Kludge: A Metaphor for Technology Use in Schools


  1. (electronics engineering) An improvised device, usually crudely constructed. Typically used to test the validity of a principle before doing a finished design.
  2. (general) Any construction or practice, typically inelegant, designed to solve a problem temporarily or expediently.
  3. (computing) An amalgamated mass of totally unrelated parts forming a distressing whole.

Any definition of “kludge” that you pick among the three above–I lean toward the second one but I do like the third as well–fits what has occurred over the past three decades with the introduction of desktop computers into schools followed by laptops, tablets, and hand-held devices with scads of accompanying software. Computing devices and accompanying software have been (and are) adds-on to education; all were initially introduced into U.S. manufacturing and commerce as productivity tools and then applied to schooling (e.g., spreadsheets, management information systems). Software slowly changed to adapt to school and classroom use but the impetus and early years applied business hardware and software to schooling. That birth three decades ago of being an add-on tinged with business application has made it a “kludge.”

The initial purposes over thirty years ago for buying and distributing desktops to schools were to solve the nation’s economic problems: U.S. students performing at levels lower than students in other countries. Teachers teaching an outmoded curriculum in traditional ways that failed to exploit the wealth of information available to them and their students electronically. Unpreparedness of students entering the job market in an economy that shifted from industrial- to information-based (see the 1983 report, A Nation at Risk). These were problems that higher standards, better teaching, and new technologies could solve. To end those problems, solutions of stiffer graduation requirements (e.g., four years of each academic subject), uniform and tougher curriculum standards (e.g. Common Core), and, yes, lots of electronic devices and software (e.g., computer labs, 1:1 laptops and tablets) were adopted to speed along more efficiently the improvement of U.S. schools to strengthen the economy. The push for more business-flavored high-tech in schools has become the “kludge,” that is, “an improvised device, usually crudely constructed” and “typically inelegant” that has become “an amalgamated mass of totally unrelated parts forming a distressing whole.”

I say that because the evidence thus far that increased access and use of these technological tools has, indeed, solved any of the problems is distressingly missing. Student academic achievement surely has not risen because of teachers and students using technologies in their lessons. The dream of high-tech advocates that teaching would become more efficient and constructivist (an earlier generation would have said “student-centered” and “progressive”) has yet to materialize in the nation’s classrooms. And high school graduates displaying technological skills learned in school do not necessarily step into better-paying jobs. Thus, high-tech infusion in schools designed to solve problems “temporarily” or “expediently” has become a “kludge.”

Nowadays, the rationale for using tablets and hand-held devices in classrooms has shifted to their potential for engagement (assuming that it leads directly to achievement), the necessity for all students to take tests online, and the mirage of exiting students marching into high-tech jobs. From flipped classrooms to blended learning, to personalized lessons, the hype continues even in the face of sparse evidence. This approach, then, remains a “kludge” that policymakers, entrepreneurs, and vendors continue to push for solving teaching and learning problems.

Fortunately, there are district officials, school principals, and classroom teachers who avoid the “kludge” effect by reframing the problems of teaching and learning as educational not technical (e.g., getting devices and software into the hands of students and teachers) or grounded in economic reasons. The problems are educational (e.g., how will these machines and software be used to help students understand essential concepts and apply necessary skills)—see here, here, and here. They know in their heart-of-hearts that learning is not about the presence of technology, it is about teachers and students interacting with subject-matter and skills and using paper, pencil, tablets, and Google docs to achieve learning goals. Learning is about teachers using these technological aids to get students to say “aha” about what they have learned, to acquire confidence through practice of skills.

But the “kludge” effect–add-ons to solve deep and abiding problems in U.S. schools–continues to dominate policy action. Escaping the origin of technologies imported into schools is very hard to avoid. Technologies in schools remain a band-aid promising solutions to ill-framed problems. Too often it functions as another Rube Goldberg invention to solve the wrong problem.





Filed under Reforming schools, technology use

12 responses to “Kludge: A Metaphor for Technology Use in Schools

  1. An incisive piece once again which reinforces many of the points in a presentation I give “Will investment in Technology improve learning outcomes is the WRONG question “.

    Teachers make the difference and teachers making informed professional judgements about how and when to use technology to support learning is the key.

    There is no evidence of any causal link between any technology and improved learning outcomes.However there is evidence of a correlation between schools and teachers using technology effectively and improved learning outcomes.

    I look forward to learning from your new research project Larry so we can better understand that correlation and how we can help teachers use technology more effectively for the benefit of all learners in all educational institutions.

    Once again you demonstrate why you are such a wise and respected educational leader.

  2. David

    Hi Larry,

    If I can point you to the one thing I see ed tech making things better, see Audrey Watters writings on the “Domain of One’s Own” initiatives. http://hackeducation.com/2015/10/19/domains/

    Rather than a “kludge” of forcing ed tech into the classroom, this takes an entirely different approach to the purpose of technology in relation to student needs. Given that there is an effort by a significant number of universities to move towards an online portfolio system for admissions (see https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2015/09/29/80-colleges-and-universities-announce-plan-new-application-and-new-approach), a student’s personal domain might provide a place to play around with dieas before submission to the admissions portfolio.

    I’m deeply skeptical of most ed tech, but this seems like it might bear some fruit…

    • larrycuban

      Shifting to another purpose after the original purpose of ed tech is always hard but worthwhile to try. Thanks for comment.

  3. Laura H. Chapman

    The President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Anthony Bryk (who played a major role in getting the Race to the Top initiative) appears to be committed to the idea of “accelerating” learning, “at scale,” with greater efficiency and better results, through “improvement science.”

    I suppose this approach is the opposite of what you have described as the “kludge” effect–add-ons to solve deep and abiding problems in U.S. schools. ….or is it?

    Bryk and colleagues have some new names for research and development projects in education. I am not certain these are new ideas. The approach to “solutions” seems to be not much more than rebranding ideas about “continuous improvement,”and total quality management with absolute faith that achieving “standardized sets of improved outcomes at scale” is just what education needs.

    In “Using Improvement Science to Accelerate Learning and Address Problems of Practice,” Bryk and colleagues assert that R&D in education needs to be re-cast as an “improvement science.”

    “Improvement science deploys rapid tests of change to guide the development, revision and continued fine-tuning of new tools, processes, work roles and relationships. Improvement science is explicitly designed to accelerate learning-by-doing. It’s a more user-centered and problem-centered approached to improving teaching and learning.”

    “As iterative cycles of change proceed, previously invisible problems often emerge and improvement activities may need to tack off in some new directions. The objective here is quite different from the traditional pilot program that seeks to offer a proof of concept. Improvement research, in contrast, is a focused learning journey. The overall goal is to develop the necessary know-how for a reform idea ultimately to spread faster and more effectively. Since improvement research is an iterative process often extending over considerable periods of time, it is also referred to as continuous improvement.” http://www.carnegiefoundation.org/our-ideas/

    There are two extended discussions of this version of improvement science in education. One is Bryk’s “How We Learn to Improve” in Educational Researcher, December 2015 vol. 44 no. 9 467-477. The other is the book “Learning to Improve: How America’s Schools Can Get Better at Getting Better” by Bryk, Gomez, Grunow & LeMahieu, Harvard Education Press (March 1, 2015). I have not read the book, but the Educational Research article says that standardized outcomes are not only urgently needed but also at scale. In other words, large-scale standardization is what education needs. (Why am I reminded of the Common Core and AYP and RTT?).

    I view this not-so-new emphasis on continuous improvement as another case of mistaking problems in education for those in engineering and managerial systems, mostly “know-how” problems—resolved by tinkering with this, then that, incrementally. The endin view seems to be more of the same old, let’s get “you people” to use “high-leverage” skill sets consistently.

    Bryk seems to assume that there are no irreversible consequences from tinkering, no spillover effects causing system malfunctioning, and that questions bearing on “why” and what counts as an “improvement” do not need not to be addressed. This push seems to have little regard for teachers or students as persons who may have a right to opt out of being the acted upon by those who seek continuous improvement. Bryk’s discussion makes “variability” in outcomes a problem, never a virtue.

    I think the “kludge” effect—add-ons to solve deep and abiding problems in U.S. schools—happens when grandiose “how to” plans are marketed with insufficient attention to the other questions are marginalized—what, why, for whom, when, where, how often and to what exten. I think you addressed a version of this problem in Reforming Again, Again, and Again, (1990, Educational Researcher).

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for putting me on to Tony Bryk’s recent work and “continuous improvement” through engineering changes in schools by scaling up. I have been thinking about this for many years and want to write a post (or posts) on the contingent nature of school reform–that is, how context dependent and labor intensive it is–and the foolishness of “grandiose ‘how to’ plans.” Thanks for comment.

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