If you are, in any way at all, associated with an effort to transform classroom learning experiences through new technologies, then you must read the work of Larry Cuban.
(I borrow the title and inspiration of this post from Bret Victor who recently exhorted his readers: “Seriously. I mean it. If you are going to design anything whatsoever related to learning, then you literally need to read Mindstorms. For Pete’s sake, read Mindstorms.” Victor actually used a somewhat stronger word than “Pete.”)
Cuban is a historian of education who has both extensive experience as a practitioner (14 years teaching history, 7 years as a superintendent) and a deep knowledge of the history of K-12 classroom practice in the United States. He understands, in fine granularity, the multiplicity of ways that new technologies have been grossly over-hyped and have failed to deliver the promised revolutions over the past century, from radios to laptops.
He has two signature books in this field, which are required reading: Teachers and Machines and Oversold and Underused. Teachers and Machines was published in 1986, and it reviews a century of efforts to incorporate new technologies into classrooms, tracing the repeated cycles of hype and failure. Oversold and Underused is one of the classics of education technology research of the 21st century, documenting how technology investments in Silicon Valley area schools were used little by teachers, and when they were used, teachers simply extended their existing practice onto new machines. Notes on chalkboards begat acetate sheets on overhead projectors begat powerpoint slides on LCD projectors begat the exact same slides on an interactive whiteboard.
Cuban maintains a blog, and his last two posts “Zombie Ideas” and Online Instruction and MOOCs and Hype Again are great reminders that the silver-bullet, disruptive-technology thinking that we see in this decade has countless echoes in American schools over the last century. He also reminds us that failed technology initiatives are not harmless; each one of them represents an opportunity cost in investing in teachers, family support services, early childhood education, and so forth. We’ve seen this story before. It has never turned out all that well.
Could MOOCs, or iPads, or the cloud FINALLY be the technology which lives up to the expectations? No.
Emerging technologies do not make great learning experiences. Great learning experiences emerge from thoughtful lesson designs, well trained and supported faculty, school leaders who are instructional leaders, a common language for instructional improvement, a commitment to being a learning organization, and a sufficient resources to support these efforts. New devices can support great learning, but they can’t make it. Great learning design makes great learning. Come to think of it, read Mindstorms...
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