When it comes to policymakers calling for data-based decisions and evidence-based practice, the purchase and use of tablets, laptops, interactive whiteboards and academic software miss that call miserably. The fact is that no substantial basis in research findings or existing data on the academic effectiveness of classroom technology warrant the boom-town spread of classroom devices. If so, how come so much money is being spent?
In a New York Times‘ op-ed piece Susan Pinker lays out a once-over-lightly sad story of how technology for low-income children here and abroad has failed. The op-ed format, however, falls short in presenting the full array of evidence of either minimal effect, no-effect, or even negative effect of technology upon student academic achievement.
Since 2010, laptops, tablets, interactive whiteboards, smart phones, and a cornucopia of software have become ubiquitous. Yet has academic achievement improved as a consequence? Has teaching and learning changed? Has use of devices in schools led to better jobs? These are the basic questions that school boards, policymakers, and administrators ask.
The answers to these questions are “no,” “no,” and “probably not.”
The evidence of transforming traditional teaching practices is equally underwhelming. Nearly all teachers now use these devices. Lessons using interactive whiteboards or carts filled with laptops or tablets are common across elementary and secondary schools. How teachers use laptops or tablets, however, vary from unimaginative to creative, from daily to occasional to non-use.[ii]
These powerful computers have yet to alter traditional ways of teaching that have marked classrooms for years. Laptops, desktops, tablets, and interactive whiteboards continue to support the dominant teacher-centered approach to instruction rather than promoting the hoped-for student-centered approach. Teachers have expanded their teaching repertoire to incorporate new software and hardware to do what they have been doing all along. No surprise there since for decades, teachers have mixed old and new practices in their lessons. New technologies have found a niche in most classrooms but their impact is much smaller than what was initially promised. In effect, new hardware and software have strengthened, not altered, prevailing teaching approaches.[iii]
Finally, the question of computer use in schools prepares students for jobs. Whether using soon-to-be-obsolete hardware and software helps students gain jobs in a knowledge-based labor market is “probably not.” Most applicants for private sector entry-level jobs–except for software engineers and programmers–learn new hardware and software in a matter of days, not months or years. Few studies of high school graduates getting jobs requiring computer skills even exist.[iv]
Given these answers, why do district policymakers, administrators, and business leaders beat the drum for more and better devices and software in schools? Part 2 answers that question.
[i] Jason Ravitz, et al., “Cautionary Tales about Correlations between Student Computer Use and Academic Achievement, “ April 2002, paper presented at annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association. New Orleans; Larry Cuban, Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice: Change without Reform in American Education (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2013), pp. 43-45.
[ii] Mark Windschitl and Kurt Sahl, “Tracing Teachers’ Use of Technology in a Laptop Computer School,” American Educational Research Journal, 2002, vol. 39(1), pp. 165-205; Larry Cuban, Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001); Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice: Change without Reform in American Education (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2013).
[iii] Larry Cuban, Hugging the Middle: How Teachers Teach in an Era of Testing and Accountability (New York: Teachers College Press, 2009); Larry Cuban, Inside the Black Box, pp. 155-171.
[iv] Anyone familiar with the level of hardware and software used in schools over the past thirty years has seen extraordinary changes in software programs and hardware miniaturization. What software students in the 9th grade in 1985 were using was gone and forgotten five years later; ditto for 2010 and now. Preparing students for jobs in a labor market prizing information usage and rapid communication means constant changes in what software and hardware students will use in schools, a condition that districts find themselves a few steps behind every year. Thus built-in obsolesence of machines and software make it difficult to plan on current students being prepared for jobs. Current interest in teaching all students to learn to code recognizes the constant turnover in technological equipment and skills. See, for example, Nick Wingfield, “Fostering New Tech Talent in Schools,” New York Times, September 30, 2012.