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Education Commentary

Futures That Never Happened: Technology and the Classroom

By David Tyack & Elisabeth Hansot — September 04, 1985 7 min read

A recent New York Times editorial observed that American infatuation with computer literacy is ‘just another distraction from the failure to teach children the old-fashioned kind of literacy.” Such skepticism rarely appears amid the current “computer revolution” in the schools. Americans relish technological solutions to the intractable problems of learning.

It has long been so. Hear the hype of another time: ‘The inventor or introducer of the system deserves to be ranked among the best contributors to learning and science, if not among the greatest benefactors of mankind.” The time was 1841. The “system” was the blackboard. And so it went with the advocates of educational radio, film, and television, language laboratories, and programmed learning, who promised that their technologies would pave a smooth path to learning for all children.

Those who see pedagogical salvation in computers ignore the fate of earlier technological panaceas. They are too enamored of the computer to step back and ask why earlier technologists predicted futures that never happened. The rhetoric of the technologists- past and present-has mixed disdain and optimism: disdain for traditional teachers and methods, and optimism about radical improvement through the use of machines.

As historians, we may be uninvited and sober guests at the celebration of the computer revolution in education. Nonetheless, the history of technology in the classroom gives one pause. Too often, inflated promises have been followed by a burst of enthusiasm and partial implementation, and then by discouragement and, broken morale and broken machines. The blackboard, in fact, may have been a modest triumph after all.

Looking at Education Index, we tracked references to technology over a 50-year span and found a familiar pattern. In successive waves of four to eight years, the number of articles on radio, film, television, and programmed instruction tended to peak and then falloff as a new cure-all appeared.

A poem written by a bemused teacher in 1925 comments on the claims made for educational technology in that decade:

Mr. Edison says

That the radio will supplant the teacher.

Already one may learn languages

by means of Victrola records.

The moving picture will visualize

What the radio fails to get across.

Teachers will be relegated to the


With firehorses

And long-haired women;

Or perhaps shown in museums.

Education will become a matter

of pressing the button.

Perhaps I can get a position

at the switchboard.

The people promising educational moonshots were (and are) an assorted lot. Not surprisingly, many were salesmen from companies wanting to market their products to the schools. Some were academic entrepreneurs or true believers- psychologists, for example, who thought that programmed instruction would rationalize pedagogy. Foundation officials seeking a quick impact on schooling sometimes saw the new media as a way around the briar patch impeding educational change. A new specialist emerged in academe--the audio-visual expert--who had a vested interest in technology. Some teachers hoped that electronic learning might motivate their reluctant students.

The waves of enthusiasm for technology in education appear to have coincided with broader changes or concerns in the society. Most periods of technological hype have had common features: worry over the costs of schooling, fear that teachers were incompetent (or at least in short supply), and some sort of threat (the Depression, Sputnik, urban riots, the Japanese economic challenge) that gave special urgency to education. In troubled times, most people want a quick fix and a scapegoat.

The scapegoat has often been the teacher who is reluctant to climb aboard the new bandwagon. Technology seems to offer ways to bypass teachers, through “teacher-proof’ programmed instruction or electronic classrooms. Whatever the technologists might hope, behind the classroom door the teacher is still the key to education. Larry Cuban, an education historian, has demonstrated that there is great continuity over the years in the way teachers actually instruct students. Teachers have used technologies that fit familiar routines and classroom procedures; the rest they’ve mostly ignored.

Some inventions and innovations did, in fact, make their way into the classroom: the familiar blackboard; cheap paper (which replaced slates); books for each child (made possible in part by sharp drops in printing costs, and since 1950 aided by the paperback revolution); globes and maps.; steel-nib pens (replacing quills and being replaced in turn by ballpoint pens); and (though it was controversial) the cheap hand-held calculator.

More complex technologies have had much less impact on everyday teaching than did the simple improvements that merely enhanced what teachers were already doing. In 1936, after a decade of florid claims about radio and film, one survey found that in 21,000 districts there were only about 6,000 silent-film projectors, 450 sound-film projectors, and 11,000 radios (and it did not say how many of these actually worked or were regularly used). In 1961, after a decade of enthusiasm for television in the journals and of much-publicized experiments, another study found only 1.65 television sets per district.

In the late 1960’s, with the flood of new federal funds, many districts bought language laboratories, audio-visual equipment, and films. There was probably a net gain in the use of technology, but it fell far short of a revolution. Innovations such as programmed instruction showed ambiguous results, in terms of both motivation and cognitive learning. The findings confirmed the initial skepticism of many educators. And teachers continued to complain, as they had a century before, about unrepaired apparatus lying unused in closets, while physics teachers often preferred practical dry-cell batteries to more temperamental equipment.

Will the computer be different? Will the mania for computers lead to a new educational era? If the history of technological innovation in the schools is any guide, one would expect new tools to be used largely in familiar ways in familiar settings. Typically, teachers have used films to supplement existing courses. Publishers have tried to seem modem by programming familiar courses for presentation on machines. Professors have given well-tried lectures on television.

Thus, one might have predicted that computers would be used to convey familiar course content to students who have difficulty learning in other ways. The new skills useful for the computer would be taught in separate courses. And this, in fact, is the picture that seems to be emerging in early surveys of how computers are used in schools.

In high schools, about two-thirds of the instructional time on computers is in courses that teach programming or computer literacy, and perhaps another 10 percent is in courses such as word processing that aim to enhance productivity. Computing, in other words, is widely taught as a skills course, comparable in some ways to typing.

Computers are also commonly used for drill and practice, usually for students who I have trouble learning. This is especially true in elementary schools, where 40 percent of computer time is spent on such drills (and about 20 percent is devoted to I “games,” which are really an attractive way to tress mechanical learning).

Such uses of the computer are highly conservative pedagogically. They do not exploit the full potential of the machine as an aid to learning and as a tool for doing all kinds of intellectual tasks. This is understandable: The computer, more than other technologies before it, threatens the traditional role of the teacher as the bearer and imparter of knowledge. But it would be unfortunate if the power of the computer to enhance learning were squandered for lack of effective software and teacher training.

Will historians in 2001 see the “computer revolution” in education as just another predicted future that never happened? Will computers fundamentally change the way children learn and teachers teach? The past suggests that we should be cautious about predicting a technological revolution in the schools. One hopes that the computer will not become just another piece of machinery gathering dust in the corner. But it can never replace the interactions between teachers and students that, at their best, produce both literacy and civility.

A version of this article appeared in the September 04, 1985 edition of Education Week


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