Published Online: May 21, 1997

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High-Tech Schools and Low-Tech Teaching

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Technology-minded school reformers, including for the first time in American history the president and vice president of the United States, say that current use of computers in classrooms is meager. It is limited to a small band of serious users, a slightly larger group of casual ones, and the majority who are non-users. Most students in American public schools spend less than an hour a week (or 2 percent to 3 percent of instructional time) at the keyboard. Moreover, when computers are used in classrooms or labs, techno-enthusiasts view the applications (word processing, drill, games, etc.) as unimaginative.

What has to be done, these enthusiasts say, is provide teachers with wired classrooms and machines, give them assistance in selecting and using software, and maintain the equipment. Easy access to technologies and ongoing help will solve the problem, and students will gradually use these powerful machines to open doors to the larger info-world. This is a compelling argument except for one catch: It overlooks what occurs in classrooms when teachers swim in a hospitable sea of technology.

It's not a problem of resources, but a struggle over core values.

In universities where professors have had almost two decades' experience of using personal computers at home and at the office, where there is much professional help to get them to use computers in their classrooms, the same pattern of limited and unimaginative instructional use of computers turns up. Stanford University serves nicely as an example of what generally occurs in universities across the nation where richly endowed computing resources are uneasily wedded to professors' infrequent use of new technologies in their classrooms.

Some facts about Stanford professors using computers in their classrooms over the past two decades will help.

  • In the mid-1980s, one study of 125 Stanford professors found that 80 percent of them used computers to prepare lectures, handouts, and exams. About one-quarter of the professors required students to perform tasks on the computer (such as writing a paper or analyzing a database). When it came to the classroom, however, only 13 professors (10 percent) had actually blended the computer into their classrooms.
  • In 1989, a survey sent to over 660 faculty members in humanities and sciences found that 94 percent used computers for their research, class preparation, and writing. Between 80 percent and 92 percent of the faculty also had a computer at home.

For teaching, most of the faculty members used computers to prepare handouts (80 percent), design exams (72 percent), and prepare lectures (62 percent). Inside the classroom, however, only 13 percent of the professors used computers for demonstrations; 20 percent used them for computer exercises; and only 10 percent actually used subject-related software.

  • Another faculty survey in 1994 found even less classroom usage of technologies. The survey went out to 750 professors who taught undergraduates. Fifty-nine percent of the professors said that they never used a computer in the classroom; 19 percent said that they used the machines occasionally; 8 percent said that they used computers often (the remaining responses were unusable).

Two out of three of the professors responding to this survey said that the lack of time to develop relevant software for their courses was a strong factor in their non-use; 45 percent said that they had no time to learn about classroom uses of computers. Yet help from consultants was available in five university centers. Between 70 percent and 90 percent of the faculty responded that they had not used any of these five centers.

Since 1994, much evidence of frequent use by professors and students of e-mail to discuss questions raised in lectures and seminars has emerged. A few professors have even created multimedia Web pages and made available their courses on the Internet. An imaginatively furnished special classroom for teachers and students has been oversubscribed. Yet, overall, these increasing uses of new technologies occur among less than 10 percent of the Stanford faculty, again revealing the trend of limited in-class use of new technologies.

Are teachers and professionals who raise questions about introducing machines into their classrooms unreasonable resisters to the inexorable advance of progress? I don't think so.

Here, then, is the puzzle of high-tech schools and low-tech teaching. With so much wealth in resources and a two-decade history of faculty access to machines, software, technical assistance, and professional development, why do college professors display the same pattern of limited and unimaginative computer use in classrooms as public school teachers who have historically lacked these resources? This cross-institutional comparison uncovers the narrowness of how the problem has been framed--teachers' lack of hardware, software, and training--and the emptiness of the popular solution of securing more of each to remedy limited use.

What else, then, beyond resources might explain the puzzling use pattern of these machines by both professors and teachers? I would suggest that techno-enthusiasts consider the following and reframe the problem of limited classroom use of computers.

1. Teaching as work differs from manufacturing, repetitive clerical tasks, and low-skill manual work, which have all been automated to enhance productivity. The essence of teaching is a knowledgeable, caring adult building a relationship with one or more students to help them learn what that teacher, the community, and parents believe is important. It is an intertwining of emotional and intellectual bonds that gives a tone and texture to teaching and learning that is unlike what occurs in the workplace. The lure of higher productivity in teaching and learning via computer technologies, however, has seduced reformers into treating teaching like any other form of labor that has experienced productivity gains after automation.

What reformers ignore is that introducing a half-dozen machines into classrooms changes social relationships. Teachers' beliefs about their authority, control of the students, and knowledge of what the teachers' role is come into sharp focus when using software that seemingly replaces what normally had been done by the teacher. While some teachers find that exhilarating and rush to accommodate the change in classroom relationships, many others pause to consider the gains and losses to them and their students. It is no accident that computer labs in schools and universities are the most popular way of organizing use of the new technologies; it is the least invasive way of providing access to the machines without disturbing social relationships in classrooms.

Are teachers and professors who raise questions about introducing machines into their classrooms (the current wisdom is securing five to seven desktop computers per class) unreasonable resisters to the inexorable advance of progress? I don't think so. Teaching relies on the human touch to make lasting changes in what students know, can do, and how they behave; it is different from making a car, filing a claim, or wiring a building. This is, I believe, what the comparison with university professors teaches us.

2. Most techno-reformers are addicted to seeing schools as having only one purpose: to prepare students for the technological workplace. Some see that preparation as consistent with teachers' using a national curriculum and tests; others argue for high-tech, student-centered classrooms as necessary for a changing workplace.

Value conflicts seldom succumb to technical fixes.

Certainly parents and teachers believe that teaching students marketable skills is important--after all, the historic belief in schools as a social escalator for immigrants, the working class, and the poor remains a tenet of America's faith in public schools. But many parents and most teachers also believe strongly that their duty is to help turn the young into adults who act as caring, thoughtful citizens in a democracy. It is, they believe, their responsibility to help students learn the system, gain access to what a democracy offers, and achieve an adulthood that will both contribute to and improve the community. While such a bald statement of belief in the democratic purpose of schooling hardly stirs more than a yawn from technophiles, it is this value that moves many to enter teaching. Few technology-minded reformers are willing to honor that core value.

3. Why should teachers and professors chuck what they ordinarily do when the new technology is constantly changing? Yesterday, it was getting classrooms wired for the Internet and moving more desktop computers into classrooms. Today, it is getting portable laptops into the hands of children. Why have everything wired, if you have laptops? With swift changes in the hardware and very little software that is tailored to what teachers are expected to teach, most teachers and professors wisely stand aside from the pell-mell rush to embrace the experts' wisdom of the month.

If technology-minded reformers were to examine their narrow (and, I would add, misguided) beliefs about the nature of teaching, conflicting purposes of schooling, and uncritical embrace of every technical enhancement, they just might think creatively and reframe the problem of low-tech teaching as not one of resources, but a struggle over core values. Reframing the problem would let us see it as a dilemma of conflicting values--those of techno-enthusiasts who seek efficiency and preparation for a computerized workplace vs. those who are unconvinced that higher productivity is better for students or meets the social purpose of building literate and caring citizens. Wiring schools, buying new machines and software, and sending teachers to workshops has little to do with this dilemma. Nor will blaming or shaming teachers into using computers work. Value conflicts seldom succumb to technical fixes. These are honest-to-God dilemmas that need far more debate than they have gotten so far.


Larry Cuban is a professor of education at Stanford University in Stanford, Calif. He is the author, with David Tyack, of Tinkering Toward Utopia.

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