From Thomas Edison’s words on film revolutionizing teaching and learning in the early 1900s to the acclaim accompanying desktop computers overhauling K-12 schools in the early 1980s to MOOCs in the 2010s transforming higher education to BrainCo–software that tracks and uses students’ brainwaves in 2019–enthusiasm for the latest technological innovation is boundless. Every ill has a cure, every problem has a solution, and every school needs the latest software to boost students’ math test scores (Dreambox) or make English-speaking students fluent in French (Duolingo).
Anyone over the age of 40 recognizes this repetitive hype and dashed expectations when it comes to the promise of new technologies in schools. What is often missed in this familiarity with exaggerated claims for new technologies (i.e., access and use of new hardware, software, and now social media) is that schools do, indeed, end up extensively using the new stuff. They domesticate the technology to fit what already exists.
In other words, techno-optimists win in getting much of their hardware and software into schools and classrooms but lose badly in seeing that what occurs as a result falls far short of their dreams of faster, more, better, and personalized teaching and learning. And schools win by having access to new technologies while tailoring their use to fit the “grammar of schooling.”
Nearly three decades ago, I wrote a few pieces on this techno-optimism (see here and here) when it comes to public schools and posed three scenarios then. In the intervening decades, each of these scenarios have real-life evidence that they occurred. Yet one in particular–here’s the spoiler–exists now.
Here are the three scenarios I sketched out in 1992.
The techno-optimist’s dream: electronic schools of the future now. These are schools with sufficient numbers of machines, software, assorted accessories, and wiring to accommodate varied groupings of students in classrooms, seminar rooms, and individual work spaces. The dream is to make teaching and learning far more productive through project-based learning or competency-based instruction than it now is. Machines and software are central to this dream. They are seen as liberating tools for both teachers and students to grow, communicate, and learn from one another. Teachers are helpers, guides, and coaches to students being tutored and interacting both with teachers and machines.
The strategy for achieving the vision is to create total settings that have a critical mass of machines, software, and like-minded people who are serious users of the technologies. Examples of such schools range from cyber-schools to regular elementary and secondary schools fully stocked with devices, software, experienced teachers, and highly-motivated students.
The cautious optimist’s scenario: slow growth of hybrid schools and classrooms. In this scenario, putting computers into classrooms will yield a steady but very slow movement towards fundamental changes in teaching and schooling. Advocates of this scenario see it occurring inexorably, much like a turtle crawling towards its pond. It is slow because schools, as organizations, take time to learn how to use computers to guide student learning. It is inexorable because believers in this scenario are convinced that the future school will mirror a workplace dominated by computers and telecommunications.
The evidence for this scenario is a small but growing body of research. For example, introducing a half-dozen computers into a classroom or creating microcomputer labs, over time, alters how teachers teach (that is, they move from whole-class instruction to small groups and individualized options) and how students learn (they come to rely upon one another and themselves to understand ideas and practice skills). Thus, the classroom organization might shift, albeit slowly, from one that is wholly teacher-directed to one in which students working with peers at machines begin to take responsibility for their learning.
In schools where computer-using teachers and hardware have reached a critical threshold, different organizational decisions get made. Teachers from different departments or grades move towards changing the regular time schedule. Schoolwide decisions on using technologies become a routine matter as do decisions on nontechnological matters. Hybrids of the old and the new, of teacher-centered and student-centered instruction, proliferate.
The preservationist’s scenario: maintaining while improving schools. In this scenario, policymakers and administrators put computers and telecommunication technologies into schools, but they end up largely reinforcing existing ways of teaching, learning, grouping for instruction, and curriculum. While some teachers and schools use these technologies imaginatively and end up being profiled by the media, most uses are fitted to what already occurs. New technologies become ways of tinkering towards improvement. The vision embedded in the preservationist’s story is one of schools maintaining what they have historically done; providing custodial care, sorting out those who achieve academically from those who do not, and giving taxpayers as efficient a schooling as can be bought with the funds available.
There is much evidence for this scenario. Some examples: mandating a new graduation requirement on computer literacy or students, adding courses to the curriculum on computer science, creating a computer lab for all the school’s machines, scheduling teachers once a week to bring their classes to the room where an aide helps students use software connected to their daily lessons, placing one computer in each classroom, and buying software that is part of a textbook adoption.
In this scenario, computers are seen as occasional helpers for the main business of teaching students. Adapting these tools to help teachers and students do what they are supposed to do in schools ends up with new technologies reinforcing what schools have done all century.
Writing in 1992, I asked: Which of these scenarios is likely to occur?
The least likely is the electronic school of the future. While such schools will be built, they will remain exceptions and, in time, will probably disappear as the next generation of technology, invariably cheaper and improved, comes of age. Thus, although such schools exist now, few will spread to most other districts. Recent experiences of schools adopting instructional television, language laboratories, and programmed learning in the 1960’s and 1970’s have taught policymakers to be cautious. In districts that built new schools, purchased and installed the hardware and software for those technologies, administrators found in less than a decade that the machinery was either unused by teachers, became obsolete, or could not be repaired after breakdowns. The constant improvement of advanced technologies makes it risky for districts to make large capital investments in new hardware beyond a model program or demonstration school.
The cautious optimist’s and preservationist’s scenarios are basically the same story of computer use in schools interpreted differently. Each stresses different facts and derives different meanings from those facts. Preservationists argue that schools will remain largely as they are because of millennia-old cultural beliefs held by most adults about teaching, learning, and knowledge that form the core of modern American schooling: Teaching is telling, learning is listening, and knowledge is what is in books. Most taxpayers expect their schools to reflect those centuries-old beliefs. Such strongly held beliefs seldom disappear when Apple [products] … show up in school.
Preservationists also point out that the popular age-graded school persists through reform after reform. Age-graded schools, the dominant form of school organization for over a century and a half, have self-contained classrooms that separate teachers from one another, a curriculum distributed grade by grade to students, and a time schedule that brings students and teachers together for brief moments to work. These structures profoundly influence how teachers teach, how students learn, and the relationships between the adults and children in each classroom. They are especially difficult to change. For these reasons, preservationists argue, schools tailor technological innovations to fit the contours of prevailing cultural beliefs and the age-graded school.
Cautious optimists, however, take the same facts and give them a sunny-day spin. The optimists’ version of the story displays much patience in making schools technologically modern. Conceding the many instances of technologies being used to reinforce existing practices, optimists shift their attention to the slow growth of technological hybrids, those creative mixes of the old and the new in schools and classrooms. These hybrids of teacher-centered and student-centered instruction, the optimists say, are the leading edge of a movement that will bring schools more in sync with the larger society. Thus, the current reasons for the fumbling incorporation of high-tech machines into schools–not enough money to buy machines, teacher resistance, inadequate preparation of teachers, and little administrative support–will gradually evaporate as hybrids slowly spread and take hold. It is a scenario anchored in a long-term view of decades rather than months or years. While I find the preservationist’s story convincing, I lean more to the optimist’s version.
In Part 2 takes up techno-optimists’ promises and how school do tame new technologies–in other words, reform the reform–as the latter two scenarios suggest.
3 responses to “Techno-Optimism Meets Schools: Schools Win (Part 1)”
Hi Larry, nice article!
Is your current perspective the “cautious optimism” or “preservationist” position? Reading between the lines, I think it is preservationist, but I wanted to check. I’m currently writing a piece that takes a largely preservationist stance.
Here is the last sentence I wrote about the scenarios. “While I find the preservationist’s story convincing, I lean more to the optimist’s version.” I hope that responds to your question.
Thanks for the reply! I saw that line was in your 1992 article, so I was wondering if your perspective has changed since then. I guess it hasn’t. 🙂