Education Commentary

The Truth About Technology

By Larry Cuban — January 01, 1993 13 min read

Today, computers and telecommunications are a fact of life almost as basic as electricity. They have altered the work of businesses and industry. Yet, why is it that with so much talk of school reform and information technologies over the last decade, computers are used far less on a daily basis in the nation’s schools than in other organizations?

The question often generates swift objections. What about the $20 million Quince Orchard High School in Montgomery County, Md., where there are 288 computers for 1,100 students? What about the thousands of elementary and secondary school teachers who have students work together on computers to write, tally figures, draw, and think? And aren’t there many experiments under way, such as Apple’s Classroom of Tomorrow and microcomputer laboratories? The answers to all of these questions are that such instances do exist, but they are scattered and atypical in the roughly 80,000 public schools across the nation, where more than 2 million teachers teach more than 40 million students.

As an innovation, school use of computers in the 1980s spread swiftly, widely, and, on occasion, deeply. But the picture is clouded. A few key statistics suggest the broad outlines of the picture:

  • In 1981, 18 percent of schools had computers. In 1991, 98 percent had them.
  • In 1981, 16 percent of schools used computers for instructional purposes. By 1991, 98 percent did so.
  • In 1981, there were, on average, 125 students per computer. In 1991, there were 18.
  • In 1985, students used computers in school labs just over three hours a day. In 1989, that figure had risen to four hours a day.

These few numbers give a sense of expanding school use of computers. A closer inspection of those figures and others reveal, however, that for those individual students who use computers (and not all do), the time they spend doing it is, on average, a little more than one hour a week, or 4 percent of all instructional time. What students do with computers varies greatly. For 11th grade computer users, as the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment found, computers seldom show up in academic subjects, and where they are used the purpose is often to teach about computers.

The OTA also found that students from high-income families have far more access to school computers than peers from low-income families. Black students use computers in schools less than white students, especially in elementary schools. Pupils whose native language is not English have even less access to computers. Finally, low-achieving students are less likely to use machines to enhance reasoning and problem solving and more likely to use them for drill and practice. The overall picture after the introduction of the personal computer a decade ago can be summed up in a one-line caption: Computer meets classroom; classroom wins.

For technology advocates with a sense of history, this good-news/ bad-news picture of computer use in schools should be an old story. The introduction of film and radio into schools in the 1920s and 1930s and instructional television in the 1950s and 1960s saw a similar pattern of blue-sky promises of revolutionizing instruction and learning.

The promise of new machines has been anchored in the dream of increasing teacher and student productivity. More could be taught in less time with these machines, and students could learn more and even better than from textbooks or the teacher alone. The promise was invariably followed by limited entry of machines into classrooms, growing practitioner disillusionment due to the inaccessibility of the machines, academic studies documenting small learning effects from the new technology, and a final round of teacher bashing. With the next technological invention, this cycle of ecstasy, disappointment, and blame would begin anew.

Except for the 1980s and 1990s. With massive technological changes in the workplace and in daily life, school reformers throughout the last decade have turned increasingly to computers in schools as a solution for motivating students, reaching children with different ways of learning, and reducing reliance on teaching the whole class at the same time. The results for the 1980s, as I have indicated, are mixed.

Such good-news/bad-news statistics raise tough questions. Is the growing number of newly built schools devoted to using computers and telecommunications a sign that these are the schools of the future? Or is the apparently marginal use of computers in classrooms a sign that this technology is going to be used just like earlier ones—that is, peripherally, seldom disturbing customary ways of teaching? Or does this marginal-use pattern have within it a sign of steadily growing acceptance of new technologies and a promise that, with time, schools will become more machine friendly?

I do not know the answers to these questions. What I can do is sketch out three scenarios of what might be occurring 10 years from now and pick the ones I believe are likely by 2000. Each story line is plausible and has evidence to support it as a possibility. Each can be assessed for the likelihood of its materializing. Here are the three scenarios:

  • The technophile’s dream: electronic schools of the future now. These are schools with sufficient numbers of machines, software, assorted accessories, and wiring to accommodate varied groupings of students in classrooms, seminar rooms, and individual work spaces. The dream is to make teaching and learning far more productive than it is. Machines and software are central to this dream. They are seen as liberating tools for both teachers and students to grow, communicate, and learn from one another. Teachers are helpers, guides, and coaches to students being tutored and interacting with machines.
    The strategy for achieving the vision is to create total settings that have a critical mass of machines, software, and like-minded people who are serious users of the technologies. The tilt is toward making big changes swiftly rather than creating pilot programs or buying a few machines at a time. Chris Whittle’s Edison Project is a recent popular instance of a technophile’s scenario.
  • The cautious optimist’s scenario: slow growth of hybrid schools and classrooms. In this scenario, putting computers into classrooms will yield a steady but very slow movement toward fundamental changes in teaching and schooling. Advocates of this scenario see it occurring inexorably, much like a turtle crawling toward its pond. It is slow because schools, as organizations, take time to learn how to use computers to guide student learning. It is inexorable because believers in this scenario are convinced that the future school will mirror a workplace dominated by computers and telecommunications.
    The evidence for this scenario is a small but growing body of research. For example, introducing a half-dozen computers into a classroom or creating microcomputer labs, over time, alters how teachers teach (that is, they move from whole-class instruction to small groups and individualized options) and how students learn (they come to rely upon one another and themselves to understand ideas and practice skills). Thus, the classroom organization might shift, albeit slowly, from one that is wholly teacher-directed to one in which students working with peers at machines begin to take responsibility for their learning.
    In schools where computer-using teachers and hardware have reached a critical threshold, different organizational decisions get made. Teachers of different subjects or grades move toward changing the regular time schedule. Schoolwide decisions on using technologies become a routine matter as do decisions on nontechnological matters. Hybrids of the old and the new, of teacher- and student-centered instruction, proliferate.
  • The preservationist’s scenario: maintaining while improving schools. In this scenario, policymakers and administrators put computers and telecommunication technologies into schools, but they end up largely reinforcing existing ways of teaching, learning, and grouping for instruction. While some teachers and schools use these technologies imaginatively and end up being profiled by the media, most uses are fitted to what already occurs. New technologies become ways of tinkering toward improvement. The vision embedded in the preservationist’s story is one of schools maintaining what they have historically done: providing custodial care, sorting out those who achieve academically from those who do not, and giving taxpayers as efficient a schooling as can be bought with the funds available.

There is much evidence for this scenario. Some examples: mandating a new graduation requirement on computer literacy, adding courses to the curriculum on computer science, creating a computer lab for all the school’s machines, scheduling teachers once a week to bring their classes to the room where an aide helps students use software connected to their daily lessons, placing one computer in each classroom, and buying software that is part of a textbook adoption.

In this scenario, computers are seen as occasional helpers for the main business of teaching students. Adapting these tools to help teachers and students do what they are supposed to do in schools ends up with new technologies reinforcing what schools have done all century.

Which of these scenarios is likely to occur? The least likely is the electronic school of the future. While such schools will be built, they will remain exceptions and, in time, will probably disappear as the next generation of technology, invariably cheaper and improved, comes of age. Thus, although such schools exist now, few will spread to other districts. Recent experiences of schools adopting instructional television, language laboratories, and programmed learning in the 1960s and 1970s have taught policymakers to be cautious. In districts that built these schools, administrators found in less than a decade that the technology either was unused by teachers, became obsolete, or could not be repaired after breakdowns. The constant improvement of advanced technologies makes it risky for districts to make large capital investments in new hardware beyond a model program or demonstration school.

The cautious optimist’s and preservationist’s scenarios are basically the same story of computer use in schools interpreted differently. Each stresses different facts and derives different meanings from those facts. Preservationists argue that schools will remain largely as they are because of millennia-old cultural beliefs held by most adults about teaching, learning, and knowledge that form the core of modern American schooling. According to these beliefs, teaching is telling, learning is listening, and knowledge is what is in books. Most taxpayers expect their schools to reflect these principles. Such strongly held beliefs seldom disappear when Apples or IBMs show up in school.

Preservationists also point out that the popular age-graded school persists through reform after reform. Age-graded schools, the dominant form of school organization for more than a century and a half, have self-contained classrooms that separate teachers from one another, a curriculum distributed grade by grade to students, and a time schedule that brings students and teachers together for brief moments to work. These structures profoundly influence how teachers teach, how students learn, and the relationships between the adults and children in each classroom. They are especially difficult to change. For these reasons, preservationists argue, schools tailor technological innovations to fit prevailing cultural beliefs and the age-graded school.

Cautious optimists, however, take the same facts and give them a sunny-day spin. The optimist’s version of the story displays much patience in making schools technologically modern. Conceding the many instances of technologies being used to reinforce existing practices, optimists shift their attention to the slow growth of technological hybrids, those creative mixes of the old and the new in schools and classrooms. These hybrids of teacher- and student-centered instruction, the optimists say, are the leading edge of a movement that will bring schools more in sync with the larger society. Thus, the current reasons for the fumbling incorporation of high-tech machines into schools—not enough money, teacher resistance, inadequate preparation of teachers, and little administrative support—will gradually evaporate as hybrids slowly spread and take hold. It is a scenario anchored in a long-term view of decades rather than months or years. While I find the preservationist’s story convincing, I lean more toward the optimist’s version.

This long-term view is more compelling to me than the pessimist’s view of grinding inertia and the marginal adaptation of new technologies because of my studies of how teachers have taught during the last century. I found evidence of much continuity in teaching practices, but I also found deep changes in particular ways that teachers worked in classrooms, especially in elementary schools, that resembled the hybrids that optimists identified. I found, for example, that in the 1890s, the one form of grouping for instruction was teaching the entire class at once; a century later, the practice of grouping, particularly in the elementary school, uses a mix of whole-group, small-group, and individual options. Teachers’ repertoire of classroom practices has broadened over the last century.

In the 1890s, lecturing, using the textbook, and testing were the primary tools of the teacher. A century later, these tools remain, of course, but in elementary schools this array of practices has expanded with the addition of new materials and technologies. While films, videocassettes, and television may not be mainstays of most classroom instruction, they are sparingly used, again testifying to the slow growth of hybrids in instruction. Such instances of deep changes in practice provide additional evidence for the optimist’s long-term view of technological hybrids slowly changing the conduct of schooling.

What happened to my initial question? I asked why, with all the ballyhoo over computers in the last decade, are these machines so little used in classrooms compared with large businesses and industry? My answer is that the sparing classroom use of computers is due less to inadequate funds, unprepared teachers, and indifferent administrators and more to dominant cultural beliefs about what teaching, learning, and proper knowledge are. Another factor is the age-graded school, with its self-contained classrooms, schedules, and fragmented curriculum. New technologies that fit these beliefs and systems get used often; those that don’t get used less.

For the 1990s, I have bet on the optimist’s scenario of continued slow growth of computers in schools and the spread of hybrids of teacher- and student-centered instruction. Computer usage will incrementally increase but still fall well below the dreams of technophiles. Neither scenario promises major changes in schooling in this decade.

Two wild cards, however, hedge my bet. One is the current national movement for goals, standards, and testing. If the movement rolls on, it may largely confine computers to reinforcing existing patterns of teaching and learning. The other is the growing privatization of public schooling. If this continues, masses of poor children left behind in large cities will seldom experience creative uses of technology. Both of these wild cards give me pause in considering which of the scenarios will get the most play in the closing years of this century. Thus, the story of technologies in schools continues to unfold.

A version of this article appeared in the September 19, 1984 edition of Education Week as The Truth About Technology