Changing Technologies in Classrooms

A friend and former colleague, Henry Levin, recently wrote about his experience in a 1940s classroom.

I started school in 1943, and by the time we were in third grade we were introduced to writing cursive using an ink pen.  Initially these were the pens with long tapered wooden handles with replaceable pen tips or nibs, but by sixth grade we were expected to use fountain pens because they were less messy.  I remember filling carefully my pen by maneuvering a lever on its side that compressed a rubber bladder inside to draw ink from the inkwell on its release.  

Related image

I was also given the responsibility of refilling the inkwells each day or every other day.  We used huge bottles of Quink (perhaps a liter), and they had to be manipulated in just the right way to fill (three quarters), but not overfill the inkwell.  My recollection is that this was a permanent ink that could not be removed from my clothing.  Once I dropped the entire bottle on the floor, leading to a large spill.  That required initially placing newsprint and paper tissues to soak up most of it, followed by a mopping and scrubbing with water and suds.  Still, a shadow of the ink remained, and the teacher reminded me periodically that I needed to be careful not to further damage her floor.  Towards the end of high school some very expensive ballpoint pens began to replace the ink pens, and we were no longer expected to use the ink paraphernalia.But, the old desks last for a long time.  Even in the late fifties (I was in college), I visited my old high school and found that all of the student desks still had inkwells.  Students wondered what they were for.

I also have a memory of a later technology that, like the inkwell, became obsolescent.

In the late 1960s Stanford University administrators secured federal funds to build a multi-million dollar facility called the Stanford Center for Research, Development, and Teaching (SCRDT). A fully furnished television studio with “state-of-the-art” cameras, videotape recorders, and monitors occupied the main floor with the star-in-the-crown of the new building located in the Large-Group Instruction room (LGI).


The amphitheater-shaped room with half-circular rows looked down on a small stage with a lectern, a massive pull-down screen, and 2 large monitors suspended from the ceiling. At most of the individual seats was a small punch-button pad called the “student responder.” The responder contained the numbers 1-10 and letters T and F.

student responder

At the very top of the amphitheater was a glass-enclosed technician’s station where an aide could assist the professor with amplification of sound, simultaneous interpretation of various languages, show slides or films, and put on monitors data that the professors wanted.  Administrators had designed the room for professors to enhance the delivery of lectures.

For lectures, the student responder came into play. Designers created the pad for students to punch in their choices to communicate instantaneously to the lecturer their answers to the professor’s questions, such as “If you agree, press 1, disagree, press 2.” “If statement is true, press T.”  As students pressed the keypad, the data went directly to a mainframe computer where the students’ responses were immediately assembled and displayed for the professor at a console on the lectern. The lecturer was then able to adjust the pace and content of the lecture to this advanced interactive technology, circa 1970, that linked students to teacher.

By 1972 when I came to Stanford as a graduate student, the LGI was being used as a large lecture hall for classes from other departments. The now-disconnected keypads were toys that bored students played with during lectures. The pull-down screen was used for overheads and occasional films. The fixed position cameras purchased in the late 1960s were already beyond repair and obsolete.

In 1981, when I returned to teach at Stanford, the SCRDT had been renamed the Center for Educational Research at Stanford (CERAS). In the LGI, none of the original equipment or technology (except the sound system and simultaneous translation) was used by either students or professors. The student responders, however, were still there.

By 2011, nearly a half-century after the SCRDT installed the LGI, the amphitheater room was still in use as a regular lecture hall. I was in that room that year to hear a colleague talk about his career in education and, you guessed it, as I listened, my fingers crept over to the “student responder” and I began to click the keys.

In 2012, the LGI was renovated and the numeric pads disappeared just as those holes in classroom desks to store ink did decades ago.*

Whoever said classrooms don’t change?


*Thanks to Deborah Belanger for supplying the date of the LGI renovation.





Filed under technology

10 responses to “Changing Technologies in Classrooms

  1. Laura H. Chapman

    This is a lovely account of changing technology and furnishings not too far removed in time from own experience and memory. Here are a few additions/parallels/

    The early ballpoint pens were not totally reliable. They could skip if the paper was glossy and leak small blobs of thick ink in hot weather. Red rubber erasers were on most pencils. They were guaranteed to be gritty enough to tear the school-supplied lined paper. By junior high most of our wooden desks were fully decked out with carved messages from prior users.

    In the mid 1960s, Ohio State had a classroom set up with microphones and a small moveable video cameras. These were operated by viewers in a separate room. The two rooms were divided by a fairly thin wall with a large panel of one-way viewing glass. The “observation” classroom was used for studies of children enrolled in Saturday art classes.

    In the early 1960s, federal officials sponsored some “new media” conferences. In one of these, planned for art educators, almost all of the equipment died. The biggie for classrooms were ??mm film loops, an early version of YouTube, with single concepts or process illustrations.

    In the early 1960s, a consortium was formed to broadcast instructional videos to schools in the Midwest. The broadcast was enabled by equipment housed in an airplane that flew overhead. The available programs, beamed down to schools, were mostly talking heads of teachers or short demonstrations with simple props.

    By the early 1970s, that program, then known as the Agency for Instructional Television, started to commission its own programs. These were produced by KQED, WGBH and a few other well-equipped, non-commercial video facilities.

    I think these long distant memories are part of “going to school,” what Phillip Jackson called the hidden curriculum. I suppose this generation will recall their data-walls and tech gear.

  2. About 10 years ago Univ or Montana was given a large grant to expand the education building. A good friend of mine teaching in the ed department was given the task of designing the ultimate classroom for both teaching and demonstrating modern teaching technology. The result was nothing overly fancy; four projectors pointing to 4 whiteboarded walls, several cameras around the room, one projector that was remotely accessible from laptops and a super fancy podium to control everything. The tables (3X6 feet) and chairs were all on wheels. Lots of electrical receptacles in the floor. A nice setup. Initially there was one minor glitch. The remotely accessible projector was cutting edge tech for the time. Being so cutting edge there was one minor thing the manufacturer had not thought of, an access key to keep roamers from accessing the projector. For the first few weeks people walking by the building could access the projector wirelessly and project whatever. Led to some interesting humor. The manufacturer fixed the issue rather quickly.
    I have done presentations in this room and had several summer classes in it. The movable furniture is incredible, for adults. For kids, not so much. The 4 projection surfaces are not used very much. The remote access projector is glitchy and does not always hook up. Having seen a couple of other examples of high and heavy tech classrooms I think there is something of a limit that must be observed. Relying too much on teaching tech can lead to some issues when it does not want to cooperate. It is also necessary to decide if the tech improves teaching or if it is just another and more expensive way of doing the same thing.
    I am the tech coordinator at a K-12 school system (350 kids K-12). Teachers are always interested in having more tech in their room. Before I look for funding I always challenge them to show me how this tech is going to improve how they teach enough justify the initial cost and the later support. That usually quiets their desire.

  3. Pingback: Larry Cuban: Who Says Classrooms Never Change? | Diane Ravitch's blog

  4. Guest

    So, replacing blackboard with whiteboard and projector, replacing ink with rollerball pen, replacing a keypad with iPad constitutes a change to you? In fact, modern-day kids do not use pens, they use pencils straight from the 19th century. Is this progress to you? This is just window dressing.

    • larrycuban

      Yes, it is a technological change, minor as it may be. Not judging “progress” since the hidden question in the word is: “progress toward what?

  5. Pingback: Changing Technologies in Classrooms - Reading Kingdom Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s