Failed Predictions on Technology in Schools

Over five years ago, Petar Jandric a professor at the Polytechnic of Zagreb, interviewed me about my decades of writings on technology in schools. The entire interview appeared in the journal E-Learning and Digital Media (2015) Here is a portion of that interview about my poor record in predicting the future.


PJ: Three decades ago, you published Teachers and Machines: Classroom Use of Technology Since 1920. Only four years after the famous appearance of the computer on the cover of Time magazine in 1982, you dedicated a whole quarter of the book to ‘the promise of the computer’. Some of the presented conclusions are just as relevant today. For instance, it cannot be disputed that ‘to question computer use in schools is to ask what schools are for, why teachers teach certain content, how they should teach, and how children learn’. At the time, however, it was impossible to predict the depth and extent of social change brought by information and communication technologies.

Standing on the shoulders of previous research efforts, we can learn from fulfilled predictions just as much as we can learn from failed promises. Based on the most successful predictions and the deepest historic failures, therefore, what can be learned from the first one hundred years of marriage between education and technologies? If you set out to rewrite Teachers and Machines, what would you do differently?


LC: Thanks, Petar, for recalling that quote from Teachers and Machines. It is the one I have used often. Please allow me to reproduce the blog post I wrote about this topic five years ago:

A quarter-century ago, I described and analysed the history of machines deployed in classrooms (film, radio, instructional television and the newly arrived desktop computer) to help teachers teach more, faster and better. Then I did something foolish in the final chapter. I predicted future uses of computers in classrooms from my vantage point in 1986.

Of course, I was not alone in making predictions. Seymour Papert dove into the same empty pool that I did a couple of years before my venture into crystal ball gazing: ‘There won’t be schools in the future… I think the computer will blow up the school. That is, the school defined as something where there are classes, teachers running exams, people structured in groups by age, following a curriculum –all of that’ (Papert, 1984).

Based upon my research in schools and experience as a teacher and superintendent, however, I was far more skeptical about the penetration and use of computers than Papert.

Here is what I predicted in Teachers and Machines for computers in schools:

I predict that…in elementary schools where favourable conditions exist, teacher use will increase but seldom exceed more than 10 percent of weekly instructional time [roughly 3 hours a week]. Pulling out students for a 30-to-45-minute period in a computer lab will, I suspect, gain increasing popularity in these schools…In secondary schools, the dominant pattern of use will be to schedule students into [labs] and one or more elective classes where a score of desk-top computers sit…

In no event would I expect general student use of computers in secondary schools to exceed 5 percent of the weekly time set aside for instruction. I predict no great breakthrough in teacher use patterns at either level of schooling. (Cuban, 1986: 99)

As events unfolded in the next quarter-century, my prediction flat-lined. Access to computers –desktops, laptops, hand-held devices and interactive white boards – soared. In writing Oversold and Underused: Computers in Classrooms (Cuban, 2001), I did find higher percentages of students and teachers using computers in preschools, secondary schools and universities that ruined my 1986 prediction.

Since then, hundreds of thousands of students and tens of thousands of teachers across the country have received 1:1 laptops, tablets and white boards.

In researching classrooms since 2001, again, I have found higher use by teachers and students in both elementary and secondary classrooms. More teachers – my guess is over 30% across different districts – use machines for instruction (I include the whole panoply of available high-tech devices) regularly, that is, multiple times a week. Another 30 to 40% use computers occasionally, that is, at least once a month. The remainder of teachers – still a significant minority – hardly ever, if at all, use machines for instruction. This continues to puzzle researchers and policymakers since they know that nearly all teachers have high-tech devices at home. So my 1986 prediction on teacher and student use of computers for classroom instruction was inaccurate and died a quiet death. Compassionate readers seldom remind me that I flopped in peeking into the future. The facts are clear that students and teachers use high-tech devices for instruction more than I had foreseen.

One final confession. I stated clearly in Teachers and Machines and subsequent writings that the uses of new technologies for classroom instruction would seldom satisfy those advocates of more instructional use in schools, because teacher use would tend toward the traditional, blending both teacher- and student-centered approaches, and such approaches were seen as unimaginative. Not all teachers, by any means, but enough for the charge of pedestrian teacher use to be commonly pointed out. Both of these predictions have turned out to be accurate.

I confess to my errors in foreseeing the future for no other reason than to remind readers, both champions and skeptics of computers in schools, that accurate predictions are rare and inaccurate ones are not only common but often memorable. So if I re-wrote Teachers and Machines today, what predictions would I make?

I would predict that well over 90% of US schools a quarter-century from now will be age-graded and brick-and-mortar, not virtual ones. There will be much more blending of online and face-to-face instruction in classrooms as students get older – more of the latter in elementary schools and more of the former in secondary ones. Most teachers – at least 75% – will use some form of device regularly in parts of daily lessons because they have expanded their repertoire of teaching activities to achieve their goals for student learning. Those uses by teachers and students will be far more integrated into daily lessons, yet will still be criticized by that future generation of techno-enthusiasts as obsolete and unimaginative….


Given my confession of being a poor predictor, readers may well chuckle at what I said in this interview of five years ago. So be it.

Unmentioned in the above post has been the poverty in student achievement gains that can be attributed to use of devices and software. The existing body of research on the effects of technology on achievement would give willies to the purveyors of hyped claims that new devices and software would raise students’ test scores, increase their critical thinking, and boost school performance. Alas, no such outcomes have materialized after billions have been spent on machines and software. But that will be the subject of another post.


1 Comment

Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

One response to “Failed Predictions on Technology in Schools

  1. Brent Duckor

    Dear Larry,

    Don’t be so hard on your “predictive analytics” capabilities. If there is one thing we can guarantee about the process on material transformation in society: things go on without us no matter what we happen to think. Technological forces, like economic ones, go on without us. This is a hard fact to swallow for educators whose entire professional being is dedicated to the proposition: what we think matters. Or a variant: all reforms hang on the thread of how they are understood. Ed reformers often sell their policy talk (and predictions!) on the promise of psychological transformation or idealized hopes for change. Historians and economists tend to ask: what does it cost/who will pay or when will it break/ where will it sit when it breaks in the classroom next to another “failed” technology. Our doc students at SJSU asked you a similar question about big data and devices that collect, analyze and sell it in today’s classrooms and I sensed a reluctance to predict and skepticism about that data’s transformational powers. Applying my theses: how will we know when the changes going on without us (no matter what we think) accumulate to the point of precipitating a qualitative transformation in how we live in schools, the family, the workplace and so forth? And can we do a better job of tracing these accumulations and “tipping points” better than with the historian’s (or economists’) methods?

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