangelical tone, financial waste and educationally ineffectual practice that characterise the entire industry will persist.

    A global tech company I worked in partnership with last year (employing well over 300,000 people, with net revenue of $112.3 billion in 2013) did not have one, single, experienced educationalist employed in the entire group…worldwide.

  2. Sandy

    I can’t help but comment on your earliest commentators of 2010. John Spencer has become a speaker and entrepreneur it appears with a new (still in beta looking for a way to monetize) social website for publishing student writing. Maybe not innovative, but focus is on the right thing, good writing prompts and publishing for an authentic audience, not the technology itself. However, after looking at the terms of service, my school division will not let me use this product in my classroom for whatever FIPA-FERPA reason but really because the IT department wants to standardize on a few software titles/web subscriptions and limit their support. So that’s a real barrier to trying to be innovative in the classroom.

    The truth of the matter, in my opinion, was pointed out by Lori Anderson and David McGovack five years ago in their comments of 2/2010. My above examples demonstrates that my school division is an active barrier to trying new things. Furthermore, as the curriculum has narrowed so much, and teachers must plan in PLCs to create common tests for quarterly exams in addition to required state testing. Focusing on data collection has taken the time and energy to innovate away from good teaching.

    I don’t think you should berate yourself for making false predictions. I think the fact is you are more right than wrong. Technology expenditures will be a big suck of the budget which is showing up in places like New Jersey where one school district scrapped their 1:1 last spring,, and this just in from Georgia, And there’s the LA fiasco.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for your comments, Sandy.You make solid points about how the organization itself has a lot to do with what happens with software in the classrooms. Thanks also for the links.

  3. It’s mind boggling how dependent schools are becoming on the use of technology in the classroom. Although some traditional teachers remain firm against integrating computers into their everyday routine, most believe that computer usage facilitates more innovative teaching. While innovation and discovery is always encouraged, teachers and parents also forget the element of distraction that is closely associated with computers in schools. Students can hardly resist the urge to open up a new internet tab and log on to their favorite social media site or check the most recent celebrity gossip. It will be interesting to further examine attention rates, the ability for students to properly observe information, or to even compare the success of students who rely on technology vs. those who seldom use it. If students had designated time in class to go to a computer lab, instead of being able to hide behind the secrecy of their laptop, maybe technology would prove to be more of an asset for students in the classroom.

    Another conflict persists when introducing technology in classrooms; what needs are neglected due to the “need” for technology? A budget can only stretch so far, it would be interesting to observe what is being compromised in order to provide students with computers.

  4. cerouse2015

    I believe that there are pros and cons to technology use in classrooms. Sometimes it allows for students and teachers to interact in a new way to solve a problem or to teach a new concept to students. However, it is often times very difficult to keep focused on the task at hand. Computers and technology can also serve as a constant distraction with students checking social media. And these social media sites can lead to more difficulties within the school systems due to the anonymous facade it can provide. I am curious if there is a correlation between computer use in schools and discipline in schools.
    In addition, I am curious how the use of technology by some teachers and not others might impact students. Different teachers often have different rules within their classrooms. Some teachers are completely up for using the technology in innovative ways while other teachers are adamantly against using it. These different rules to technology and could lead confusion amongst students, faculty and administrations.
    Also, I am curious how the impact of student’s individual technology will also affect schools. It seems like every day I see a younger and younger child with an iPhone or other type of smart phone. With this technology literally in the palm of their hands, I believe that it will open up a whole new can of worms for school administrators.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for commenting and raising a number of questions–for which I do not have answers. Perhaps other readers do.

      • clr21

        cerouse2015 you do bring up a few great questions. I’m not sure if I have the answers, but I do have a few comments. It is definitely true that improper technology use (in terms of other students using unrelated websites) can be very distracting for other students, as well as for the teacher. Many of my professors have commented that it is very obvious when students are doing something unrelated on their computer, and I’m sure it is distracting, and insulting, to the professors. I’m not sure how computer use correlates to discipline though.

        On another note, some of my favorite classes are the ones where technology is implemented effectively into the classroom. For example, a favorite professor of mine would use PollEverywhere questions throughout the class to evaluate which topics she should spend more time covering. Online forums, posting powerpoints/notes, and other resources that a professor can provide to the students can also be very helpful. I think that when properly used, technology can be very advantageous to the learning environment – especially since it is such a fundamental aspect of all other parts of our life.

      • larrycuban

        Thanks for the comment.

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