Use of Technology in U.S. Classrooms

Over the past two decades, I have written a great deal about teacher and student access to and use of laptops, tablets, and phones in U.S. public schools. Access meant school districts purchasing computers and making them available to both teachers and students. Where in 1981, there were, on average 125 students per computer in U.S. schools, by 2000 that ratio had dropped five students per student.

And two decades later, it is nearly 1:1 across both elementary and secondary schools. The dream that educational technophiles had dreamt for decades of every teacher, every child and teenager using new devices has been largely fulfilled.

In 2023, it is fair to conclude that nearly every U.S. teacher and student from kindergarten through high school has access to at least one device at home and school across ethnicity, race, and social class (see here). So getting schools to adopt computer devices has surely been an American success story in public schools.

Teacher Helping Boy To Use Digital Tablet In Computer Class

What about usage? How often do teachers and students use these devices in schools?

I have observed classroom use of devices before the pandemic in San Francisco/San Jose and suburban districts. And I have read recent national surveys of teacher and student use of computers. The quick takeaway is that teacher and student use of digital devices is pervasive and frequent. Whether that pervasive and frequent use, however, altered how teachers taught was unclear.

High school class using devices

Kindergarten students working on an art project while classmates work remotely from home in 2020 at Lakeview Elementary School in Mahopac, NY. Frank Becerra Jr/The Journal News

My first book on teachers’ instructional use of computers in classrooms was Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom (2001). I drew from observations I had made in Bay area schools, examined and analyzed national surveys of computer use in the nation’s classrooms, and then looked ahead to the next few decades. In a closing paragraph to that book I said:

I predict that the slow revolution in technology access and use fueled by popular support and continuing as long as there is economic prosperity, will eventually yield exactly what promoters have sought: every student, like every worker, will eventually have a personal computer. But no fundamental change in teaching practices will occur. I can imagine a time … when all students use portable computers the way they use notebooks today. The teacher would post math assignments from the text and appropriate links on her website which students would access from home. Such access [and use], however, will only marginally reshape the deeply anchored structures of the self-contained classroom, parental expectations of what teachers should be doing, time schedules, and teachers’ disciplinary training that help account for the dominant teaching practices. The teacher … would use laptops to sustain existing practices.

Those last two sentences of that 2001 quote is the main takeaway from this post. All that technological change in access and usage of electronic devices has not, in my judgment, altered dominant teaching practices.

Yes, these devices surely have become as common as paper, pens, and notebooks during lessons. Both teachers and students now depend upon laptops and tablets and similar devices. But how lessons unfold, how teachers teach would be familiar to today’s parents were they to sit in the back of their child’s classroom.

This is not a criticism of teachers.

The ready access and use that teachers and students after three decades of extensive have to laptops, tablets, and now cell phones is simply another instance of the exaggerated expectations that educational and entrepreneurial promoters traffic in when new technologies in the past have entered U.S. public schools.

The huge hype surrounding computer devices since their appearance in schools in the early 1980s definitely has resulted in giving children and youth access to these amazing instruments. And increase classroom and home usage has certainly accompanied this access. But both access and usage have not fundamentally altered how teachers teach. Teachers have, as they always have, adopted an innovation (e.g., film, radio, television) and adapted it to fit the contours of the age-graded classroom and social expectations of parents.



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