Cartoons about Online Learning

Yes, it is that time for the monthly feature of cartoons. For March, I have collected cartoons about online learning. With K-12 schools and universities shutdown, many school leaders have turned to online courses as a way of teaching and learning as well as keeping up-to-date in the business world. Social distancing during the pandemic has expanded online teaching beyond even promoters’ dreams. So it is a moment when the cartoonist’s pen is welcomed. Enjoy!

Online College, US Education, colleges, political cartoon


Filed under Uncategorized

Chasing Success and Confronting Failure in American Schools

2020 is the 11th year I have been writing posts for this blog. In those 11 years, I have also written a few books. Every time I have had a new book come out, publishers and friends urge me to advertise the book on my blog.

I am torn, however. One part of me thinks that it is too pushy, too braggish, to tout my book in the blog. It is not that I am inherently a modest man but the thought of blowing my trumpet about what I do or did, well, makes me wince in embarrassment.

Yet another part of me says: “Hey, at a time when screens and the air are filled with constant grabbing for attention,” (eyeballs, as flacks put it), “I need to do the same.” After all, I am not on Facebook and only tweet titles of my posts when I publish them. Social media is largely foreign to me although readers of the blog, tweet about posts I have published–so I do benefit from that. Consider further that over a million self-published books come out a year (2017). Book readers have to be especially selective.

Moreover, with this abundance of reading material at a time when sustained attention to read a 200-page book competes with reading one’s Facebook pages and twitter feed, getting reviewed in a national newspaper, magazine, or media publication is rare–the New York Times reviews less than three percent of new books it receives. Yes, you can cadge reviews for your book on Amazon, but the cachet is limited. So why not blow my trumpet–that other part of me says.

This back-and-forth interior conversation is what occurred when I received a note from Harvard Education Press that my new book, Chasing Success and Confronting Failure in American Schools will be available next month. I decided that I will post a few paragraphs taken from the “acknowledgements” page to describe why I wrote a book about success and failure in American schools.

Every book has its creation story. For this one, there is nothing exotic or path breaking. In my career as a teacher, administrator, and professor since 1955 (I retired in 2001 but continued to teach and write) I have spent my professional time in researching and writing on questions about educational policy and practice that tugged at me for answers.  For that I am most grateful. But now as the sun is setting on my career I wanted to pull disparate threads together from my earlier writings that touched larger issues in the journey that educational policy takes toward the classroom.

In Chasing Success and Confronting Failure in American Schools, I wanted to answer a question that has bothered me for a long time.  Given my knowledge of the history of efforts to alter what occurs in schools and classrooms, why has the constant refrain of school reform failing again and again and schools never changing sounded off kilter? A few years ago, I had a chance to explore the question of the supposed failure of school reform and lack of change in U.S. schools when Jay Greene and Michael McShane asked me to do a chapter in their edited collection called Failure Up Close: What Happens, Why It Happens, and What We Can Learn from It.

Writing that chapter got me thinking about the dominance of current policy definitions of “success” and “failure” in public schools. So I began asking myself a bunch of questions: Had those policy definitions been around for just the past few years? Decades? Centuries? Had these notions of “success” and “failure” changed over time? Where did they come from? How and why did tax-supported public schools adopt these definitions of “success” and “failure?” What do these definitions look like when applied to actual schools and classrooms? And, finally, can contemporary definitions of “success” be stretched to encompass other goals for teachers and students in public schools?

Like much of my previous writings, these questions started on the busy four-lane highway of reform-driven policymaking and then hopped on two-way roads and eventually one-way streets of educational practice to see what happened to those adopted policies when they finally appeared in schools and classrooms. Some reforms stuck, some morphed in familiar ways of running schools and teaching. And some disappeared. The above questions bugged me enough to travel anew this familiar path of policy-to-practice.

Those questions spurred me to send Harvard Education Press yet another proposal to write the book you have in hand. I have answered these and related questions in this book partially scratching the itch that got me this far. I say “partially” because I am uncertain whether what I have written here misses questions about stability and change in U.S. schools that I should have asked or errs in what I have concluded.  As I said above, the creation story for this book is neither exotic nor path breaking. It is what it is.


Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools, school reform policies, technology use

The Unknown Virus: A Personal Story

San Angelo is in West Texas. The county seat between Abilene and the Mexican border. Farms, oil wells, and cattle ranches fenced with barbed wire dot the county. Blessed with a warm climate and reputation as a healthy place to live, in one year San Angelo added to its reputation in ways that city leaders dreaded.*

In mid-spring, the newspaper reported that a local child had come down with a viral disease that had occurred in earlier springs like hailstorms and tornadoes. Previously, when this disease occurred, it had not spread. This one, however, did.

Parents began arriving at Shannon Memorial Hospital with “feverish, aching youngsters in their arms,” the local newspaper reported. Within days these children died: 10 month-old Esperanza Ramirez, seven year-old Billie Doyle Kleghorn, four year-old Susan Barr, and others. The city health officer said that an epidemic was occurring. Because the disease had no known cause or prevention or cure, he recommended that San Angelo children avoid crowds, wash their hands regularly, and get a lot of rest.

A month later, with known cases spiking to over 60, the city council voted to close all indoor meeting places, including theaters and churches. Tourists stopped coming to the city. The economy shrank. One local doctor said, “We got to the point … when people would not even shake hands.”

The year is 1949, not 2020. The disease is polio, not Covid-19.

I got polio in 1944, five years before the epidemic hits San Angelo. But I was lucky. I came out of the disease with only a limp from a destroyed calf muscle. Amid the fears of the coronavirus today, I can now appreciate in a way that I could not as a ten years-old, the dread of the unknown consequences for their son that my parents had after I came down with the “plague” as it was called at the time.

Like polio at that time, the coronavirus has no known cause, testing for the disease continues to be slow and hampered globally. There are no medications or vaccine. Even the death rate from the disease is uncertain because of flaws in testing and tardiness in evaluating large numbers of people in China and other countries as the epidemic becomes a pandemic. Political and medical officials advise Americans to wash their hands often and stay away from crowds. Anxieties and fears are as contagious as the disease’s spread from its origins in China to the rest of the world.

Now as an old man, the fear I have of the coronavirus striking my family, friends, and the nation must be close to what my parents must have felt when I got polio three-quarters of a century ago.

Polio virus

Known for centuries but isolated in the early 1900s, the virus had triggered epidemics across the world. What caused children and adults to sicken, become paralyzed and die–the disease was often called “infantile paralysis”–was unknown. Thus, prevention was useless. Fear of contagion was rampant wherever cases broke out. There were no medications. Treatment was a combination of muscle wrappings and massage of limbs to ease damage to the body that inevitably occurred.

In the U.S. it occurred periodically paralyzing children and adults, rich and poor alike. One epidemic in 1916 claimed 27,000 Americans. In New York alone there were 8400 cases and 2400 deaths. Five years later, Franklin Delano Roosevelt came down with the disease at the age of 39 and wore leg braces for the rest of his life including the years he served as President of the U.S. (1933-1945). Not until the early 1950s did a vaccine become available for children.**

The polio epidemic of 1944 swept across Pittsburgh. I caught it. I remember well the weeks I was in the hospital and the months that I was at home. I recall the anxiety and fears that my parents and brothers had–I was the youngest in the family–since the paralysis could cause loss of breathing (“iron lungs” were invented to keep children and adults alive) and destroy muscles. Both of my brothers had been drafted–it was the third year of World War II–and were serving in the U.S. Navy and Air Force. My parents worried about them and now I came down with polio. Friends and neighbors steered clear of our home.

Most vivid of all I remember my mother massaging my legs with cocoa butter in the hospital. I could not walk after I returned home. Daily she would rub my legs with it. I missed junior high school for a few months and when I returned I had a noticeable limp. The smell of cocoa butter has remained fixed in my head ever since.

So too have I remembered drinking raw eggs every morning before I went to junior high school. Because my leg muscles and body wasted during confinement for polio in the hospital and at home, doctors had told my parents that I needed proteins to rebuild muscle strength. So my father every morning before he would go to work would crack open two eggs and put them in a small glass, stir them into one yellow blob and watch as I drank it. I shivered at the taste. This went on for months until I regained weight and could walk and run, albeit slowly.

My guess is that the fears my parents had that I would die went away slowly as I began to walk and returned to school in 1945. With the end of World War II, my brothers came home. I was getting strong enough to bowl, play baseball, and basketball. As I think back to that time 75 years ago, I can imagine their fears for me as I and uncounted millions of families now face Covid-19.


Like many Americans of my generation, I stay at home a lot, talk on the phone, text, and stay away from crowds. I do fist bumps with family and friends, wash my hands often, watch as cancellations of schools, conferences, sporting events, and entertainment venues pile up. Am I fearful and anxious? Yes. Do I keep my fingers crossed that the virus runs its course and disappears? You can bet on that.

Just like my mother and father in 1944 and those parents in San Angelo in 1949 who faced the unknown when their children caught the polio virus, mothers and fathers today concerned about their children and elderly parents contracting the coronavirus, the past has become the present right before our eyes.

Today, I can still smell that cocoa butter. And I do not like eggs very much even when they are scrambled.


*For the description of San Angelo, Texas and the 1949 polio epidemic, I used David Oshinsky, Polio: An American Story (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 1-4.

**Ibid., pp. 19-23.


Filed under raising children

I Would Rather Do Anything Else Than Grade Your Final Papers (Robin Lee Mozer)

All teachers  have to read and evaluate student work. It is part of the territory that teachers inhabit. To classroom comrades we voice our occasional distaste for the inexorable round of homework and papers that pile up on our desks and at home waiting for comments and grades. Robin Lee Mozer, Assistant Professor at the University of Louisville wrote the following piece that surely picked up on a lot of negative feelings I had over the years about grading and commenting on student papers as a history high school teacher and university professor. Be prepared to laugh out loud.

Thanks to David Labaree for his blog where he posted the piece.

Dear Students Who Have Just Completed My Class,

I would rather do anything else than grade your Final Papers.

I would rather base jump off of the parking garage next to the student activity center or eat that entire sketchy tray of taco meat leftover from last week’s student achievement luncheon that’s sitting in the department refrigerator or walk all the way from my house to the airport on my hands than grade your Final Papers.

I would rather have a sustained conversation with my grandfather about politics and government-supported healthcare and what’s wrong with the system today and why he doesn’t believe in homeowner’s insurance because it’s all a scam than grade your Final Papers. Rather than grade your Final Papers, I would stand in the aisle at Lowe’s and listen patiently to All the Men mansplain the process of buying lumber and how essential it is to sight down the board before you buy it to ensure that it’s not bowed or cupped or crook because if you buy lumber with defects like that you’re just wasting your money even as I am standing there, sighting down a 2×4 the way my father taught me 15 years ago.

I would rather go to Costco on the Friday afternoon before a three-day weekend. With my preschooler. After preschool.

I would rather go through natural childbirth with twins. With triplets. I would rather take your chemistry final for you. I would rather eat beef stroganoff. I would rather go back to the beginning of the semester like Sisyphus and recreate my syllabus from scratch while simultaneously building an elaborate class website via our university’s shitty web-based course content manager and then teach the entire semester over again than grade your goddamn Final Papers.

I would rather stay up past midnight pecking out an essay about not wanting to grade your Final Papers with one finger on my tiny outdated smart phone touchpad than grade your Final Papers because I do not want to read them.

I do not want to read your 3AM-energy-drink-fueled excuse for a thesis statement. I do not want to sift through your mixed metaphors, your abundantly employed logical fallacies, your incessant editorializing of your writing process wherein you tell me As I was reading through articles for this paper I noticed that — or In the article that I have chosen to analyze, I believe the author is trying to or worse yet, I sat down to write this paper and ideas kept flowing into my mind as I considered what I should write about because honestly, we both know that the only thing flowing into your mind were thoughts of late night pizza or late night sex or late night pizza and sex, or maybe thoughts of that chemistry final you’re probably going to fail later this week and anyway, you should know by now that any sentence about anything flowing into or out of or around your blessed mind won’t stand in this college writing classroom or Honors seminar or lit survey because we are Professors and dear god, we have Standards.

I do not want to read the one good point you make using the one source that isn’t Wikipedia. I do not want to take the time to notice that it is cited properly. I do not want to read around your 1.25-inch margins or your gauche use of size 13 sans serif fonts when everyone knows that 12-point Times New Roman is just. Fucking. Standard. I do not want to note your missing page numbers. Again. For the sixth time this semester. I do not want to attempt to read your essay printed in lighter ink to save toner, as you say, with the river of faded text from a failing printer cartridge splitting your paper like Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments, only there, it was a sea and an entire people and here it is your vague stand-in for an argument.

I do not want to be disappointed.

I do not want to think less of you as a human being because I know that you have other classes and that you really should study for that chemistry final because it is organic chemistry and everyone who has ever had a pre-med major for a roommate knows that organic chemistry is the weed out course and even though you do not know this yet because you have never even had any sort of roommate until now, you are going to be weeded out. You are going to be weeded out and then you will be disappointed and I do not want that for you. I do not want that for you because you will have enough disappointments in your life, like when you don’t become a doctor and instead become a philosophy major and realize that you will never make as much money as your brother who went into some soul-sucking STEM field and landed some cushy government contract and made Mom and Dad so proud and who now gives you expensive home appliances like espresso machines and Dyson vacuums for birthday gifts and all you ever send him are socks and that subscription to that shave club for the $6 middle-grade blades.

I do not want you to be disappointed. I would rather do anything else than disappoint you and crush all your hopes and dreams —

Except grade your Final Papers.

The offer to take your chemistry final instead still stands.


Filed under higher education, how teachers teach

Schools and the Coronavirus

Close the schools, an anxious neighbor says on Nextdoor (a local online bulletin board), when a parent of two school children in the community in which I live came in contact with someone who was infected with the coronavirus (see comment below: a careful reader noted that the source I used said the parent was not infected). Public schools so far have remained open but nearby private schools have closed. Stanford University suspended face-to-face classes for next week telling faculty to teach online remaining classes in the quarter. No local district has yet closed its public schools. But whether to keep public schools open or shut remains in the air. Parents scramble to hire people just in case the schools do close but their workplaces remain open It is a day-by-day anxiety-fest. But not only in this affluent community.

In New York City, there are 1.1 million students of whom three-quarters are designated as poor. A recent article makes clear that schools do more than teach content and skills.

… {S]chool may be the only place they can get three hot meals a day and medical care, and even wash their dirty laundry.

That is why the city’s public schools will probably stay open even if the new coronavirus becomes more widespread in New York. Richard A. Carranza, the schools chancellor, said earlier this week that he considered long-term closings an “extreme” measure and a “last resort.”

Responses from Palo Alto and New York City public schools strip away the cloak of hidden inequalities that are endemic to American life in 2020. Should Palo Alto schools close, nearly all of the parents–many of whom have both spouses working–will have money to hire adults to help care for their children at home.

Not so for East Palo Alto families –across an expressway from Palo Alto–where many moms and dads cobble together multiple part-time jobs in low-paying industries (e.g., Home Depot, IKEA, fast food franchises, home gardening) with no paid sick leave available.

An impending crisis disrupts the taken-for-granted in our lives. Especially when it comes to public schools. They are crucial in keeping the economy strong because, in addition to learning content and skills, and issuing credentials to enter college and eventually the workplace, in times such as now, their legal custody of children becomes starkly obvious. Schools, past and present, then, are expected to take good care of their charges and also be social service centers and community hubs.

The importance of schools to daily life and the larger society during a pandemic becomes obvious. But does closing schools reduce spread of the virus and thus deaths or do schools have little to no effect on the spread of the respiratory ailment?

History offers some clues to answering the question. A historian of medicine investigated the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic that killed nearly 750,000 Americans (not a typo). He and his colleagues studied 43 cities that used school closings as one of the ways to abort or slow the spread of the virus and thereby reduce mortalities. Here is what he found:

We looked at 43 large cities that carried out some combination of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs): isolating the ill or those suspected of being ill in hospitals or at home; banning public gatherings; in some cases, shutting down roads and railways; and closing schools.

School closing turned out to be one of the most effective firewalls against the spread of the pandemic; cities that acted fast, for lengthy periods, and included school closing and at least one other NPI in their responses saw the lowest death rates.

Of course, all NPIs are socially disruptive and should be used only as a last resort, to control infections that are highly transmissible and dangerous, and have high fatality rates. The primary problem with the new coronavirus is that we have never before experienced an outbreak with it, so we do not yet have good, stable numbers to tell us how serious it is.

The uncertainty over the effects of the virus, how many that contract the disease recover or die, the lack of a vaccine–takes up to a year to develop and test one–and absence of anti-viral medications complicates greatly making decisions about closing schools. That in the U.S. there are 13,000-plus school districts–each with their own school board and superintendent–with over 100,000 public schools surely doesn’t help in corralling the contagious virus.

The historian closes his article with the following advice:

To be sure, more than 80 percent of the Covid-19 cases reported so far have been mild, and few children have been among the people suffering from serious or deadly cases. But most parents would tolerate the inconvenience of school closings if it meant they were avoiding even a relatively small risk to their child’s health. Just as important, children of all ages are especially good at spreading respiratory viruses, which puts adults who work in schools as well as health workers in emergency rooms and hospitals at risk if schools remain open. Keeping kids at home could be an important part of saving lives.

In the history of medicine, we have never been more prepared to confront this virus than we are today. But this history also teaches us that when it comes to school closings, we must always be ready to act today — not tomorrow.

What the historian ignores, however, is the economic insecurity and inequalities that pervade the U.S. and the social effects of school closings on lower-middle and working class Americans and those poor families without any resources. Serious disruption rather than the euphemism of “inconvenience” is the operative phrase for this substantial portion of Americans.

Future policies that would lessen the disruption would be state and federal legislation mandating paid sick leave for minimum wage jobs. That would be a start and a positive outcome of this pandemic.


Filed under school leaders

Final Office Hours*

By the end of June, I have to move out of my office in Cubberley.

I retired from the Graduate School of Education in 2001 and since then GSE has allotted offices in one of the two education buildings on campus to retired professors who, like myself, are located in Cubberley (named after a long-tenured dean and benefactor). I see occasional students, use the library located on the second floor, keep books and papers–yes in those metal-gray four-drawer file cases–and read.

The importance of office hours in my career as a professor

After a quarter-century of work in public schools as a teacher and administrator, I came to the GSE in 1981.

Being a tenured professor is a privileged position. Especially at an elite university at a time when recently-minted Ph.Ds getting tenure-line offers has shrunk dramatically and part-time instructors and adjunct posts have mushroomed across higher education.

Compared to being a high school teacher with five daily classes of 50-minutes each, the teaching load is light. I had to teach four courses a year. For each course I would teach, I met students twice a week for two hours each session. I would then hold office hours for three hours each day that a class met. My seminar students and doctoral candidates I advised could sign up for 15-minute to half-hour appointments. Those one-on-ones were two-way conversations prompted by my students’ questions or ones that I would raise, given the topics we discussed.

One story: I came to GSE directly from a superintendency. Before the superintendency I had been a high school history teacher. As school chief, conferences with school board members, subordinates, principals, teachers, and parents were often brief, problem-centered, and specific. Many times, I had to make swift, if not smooth, decisions. Even as a high school teacher, unscheduled conferences with students, fellow teachers, and administrators were quick, on-the-run, and succinct.

Not so after I arrived at Stanford. The first quarter I taught two courses and posted office hours on my door for students to sign up. The list for each day was filled. Student after student appeared for either 15- or 30-minute sessions during each days I held office hours.

By the end of the second week I was having severe headaches. I would bike home and have to take a nap. My wife was a psychotherapist and over dinner I would tell Barbara about my headaches, the teaching, and the stream of students coming to my office each week. She was an astute listener and since we had been married for decades knew me very well. After a particularly bad day and over dinner, Barbara asked me to compare my conferences when I was a superintendent and the ones that I was having with students at GSE.

The question was unexpected. I thought about those brief, fast, and decision-driven conferences as superintendent with the ones I was having with graduate students. The major difference was that I had to listen carefully for extended periods of time to a student while as a superintendent, I had to listen only to the point when I identified the problem to be solved (maybe three to five minutes), considered the pros and cons of a decision and then decided what to do (or deferred it to a later time). Bang! Meeting over.

Not so for students. I listened intensely for extended amounts of time 15-20 minutes, something I was unused to for the seven years I served as superintendent. Barbara thought, and I came to agree with her, that conferences with students required long bouts of careful listening that drained me cognitively and emotionally unlike my short bursts of attention and decision-making as a superintendent (and high school teacher). That difference in longer and sustained attention to a student sitting in a chair a few feet away, she suggested, may account for those headaches. Turns out she was correct.

Slowly, I learned how to relax and still pay close attention to what students were saying. Didn’t happen immediately but the headaches got less painful and eventually disappeared. I came to look forward to those sessions with my students. Office hours were no longer a strain for me. I realized, as one of the commentators below noted, that these conversations were a different form of teaching, it was part of my job as a professor. Over time, I came to appreciate the give-and-take with students, some of whom after I retired in 2001 became close friends.

Because after I retired I still occasionally taught seminars and advised students, I continued to post office hours. Because I was no longer a full-time faculty member, I was assigned another office which I shared with a colleague.

Once a storage closet, room 126 was large enough for the facility manager to put in two desks, new carpets and six floor-to-ceiling book cases. We thought the space was just right. The only argument my colleague and I had was over replacing the name “Storage Room” on the existing placard outside our door with our names. I convinced him to keep the current title for the space since I thought that name was appropriate for emeriti faculty.

And I have used room 126–conveniently located next to the men’s bathroom– as my office for conferences with students and faculty whose intellectual interests overlapped with mine for the past decade.

Moving out

But I have to leave the Storage Room. The GSE is renovating this 80-plus year-old building , that is, it will be gutted and reconfigured for faculty, staff, and students. So everyone will be relocated. The renovation will take at least two years, I’m told. Perhaps longer, I suspect. Since I do most reading and writing in my home office, I do not plan to ask for space when the refurbished Cubberley Education building re-opens its doors. I have been grateful to GSE for providing space to talk with others, write, and, yes, keep a few hundred books in three tall shelves bolted to the walls. No more, however.

Staff has given me three options for my books and papers. I can take some home. Since I already have books at the house and garage I have no space to take that option. The second choice is to designate which books the movers can place outside the second-floor library as freebies for students, staff, and faculty. A third option is to have the rest of the books that I choose not to give away, be boxed up and sent to other colleges where they may be needed such as in developing nations. I have chosen the second and third options and have begun deciding what goes where.

But a fourth option came to me. Prior to sorting books to give away from those that will be shipped elsewhere, I could invite former students in the Bay area, high school teacher friends, and GSE faculty to come to 126 and choose books they would like for their libraries. I did send out invitations and people I had not seen in many years, indeed, have come by, and we caught up with one another. After the conversation, they went about selecting books from the shelves. Ergo, “final office hours” with people I wanted to see.

I have enjoyed re-connecting with former students, friends, colleagues, and young GSE faculty. Our conversations have given me a lift. These one-on-one occasions have reminded me about the importance of both people and books in my life and the technological changes that have occurred in reading habits.

My emotional attachment to particular books

Surprising to me were the feelings that I had for particular books that I had not read for years but as soon as I began sorting and picked one up, a flood of memories swept over me. Seymour Sarason’s The Culture of School and the Problem of Change (1971), for example. I have not read the book or even parts of it for years yet the faded orange color and dog-eared pages with my notes jotted in the margins brought me immediately back to discussions I had with teachers, principals, school board members, and other superintendents about the regularities of schooling that remain intact year after year. Sarason’s observations about schooling put me onto the imperatives built into the age-graded school decades ago. Faces, names of people, actual rooms, and chunks of discussions flashed through my mind. Yes, I kept that book and others that triggered strong remembrances and feelings.

Technology-spurred changes in reading habits

As I listened to my former students–many now in their late-40s, early 50s and mid-career as teachers, policy researchers, administrators, and academics–I sensed changes in how they (and myself as well) look upon our personal libraries at home and in their offices. Yes, books remain important but e-books, Kindle readers, and PDFs dot our screens. Conversations on how each of us spend far more time staring at screens than flipping pages in an actual book came up time and again. I doubt that professional books will disappear but reading formats and picking out books from shelves to read at home have clearly changed for those working in schools, for consulting organizations, and academia.

I will miss my office at Cubberley but not for its snug comfort but for the many people I have met, talked with and listened to, over the years.

Traveling an uncommon career path to academia, I have been lucky in being in the right place at the right time in my life as a high school teacher, superintendent, and professor. While I would like to say that my talent and hard work earned me these positions, I know well how chance–when and where you are born, into what family, and timing of what jobs become available–has a lot to do with life’s ups-and-downs. So being at Stanford for 20 years was fortunate for me in coming to know and admire treasured colleagues and at least three-to-four generations of doctoral and masters students in many venues but especially during office hours.


*I thank Janice Cuban for suggesting the phrase “final office hours.”


Filed under higher education

Whatever Happened to Interactive Whiteboards?

You cannot eat one potato chip. You have to have more. Technological innovations hyped to transform teaching and learning are like potato chips. No district, no school just buys one. Laptops, tablets, and Interactive whiteboards (IWB) are typical examples. Consider the history of this high-tech classroom device.

Beginning in the United Kingdom in the early 1990s, schools purchased interactive whiteboards by the truckload. British educators jumped on board this technological innovation with great enthusiasm especially after the government underwrote the buying of the technological innovation. In a glowing, enthusiastic article (2010), a writer described the results of the government largesse.

At St. Matthew Academy, a school for 3- to 16-year-olds serving a group of depressed London neighborhoods and similar to “turnaround schools” in American cities, IWBs have become fixtures in every classroom, with an eye to keeping students engaged. Assistant Principal David Cregan says that the boards are used for everything from mapping concepts—where students fill in an onscreen matrix with their ideas—to reviewing past lessons, where students unscramble letters to discover key words or ideas to launch a classroom discussion.

In the U.S. IWBs enjoyed a surge of enthusiasm beginning in the late 1990s and early 2000s.While there are different kinds of IWBs with accompanying software and pens to use, many districts outfitted entire schools with IWBs costing somewhere between $3K-5K for one in each classroom. In Silicon Valley, where I visited many classrooms, I saw some teachers use these devices imaginatively with much student participation and others to basically illustrate a lecture with video clips and Internet links.

Overall, then, IWBs beginning in England and arriving in the U.S. two decades ago have come and stayed. They are still around. While sales of IWBs expand in other nations, particularly in Asia, sales have annually decreased in the U.S. Declining sales track the hype cycle so familiar to American educators in love with new technologies.

What Problems Do Interactive Whiteboards Intend To Solve?

Apart from the glitter of a new technology aimed at teaching and learning, district and school administrators saw IWBs as solving the ever-constant problems of student motivation, engagement, and academic achievement.

IWBs gave teacher total access to information on the Internet and new tools to expand their repertoire of lecture, whole group discussion, small group teaching, and students’ independent work, thereby enhancing existing teaching approaches. The theory was that IWBs, then, by engaging students would remedy partially or wholly those ever-constant problems faced in classrooms.

What Does Use of Interactive Whiteboards Look Like in Practice?*

A Philadelphia high school English teacher describes her use of the IWB:

I have been using an interactive whiteboard for several years, and honestly, I like having the board available. The software that comes with the board offers me a nice way to organize and save the work we do each day. If we mark up a document during a lesson, I can save it and refer back to it the next day. Often, I use the board to share information for mini-lectures, to demonstrate activities, or to show video clips or images to enhance my lessons.

Does that mean that none of my teaching is student-centered? No way. I am often at the board for a total of five or ten minutes and then my students are working together in small groups, or we are engaged in class discussions about the literature we are reading. I sometimes return to the board to troubleshoot when a majority of my students are stuck, and that makes life easier for all of us.

Over the course of the past few years, my students have used the interactive whiteboard to showcase their learning through presentations. And when we are editing and writing as a class, we can share documents in real time. In other words, the students get to direct the learning.

The interactive whiteboard is a tool that lends itself to direct instruction, but it does not dictate that all the instruction needs to be teacher-directed.

From an article on a 4th grade classroom using an IWB.

Teaching artist Lisa Rentz worked with a classroom teacher on the group story-writing experience. Students read the book Circle Unbroken and then used it as inspiration for an original group story. “[The teacher] and I used the Smartboard to take notes, viewable by all, of the students’ ideas, words and decisions, as we went through the story-writing process– brainstorming, developing characters, commencing the plot, dialogue and word choice,” said Rentz.

Because the notes were on the interactive whiteboard, they were able to save them, print them and use them for outlines and handouts. “The Smartboard pages were printed out every day as the story grew.  Each night I typed up everything for handouts the next day, and then resumed with the board until the conclusion of the story, which the students wrote individually,” said Rentz.

Do Interactive Whiteboards Work?

Sold as a way of increasing student motivation, engagement, collaboration, and academic achievement while altering how teachers teach to the whole class and small groups, research results, as one has come to expect in education, are decidedly mixed. Early enthusiasm that such devices–like laptops and desktop computers–increase students’ test scores shrunk as studies showed, at best, mixed results–including meta-analyses of the research. See here, here, here, here, and here.

Similarly, on results for increased student engagement and more collaboration, studies initially showed some gains but, again, the results are, at best, ambivalent. See here.

Why Do We Now Hear So Little Today about Interactive Whiteboards?

One answer is simply the hype cycle and what happens to many technological innovations.

Where to put IWBs in the cycle might be in the “Trough of Disillusionment,” “Slope of Enlightenment,” or “Plateau of Productivity” I cannot say since the evidence is sparse. Readers will have to decide, given their knowledge and experience with this once highly touted innovation.

Another reason often given by observers is that implementation of the device was hampered greatly by complicated software accompanying IWBs and the lack of one-to-one staff development for the innovation.

I would suggest another possible reason. It lacks much evidence, however, other than what I have observed, heard from teachers, and know about the history of classroom teaching. IWBs inherently reinforce teacher-centered instruction (e.g., lecture, demonstrations, frontal teaching) at a time when the rhetoric among educators and school practitioners is student-centered instruction (e.g., much student participation, collaboration, and student choice). The clash between rhetoric and practice often goes unspoken and seldom noticed. After all, teachers adapt innovations to their lessons once the tinsel wears thin on an innovation and for those teachers who swear by their IWB, it is another tool in their kit of ways of getting students to learn.

And then there is occasional teacher reaction that may or may not mirror what many teachers felt and thought about IWBs purchased by administrators for use in their classrooms. Here is Bill Ferriter, a North Carolina public school sixth grade teacher’s response to IWBs.

I’ll admit that there aren’t many topics I’m more passionate about than interactive whiteboards in the classroom.

Seen as the first step towards “21st century teaching and learning,” schools and districts run out and spend thousands of dollars on these gizmos, hanging them on walls and showing them off like proud hens that just laid the golden instructional egg.

I gave mine away last summer. After about a year’s worth of experimenting, I determined that it was basically useless.

My hunch is that IWBs, like sister technological devices over the past century, enjoyed its moment in the pedagogical sun and faded into a quiet niche within teachers’ repertoires as much as the slate blackboard was in the mid-19th century and the whiteboard in late-20th century classrooms.


*I looked at various YouTube presentations by teachers and consultants on using IWBs in lessons. Nearly all that I watched were sponsored by companies that sold the product. For readers who want such examples, see here and here. A few came from non-company sources. See here


Filed under how teachers teach, technology use