Published Online: May 19, 1999

Technology and Its Continual Rise and Fall

In a century that has worshiped scientific progress like none before, it's not surprising that technology increasingly has been seen as a powerful, transforming force in American public education. Since 1900, nearly every technology that has affected the way knowledge is produced or disseminated has been offered to educators--simple projection devices and Victrolas in the 'teens, radio in the '20s, motion pictures in the '30s, television in the '50s, and computers and the World Wide Web in the '80s and '90s.

Those technologies all had their turns as a significant focus of attention in the education community. In its day, each has been the star subject of grant proposals, research on its educational effectiveness, and school investments in equipment purchases and professional development.

Technologies have been touted as ways to add dimensions to teaching and learning, whether by providing auditory or visual information, making material available to a larger group of students, adding interactive capabilities, individualizing instruction, or all of the above. They have been sent to schools and classrooms for more mundane reasons, too: to increase efficiency, lower costs, and reduce the need for teachers.

But for one reason or another--after a decade or so in the sun--most of the technological innovations drifted into the margins of school practice, to be used only occasionally or for peripheral activities by a few gung-ho teachers. Most didn't disappear, but they failed to achieve the impact for which they seemed destined.

One clue why comes from Emerson D. Jarvis, a former superintendent of schools in Fort Recovery, Ohio. An enthusiastic advocate of employing radio to broadcast lessons to classrooms, Jarvis wrote in The American School Board Journal in 1930 that radio was being used effectively in his state to supplement classroom teaching, update information in textbooks, and fill in gaps in teachers' knowledge; to expose students to the wider world; to foster thinking and listening skills; and to inspire students, among other benefits.

But tellingly, Jarvis began by warning that the cause of radio education would be hindered by two different groups: those educators who instinctively disliked or distrusted technology, and the glassy-eyed enthusiasts who promoted their cause with hyperbole.

"One group is composed of those who are content to dispose of the subject with a shrug of their shoulders, or a wave of the hand," Jarvis wrote. "They dismiss the whole matter as impractical, visionary, and 'impossible.' The other group is made up of those who paint a picture of 20 to 30 years hence when, in their opinion, the classroom will resemble the classroom of today, with a blackboard, pupils, and a teacher's desk, but with one important factor missing: The teacher will be replaced by a loud-speaker."

The Ohio administrator finished by advising his readers, "Prudence and common sense will lead the experienced educator to take a position which is between these extremes."

The middle path Jarvis was recommending was no easier to achieve for radio education, which largely fell by the wayside, than for most other forms of technology throughout the century.

`Incredible Claims'

Hyperbole has gone hand in hand with each innovation, says David B. Tyack, an education historian at Stanford University, who has written extensively about 20th-century teaching practices.

"New technologies have been introduced to educators with incredible claims," he says. "People have made some very utopian claims for technology, as basically solving instructional problems and becoming a substitute for teachers."

Writing in the School Board Journal the same year as Jarvis, B.A. Aughinbaugh of Columbus, Ohio, for example, predicted that motion pictures would take schools up the evolutionary ladder from the printed word. "The motion picture is undoubtedly a timesaver and psychologists tell us that it is also a labor-saver, since it sets aside the difficult mechanics involved in reading and frees the mind for thinking," he wrote.

Larry Cuban, another Stanford University historian of education, who wrote a book with Tyack about why educators have been slow to adopt technical advances, says the technologies that have been most successful in schools are flexible tools that have added functions to what teachers do already. He describes those technologies as having "hybridized" teachers' traditional activities and roles.

The mimeograph machine, for example, gave teachers a new way to distribute printed materials beyond the textbook. They could use worksheets or print off passages copied from books that weren't readily available for the whole class. Other relatively unglamorous but successful technologies include the videocassette recorder and the overhead projector.

By contrast, long after telephones were common in homes, they failed to make much of an impact on schooling. Though phones had the apparent advantage of providing a direct communication link between teachers and parents, they violated two of the principles of the traditional classroom: It is a closed environment, and the teacher is nearly always engaged in direct supervision of students. At least until the 1980s, school administrators weren't ready to consider a different arrangement, nor were many teachers demanding one.

Another relative failure was television. Educators first began experimenting with broadcasting courses to classrooms by television in the 1940s. One of the best systems, supported with grants from the Ford Foundation, was the instructional-television network used by the Hagerstown, Md., schools in the 1950s and '60s.

Many administrators at the time were interested in television as a way to handle swelling enrollments from the postwar baby boom without massive hiring of teachers.

Some teachers were dazzled by the medium's potential, says Peter Dirr, currently an executive at Cable in the Classroom. As a young teacher, he was introduced to educational television at a seminar at Fordham University in 1960, where he'd met some of the television industry's pioneers. "I was really struck by the [possibility of] reaching large numbers, so learners could benefit from a small number of good strong teachers," Dirr says.

But not too suprisingly, given the implications for their jobs, many teachers felt threatened by classroom TV, he says. And coordination of class schedules at different schools--necessary in the years before low-cost recording devices were available--proved a real hurdle.

Despite the impact television was having on the broader culture at the time, schools that had tried instructional television quietly phased it out when grants were no longer available.

Television didn't become teacher-friendly until the 1970s, when the VCR placed it under the teacher's control, Dirr says.

"That's one of the themes of what we've seen in the second half of the century: When something is controlled centrally, and is imposed on people, people get their backs up," he says. "When it's put in their control and the quality is good, they use it."

The success of educational technologies has ultimately depended on their acceptance by teachers, who generally enjoy autonomy in choosing the tools they use in their classrooms. Cuban, a former superintendent, argues that technologies have failed when they have demanded too much of a departure from what teachers were already doing.

While some teachers may resist technology out of fear or laziness, others resist to safeguard their art, he says. They know how to create learning experiences that work using the traditional system, and they aren't convinced that adding a new element won't interfere with that process. They also have concerns other than instruction that they must deal with, such as keeping order and discipline among 25 or more children. Technologies that require teachers to direct their classrooms differently from what they're accustomed to will likely be adopted slowly, Cuban says.

Whether that slow evolution is "good or bad depends on whether you're an advocate or a skeptic," he adds.

Power of Digital Technologies

As the century approaches its close, technology is a bigger part of schooling than it's ever been. Administrators are spending billions of dollars each year on hardware and software. Parents are demanding even more, saying it's critical for their children's future success in the workplace. And many educators who have experimented with digital technology say it can revolutionize the way students learn.

While the hype may seem familiar to those who have studied education throughout the 20th century, several historians agree that computers and the Internet could mark a watershed in the use of technology in schooling.

In part, this is due to the nature of the technology itself. The World Wide Web gives students an unprecedented power to access information and communicate with people around the world.

In addition, computers and the Web can absorb and manipulate all the other technologies--images, films, and sound--that have gone before, notes Robbie McClintock, a professor at the Institute for Learning Technologies at Columbia University.

These multimedia capabilities may give today's digital technologies the flexibility and power to change schools that earlier classroom devices lacked, McClintock says.

Cuban agrees. "The digital technology is clearly more powerful, because of its interactive capacity, than any others--film, radio, TV. There's no question," he says.

What's more, digital technologies are achieving a critical mass in the nation's schools, thanks in part to government investments at all levels, including the federal E-rate program, which provides discounts on telecommunications services to schools and libraries.

As a result, nine out of every 10 schools in the country now have access to the Internet, and schools have an average of one computer for every six students--a level of penetration far greater than radio, film, and television achieved during their heydays.

Digital technologies have also gained a firmer foothold in school budgeting, and in training and administrative routines, than their predecessors.

But Tyack points out that the Internet is still establishing itself and that the choices society makes about how the medium evolves will have a significant influence on education.

"People need to think about them in historical terms," he says, "and they're making very portentous choices."

PHOTO: Duplication machines were one of the less glamorous technologies to arrive in schools, but they had a lasting impact.
—The American School Board Journal, March 1940.
PHOTO: Duplication machines were one of the less glamorous technologies to arrive in schools, but they had a lasting impact. Teachers used them to make multiple copies of everything from pop quizzes to permission slips and could create printed materials more timely than textbooks and more portable than blackboards.
—The American School Board Journal, March 1940.
PHOTO: In an Atlanta public school in 1926, students listen to a radio broadcast during a lesson on current affairs. Motion pictures, television, and computers have, in turn, followed the radio as technologies promising to revolutionize the classroom.
—Corbis/Hulton-Deutsch Collection

Web Only

Web Resources
  • "Internet Access in Public School Classrooms, 1994-98," U.S. Department of Education, 1999. Provides information by characteristics of schools with Internet access for the school and for the classrooms. Reports on ratios of students per instructional computer and students per instructional computer with Internet access.
  • Seymour Papert takes on the education establishment in his "Education's 19th-Century Thinking in a 21st-Century World," a speech from June 1998 in which he questions grouping students by age and offering a linear curriculum, when computer-aided instruction defies that logic.
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