Teaching with Technology in Public Schools

Since the early 1980s with the appearance of desktop computers in schools, questions about their presence in classrooms have been debated. Access to, use of, and results from new technologies have been central issues for a motley coalition of  high-tech vendors, technophile educators, and policymakers eager to satisfy parents and voters who want schools to be technologically up-to-date with other institutions. And this coalition has surely been successful in increasing teacher and student access to desktop computers, then laptops, and now tablets and smartphones.

First, a quick run through the initial goals and current ones in putting new technologies into the hands of teachers and students. Then a crisp look at access, use, and results of the cornucopia of devices in schools.

By the  mid-1980s, there were clear goals and a strong rationale for investing in buying loads of hardware and software and wiring buildings . Those goals were straightforward in both ads and explicit promises vendors and entrepreneurs made to school boards and administrators.

*students would learn more, faster, and better;

*classroom teaching would be more student-friendly and individualized;

*graduates would be prepared to enter the high-tech workplace.

By the early 2000s, evidence that any of these goals were achieved was either scant or missing. It became increasingly clear that promised software in math and English fell far short of raising students’ test scores or lifting academic achievement. The promise of algorithms and playlists of programs tailored to each student’s academic profile had faltered then and even now remains a work in progress (see here, here, and here).

And the goal that learning to use hardware and software applications would lead to jobs in technology became another casualty of over-promising with few returns to high school graduates. That jobs were hardly automatic for those students who knew spreadsheets and BASIC (Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code) became obvious to students with diplomas in hand. By the 2010s, teaching coding to children and getting the subject of computer science into the high school curriculum spread across U.S. schools.

Those initial goals and rationale for flooding schools with new devices, lacking substantial evidence to support them, have now shifted to another rationale for computers in schools: Devices are essential since all standardized tests and other assessment students take will be on computers. Learning to use machines and applications in schools–including coding–will give a leg-up for graduates to get entry-level jobs in most businesses and industries.

The shift in rationales over the past three decades is another instance of techno-optimism that has plagued K-12 schooling for at least a century (think about the introduction of film, radio, and television into schools).

Beyond the shift in goals over the years, have changes in schools occurred (but not necessarily improvements) since the introduction of new technologies into schools? The answer is yes: expanded access to hardware and software; varied uses in classrooms; and ambiguous results.

Expanded Access

In 1984, there were about 125 students for each computer in U.S. public schools. In 1996, that ratio had been reduced to 10 students per computer. According to an OECD report, in 2012, the U.S. had two students per computer.

Of course, these are national averages. variation by state, in districts and schools exist. Over the past three decades, the huge “digital divide” between schools enrolling poverty- and non-poverty students has closed considerably but continues to exist. Most families have home computers with Internet access, some do not. Nearly all children have access to computers in school when they lack devices at home. Moreover,  smartphone access among students (particularly as they get older) rises to 95 percent with some differences due to race, ethnicity, and social class. For a teacher who started teaching in 1984 and retired 35 years later, she would have seen the availability of computers steadily increase to nearly one-to-one.

Varied Uses in Classrooms

Teacher and student use of electronic devices in classrooms range from the doing online worksheets to team and individual research projects. While there are differences in classroom use noted between schools enrolling low- and high-poverty children and youth, for the most part, depending on available computers (e.g. each student has one, classroom carts, Bring Your Own Device), teachers have students do many things with the devices they have in reading, math, science, social studies, and foreign language lessons. Students watch videos. They do individual worksheets on screens. They submit assignments to teachers electronically. They report on books and projects using PowerPoint slides. And on and on.

In 2016 when I observed 41 teachers in Silicon Valley schools recommended to me as aces who have integrated hardware and software into their lessons, I saw and then described what they did. In these lessons, tablets, laptops, smart phones were in the background not the foreground of teacher and student talk and activities. Devices were used routinely as paper and pencils had been in prior decades.

Ambiguous Results

Research studies continue to report findings that leave policymakers awash in doubt over the results of spending so much money on hardware and software. To say that the results of oodles of studies about outcomes of computer use in schools are mixed is to repeat a well-worn cliche about educational research (see here, here, and here).

With these fuzzy results, doubts emerge for policymakers, practitioners, parents, and researchers about all of the monies spent for making new technologies available to teachers and students


This condensed history of new technologies in public schools is my take on what has occurred. Others may interpret the past differently than what I presented here. Whatever interpretation readers may tilt toward, one policy question, however, remains from this swift recounting of the past decades.

Could funds that went for hardware, software, professional development of teachers and administrators, wiring of buildings and installation of Wifi, and replacement of obsolete hardware have been better spent on increasing capacity of teachers to teach effectively or reduction of class sizes, or other policy alternatives?

The question cannot be answered but doubts about technologies in schools, often hidden from public view, remain.



Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

16 responses to “Teaching with Technology in Public Schools

  1. ihorcharischak5403

    I thought you might be interested in this article that appeared in Herald-Tribune (Sarasota, FL) “Internet is fundamental for school success” https://www.heraldtribune.com/news/20191014/internet-is-fundamental-for-school-success The Internet is fundamentally different than all previous technologies. The article lays out the advantages. The challenge is to make the Internet available to low income families.
    -Ihor Charischak

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Ihor, for sending me the article from the Sarasota (FLA) paper. The article points out efforts to reduce the digital divide between low-income and higher-income families in accessing the Internet.Sources are cited. Fine. But there is one paragraph that provides no sources at all:

      “Students who have internet access are more likely to score better on math, reading and science tests not only because it allows for access to research and learning tools, but because access to high-speed internet also makes it easier for parents to engage with their child’s learning. It allows them to monitor their child’s grades and assignments, and reference learning resources to support their child’s success at school.”

  2. Reblogged this on The Power of Us and commented:
    Good piece!

  3. Alice in PA

    Thank you for raising that policy question. It is one of the most important ones that needs to be discussed extensovely at all levels. Instead, we often have a blind love affair with the internet. For example, my school has 1 to 1 iPads but we no longer have a social worker and a few other humans. We also have woefully outdated metal and woodworking equipment but the grade K-5 school has a laser cutter.

  4. I teach Math II Honors, a mixture of algebra and geometry. I hate the curriculum. It is straight out of the ’60s. Rational Roots Theorem, long division of polynomials, converting second degree polynomials into vertex form to find vertices and foci and so on. I did the same things when I was in high school and I am older than dirt. WolframAlpha does all these tasks then allows me to use the results in more realistic problems. The trouble is WolframAlpha is not allowed on standardized tests so I have to teach like I was in the ’60s.
    We still teach calculus as though doing derivatives by hand is important. I do not know anyone in any field (other than a math teacher) that does calculus by hand, technology does it. What is important is understand what calculus can do for you.
    As long as curriculum (math in my case) is stuck in the ’60s technology will give ambiguous results, especially if “results” are measured by standardized tests.
    Should we eliminate all that ’60s era math? Ay, there’s the rub. Some of that “old” math is foundational to understanding some principle concepts. We do not want to throw out the baby with the bath water. I am not sure there is a solution to making technology in schools pay for itself with out a massive overhaul of K-14 curriculum and methods of measuring “results”. $$$

  5. Pingback: ED TECH DIGEST – GED

  6. You’ve probably written this before, so forgive me, but what’s your estimate of K-12 $ spent on hardware, software, PD, wifi? I’ve seen 2% to 4%. If true, trade-off on class size is perhaps up to 1 student?

    • larrycuban

      The estimates for K-12 spending on technology that I have seen, Mike, range between 5-10%. What these estimates include as expenditures go beyond whatI cite in the post. Thanks for commenting.

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