The Importance of Asking the Right Policy Question: Technology in Schools

About a century ago, electronic technologies entered the classroom. Initially  as the film (1920s), radio (1930s), and instructional television (1960s), these devices derived from the entertainment business. The hype surrounding each promised that teachers would have access to the world beyond the classroom and the library. Teachers would have engaging tools that turn on students to what had to be learned. And students would be able to learn more, faster, and better.

The policy question driving these entertainment-oriented devices was: How can these new media help teachers do better what they ordinarily do in conveying to students new knowledge and skills?

Both teacher and student access to these electronic devices, however, was limited by costs of film projectors, classroom radio sets, and television wiring and equipment. Districts parceled out equipment to schools and established audiovisual departments. Consider further that finding the best film for a unit took much time as teachers scoured public libraries and district audiovisual departments. Teachers competed for the projectors, available films,radio sets, and television monitors so classroom use was seldom regular but occasional or none at all. Limited access for teachers and students–say once a month–kept this question front and center.

Now enter the desktop computer in the early 1980s. The hoopla surrounding its launching in schools (who recalls the TRS-80, and Apple II?) when teachers would get one computer for their classrooms and the school would have a set of devices for a lab.

As competitors entered the education market and the price of these desktops fell, what became clear was that these devices were far more powerful in teaching the young about both academic subjects and the world than earlier generations of film, radio, and instructional TV. These devices were interactive, drawing students into responding to what was on the screen. The entry of these devices and subsequent generations of more powerful and sophisticated hardware and software occurred simultaneous with the push by  federal and state officials to raise graduation requirements, install higher academic standards, and improve student test scores in reading, math and science on international and state tests. Access for teachers and students grew, albeit with “digital divides,”and regular use in classrooms expanded. Using technology became a rallying cry complete with cries of astonishment over how engaged students are with new technologies. This was the “Golly,Gee Whiz” stage when computers were in the foreground.

By the early 2000s, No Child Left Behind had become law and higher standards, testing, and accountability had become the mantra of school reformers. In the section of NCLB devoted to technology, it  said: “The primary goal  is to improve student academic achievement through the use of technology in elementary schools and secondary schools.” 

The emerging policy question about these new technologies that now arose from the intersection of the spread of less expensive devices and the press for higher test scores was: can these new electronic devices and their software improve students’ academic performance?

This question shifted the center of gravity from the earlier one that concentrated on how the new electronic devices a century ago could help the teacher do what she had to do to a concentration on the machines and their software. The software on desktops (and later laptops) would do all of the work of teaching. And students would learn more, faster, and better from the new technologies. Of course, there were always some teachers and principals who kept asking the older policy question as they trudged into their classrooms and schools integrating these new devices into daily lessons. But they were a distinct minority.

Computers were now in the foreground of more and more classrooms as districts and schools chased contributions of devices from companies, foundation funding, and eventually local monies from community referenda and school board budgets. Media reported story after story of students of all ages sitting in front of screens as the “new” education.

As student access and use of computers spread, research studies piled up and educator experiences accumulated into the growing realization that these new technologies (remember MS-DOS on PCs and CD-ROMs?) were powerfully entrancing to students at first but fell far short of improving student academic performance in of themselves. Improved teaching and learning, policymakers and practitioners learned, were far more complex in the many home and school interacting variables that come into play in determining student academic performance.

In the past decade, however, access to computer devices and software has become nearly ubiquitous giving each teacher and her students opportunities to “integrate” these new technologies into daily lessons. Most technology vendors and promoters have shifted from touting their devices as ending the white/minority achievement gap or raising test scores to speaking of student engagement and the ease of using software and hardware in daily lessons.

Many more individual teachers, schools, and districts across the country–still far from a majority of teachers or schools–have seamlessly (OK, a few stitches here and there may have been dropped) integrated the technologies into classroom routines. Software use has become as familiar as paper, pencils, and notebooks.  In these places, devices and software have become the background–white noise– and are no longer in the foreground. And as more integration occurs at the school and district levels, the older and more grounded policy question is re-emerging: How can these new media help teachers do better what they ordinarily do in conveying to students new knowledge and skills?

The slow but steady movement of new technologies from the foreground to background in a minority of classrooms, schools, and districts has resurrected this all-important policy question asked nearly a century ago that top decision-makers, practitioners, administrators, parents and voters now need to ask anew.


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12 responses to “The Importance of Asking the Right Policy Question: Technology in Schools

  1. Alice in Pa

    I hope that question will be asked and discussed deeply. I do often hear it discussed at a more surface level, as you indicated, with a focus on student engagement without a real definition of what that is, what it looks like or its purpose. I hear my fellow teachers talking about students really being enthusiastic about playing a quiz type game via Kahoot but they’re also noticing that the students are much more “engaged” in their standings/rankings in the game rather than discussing the details or synthesizing ideas into more coherent frames of thought. It appears my school is moving towards addressing that question but the push is definitely more teacher driven rather than administrator driven.

  2. Laura H. Chapman

    And as more integration occurs at the school and district levels, the older and more grounded policy question is re-emerging: How can these new media help teachers do better what they ordinarily do in conveying to students new knowledge and skills?

    The teacher’s role in conveying new knowledge and skills has been delegated to the software engineers and entrepeneurs and companies seeking profits, not exclusively of course, but there is a market for tech internationally estimated to be about $5 trillion dollars. We need to be reminded of what these technologies are distracting us from and whether the process of “outsourcing” instruction to software designers and their algorithmic theories of teaching/learning may have some easy-to-overlook consequences. Among these surely is the use of student data for marketing and versions of tech-based education being developed for the larger international markets in Africa, India. In these countries, the aim is to free governments from all responsibility for education. One model is the fully programmed curriculum known as “school in a bo” devoled by Bridge International. Pearson has another. According to Wired magazine, the lessons learned far from our shores are likely to be brought back home for the “ultimate ” in cost effective management of test-based education. see

    • larrycuban

      Nice point, Laura. When teachers are involved in the question of which software to buy (particularly those integrated learning systems (ILS) that mirror the points you raise about engineers and non-teachers making curricular and instructional decisions ala algorithms. To the degree that teachers are involved in deciding upon individual software and ILSs, the awareness of someone else making their decisions become crucial. Thanks for raising the point.

  3. Hello, my name is Roeland Smeets, 68, I’m a school-librarian at Barlaeusgymnasium, a grammar school in Amsterdam, Holland. About 15 years ago, we, teachers, school management and I, decided that we’d have computers mainly in the library. There are 3 classrooms with computers in different positions in these classrooms that are also, when needed, part of the library. Students can use them always except when a teacher has made an appointment in my digital agenda for a lesson of an hour. My agenda is reasonably full; there are about 6 to 8 “lessons with computers” on a regular day. The teachers and school management are quite happy with this set-up because they don’t have the computers + distraction in their classrooms.
    In the library- computer use of teachers I see some things that are maybe interesting for the discussion above. What comes as most usefull is that teachers can differentiate: send the students that are ahead of the others to the library to get started on their next subject, while the teacher concentrates on those who stayed behind in the classroom. Furthermore I see a lot of experimenting: what works for one class may not work for another one. And computer-use can be a a fruitfull change in the regular lessons for both teachers and students. It also happens that a teacher can have a good reason for not being present at school. In that case it is possible to send a class on (a very clear!) mission to the library. I will walk in and out as far as that is necessary. Examinations for up to 125 students can easily be organised in the library. And one thing that I find very beautiful is that sometime a teacher who doesn’t like to use computers comes up to me with a plan… that can immediately be realised.
    The students like my place; they call it “the media”; in this case the word is singular.

    • larrycuban

      Thank you so much for taking the time to comment, Roeland. U.S readers of this blog interested in school-wide use of hardware and software should be interested in your description of teacher and student use of the machines in your grammar.

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