The Bipolar Literature on Technology in U.S. Schools

Reform-minded researchers, techno-enthusiasts, and skeptics in the U.S. have created an immense, convoluted literature on the use and effectiveness of computers in classroom, schools, and districts. It is a literature that is bipolar.

At one end there is the fiercely manic accumulation of success stories of teachers and schools that use devices imaginatively and, according to some researchers, demonstrate small to moderate gains in test scores, increased student engagement, teacher satisfaction, and other desired outcomes (see here and here). These success stories, often teacher surveys and self-reports, clothed as scientific studies (see here and here) beat the drum directly or hum the tune just loud enough for others to hear that these new technologies, especially if they are student-centered (see here) and “personalize learning” (see here), are just short of magical in their engaging disengaged children and youth in learning.

At the other end is the depressing collection of studies that show disappointing results, even losses, in academic achievement and the lack of substantial change in teaching methods during and after use of the new technologies (see here and here). Included are tales told by upset teachers, irritated parents, and disillusioned school board members who authorized technological expenditures (see here, here, and here).

These two poles of manic and depressive research studies replicate the long-term struggle between factions of Progressives who vowed to reform public schools beginning in the early 20th century. The efficiency-driven, teacher-centered wing of these Progressives whipped the experiential, whole-child, student-centered wing then but these losers in the struggle have returned time and again to preach and teach the ideology they hold so dear. Each pole of this spectrum, then, recapitulates the century-old struggle but this time the slogans and phrases are embedded in the language of new technologies. “Project-based learning” and “personalized learning” have been appropriated by current reformers who, still seeking efficiency and productivity in teaching and learning have adopted the language of their historical opponents. Knowing this historical backdrop, however, does not create a middle to this continuum. And that is necessary.

Reducing modestly the bipolarity of this literature are individual and collective case studies (see here), carefully done ethnographies (see here), and meta-analyses of  research studies done over the past half-century to ascertain the effects (or lack thereof) of computers and software upon students and teachers (see here, here, and here).

Even with these meta-analyses, the overall literature oscillating between manic and depressive has yet to develop a midpoint. Inhabiting that midpoint in this bipolar distribution of computer studies would be rigorous (and longitudinal) studies of classrooms, schools, and districts that combine technology exemplars and failures; carefully done classroom and school analyses that go beyond teacher responses on questionnaires to show the pluses and minuses of “blended learning, “project based teaching,” and “personalized learning” (see here, here, and here).  Yet such studies are occasional, not common, entries into the research swamp of technology-in-schools.

So What?

What’s the big deal about a skewed distribution of research studies and non-scientific articles and books? Here are a few reasons.

  1. By making clear that the literature is bipolar, readers can be more discriminating and less promiscuous in assessing claims researchers make and picking and choosing which research studies meet minimum standards of acceptability (e.g., rigorous qualitative, random controlled trials; size and representativeness of samples; brief or extended time of study; sponsored or independent research studies).
  2. Without much of a middle to the spectrum, readers seeking accurate information about the use of computers in public schools, would end up sampling studies at either end of the bipolar continuum and would get a grossly inaccurate picture of computer use and its effects in U.S. schools.
  3. Being aware that the current pushing and shoving over the aims of the new technologies and how they are implemented in school mirror historic struggles among different wings of educational Progressives a century ago can give the current generation of reform-driven policymakers and practitioners  a broader perspective on the fractious rhetorical and policy choices both educators and non-educators face now.


Filed under school reform policies, technology use

19 responses to “The Bipolar Literature on Technology in U.S. Schools

  1. As usual, thanks

    Oh for long term studies!

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. Laura H. Chapman

    Also, I think the marketing is on a scale without prescedent. Peer reviewed studies by-passed in favor of think tank praise, or cherry picked to support marketing plans. There is an unparalleled federal investment in tech for schools, data gathering and warehousing, and often in random from venture philanthropies created with wealth from the tech industries. Call this a third rail? Need I mention the international marketplace with Bridge Academies?

  3. Dan McGuire

    How about a more specific solution(s) to the problem without the not helpful medical term characterization. Bipolar disorders, and there is a continuum of disorders, share many of the symptoms associated with other mental disorders. But, are you actually qualified to diagnose in either domain? Diagnoses become more accurate with experience in treating a ‘disorder’. Tell us about your successful use of current teaching tools.

    Is the current state of tool use in education really a disorder, or is it merely in a very early stage of development. Might it be a phenomenon that may not have ever existed previously, and thus is not easy for anyone to describe or study. Who benefits from a disorder characterization?

    The various terms being tossed around clearly mean different things to different people. ‘Blended’ is one that has been pretty much ruined, and ‘personalized’ never really had any clear meaning from the beginning.

    Yes, we most definitely need to keep studying teaching and learning, and it’s very likely to be a rapidly evolving domain.

    • larrycuban

      “Bipolar” is a metaphor, not a diagnosis. Like all metaphors it has strengths and weaknesses, particularly if pushed too far. Your other point, that the literature “merely in a very early stage of development” has merit, I believe. If I were to have created a spectrum of the literature on computers when I wrote my first book, Teachers and Machines, in 1986 such a continuum would have looked very different than the one I posted this week. Thanks for the thought.

      • Dan McGuire

        Actually, Larry, No, it’s not a metaphor; it’s an awkwardly constructed and inappropriate descriptor. And, unlike Tony below, I’ve never really enjoyed reading your thoughts on EdTech. I encountered the book you mentioned when I went back to school to get an elementary teaching license and thought it was a boulder on the path to effective understanding of and efficacy with current literacy tools.

      • larrycuban

        Thank you for taking the time to comment.

  4. Larry,

    I have for many moons enjoyed reading your thoughts in the area of EdTech – and shared many of them within my own PLN and colleagues here in Turkey. However, I find the use of this so-called metaphor to be both ill-informed and insulting. You clearly do not understand (or care about) what the millions of people suffering from bipolar disorder go through every day of their lives – and the crushing impact this has on those that love, care for and support them.

    This is an ugly and offensive example of the type of attention-grabbing bloggery we do not need to see when discussing important educational challenges – even if the literature does lack a midpoint!

    Tony Gurr

  5. Reblogged this on From experience to meaning… and commented:
    I think Larry Cuban makes a fair point – and at the same time gives a good overview.

  6. I think your use of the metaphor is especially unfortunate. I have written a blog-post in reply

    • larrycuban

      Thank you for taking the time to comment and writing a post to criticize use of phrase.

      • Thank you too, Larry. However much I might disagree, I am grateful to you for raising the issue. I will read the piece on adaptive learning and writre on it as well.

    • Laurence,

      Thank you for the post – and the much more sensible reflections (both on the inappropriate metaphor and unhelpful ‘binary’ nature of the discussion). We need more thinking like this, if we are to move forward with a better and more caring understanding of mental illness and drive education forward from the grassroots.

      Take care,


  7. Pingback: Una segunda oportunidad para la educación progresiva |

  8. Pingback: ¿Tecnificar la escuela? mejor escolarizar las tecnologías. - Revista NUVE

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