Personalized Learning Q&A

Larry Cuban on Personalized Learning, Silicon Valley, and K-12: Q&A

By Benjamin Herold — January 09, 2017 6 min read
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Few observers have been more skeptical of technology’s role in K-12 education than Stanford University professor Larry Cuban, whose books are an essential guide to understanding how technological innovations are frequently “domesticated” by schools and teachers.

But after three decades of writing about the classroom limitations of technology, Cuban decided last January to take a different tack.

For the past year, he’s been poking around Silicon Valley’s most tech-savvy educational efforts, from the Facebook-affiliated Summit Public Schools charter network, to private-school-network-slash-software-company Alt School, to the algorithm-driven Teach to One model, to a handful of traditional public schools who have adopted technology “whole-hog.”

The goal is to better understand how such models are using the internet, computers and tablets, software, and social media platforms for teaching and learning.

“What I saw impressed me greatly,” Cuban told Education Week in an interview. “Teachers are regularly and easily integrating technology. It’s now in the background, as common as paper and pencils and blackboards were decades ago.”

That’s significant, he said, because such schools have shifted their focus to using technology to support learning, rather than on adopting technology for technology’s sake.

That’s not to say Cuban is optimistic that such models will be scalable.

Nor does he see technology dramatically reshaping the fundamental building blocks of school, despite the frequent claims of those who believe tech-driven “personalized learning” can disrupt and transform the “factory model” of education.

But what Cuban is seeing are “meaningful, incremental improvements in how teachers organize and teach a lesson.”

And that, he says, is worth paying attention to.

Following is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Why did you undertake this project?

I’ve been writing as a skeptic of technology in classrooms for about 30 years. About a year ago, I began thinking, “I’m hearing so much about excellent examples of technology being integrated into teachers’ lessons, and about schools using technology regularly.” So I said, “Let me look at the best cases of this integration and see what I can see.”

Has what you’ve seen made you less skeptical?

What I saw impressed me greatly. Teachers are regularly and easily integrating technology. It’s now in the background, as common as paper and pencils and blackboards were decades ago. The fact that it’s moved from the foreground to the background, to “what are the learning goals of this lesson?” and “when and how can I use these technologies to best achieve those goals?"—I saw that going on and was very impressed.

The types of classroom lessons you’ve been describing on your blog are not “transformative” or radically new.

“Transformative” is the language of hype, of vendors, promoters, and technologically driven reformers. I am not advocating for that.

Public schools in a democratic, capitalistic society serve multiple functions: making kids literate, preparing them for the workplace, passing on the moral values of community. The socialization that schools must perform, that’s where a lot of the stability in classroom practice comes from.

So what I see is generally not transformative. I do see changes, however. I do see new additions to teachers’ repertoires.

You describe observing a spectrum of approaches to “personalized learning.” Can you explain that?

The last major effort to try to transform teaching occurred in the early part of the 20th century, with the progressive education movement. There were two wings of the movement. One was focused on pedagogy, with John Dewey’s idea of learning-through-doing and the whole child. The other wing was focused on efficiency: measuring everything, testing, and making sure that schools are efficient mechanisms for preparing students for adult society.

Both of those wings continue today.

When it comes to personalized learning, at one end, you competency based-education, or the behaviorist approach of a Teach to One. That’s the efficiency driven wing of the progressive movement.

At the other end of the spectrum are the pedagogical progressives, who believe in more student decision-making and more project-based, independent learning where kids are following their passions.

In the middle, of course, are a lot of hybrids.

You described AltSchool as one of the few existing examples of that “pedagogical progressive” approach.

I saw four classes over two mornings, so this is my take on a narrow observation.

What I saw was pretty close to what John Dewey described. He would have nodded his head next to me.

The company is very aggressive about collecting massive amounts of student and classroom data to inform its approach. Did you come away from your observations optimistic that such an analytics-driven technology infrastructure can support progressive pedagogy?

I saw the efficiency wing of the progressive movement, too, in the way the company has hired software engineers, and they are on site and constantly helping the technology platform become more efficient.

But the teachers they’ve hired are generally five to 15 years into their career. They’re risk-takers. And they mostly seem to have already had these progressive pedagogical beliefs in their heads.

So I think AltSchool marries both the efficiency and the pedagogy wings of the progressive educational movement in an unusual way. And I think it’s promising, yes.

But it also costs $26,000 a year. How will it turn out, and will it will have any impact on public schools? It’s too soon for me to make any predictions.

At Summit Public Schools you seem to have been more taken with the network’s stable, flexible leadership than with its use of technology.

Summit goes beyond a particular teacher in a particular classroom. This was a whole school plan to integrate technology and put it in the background, not the foreground. I saw how they develop a school culture, hire teachers, socialize everyone working in that system to have that kind of direction. And it’s in a public school. I saw that at work, and I was impressed with it.

What stood out to you in the Summit classrooms you observed?

There are three basic activities that teachers use in any class: whole-group instruction, small-group instruction, and independent work. What I saw at Summit, compared to other schools, was less whole group, and more small group and more independent. And the technology helped with that small group and independent learning.

Did that also apply to Summit’s focus on “habits of success” and other non-academic skills?

A good chunk of that was also aided by technology. I saw kids assessing how far along they were on goals they had set. That’s unusual and hard to do in a group of 25-30 with one teacher. I saw technology as making that more possible in the hands of an expert teacher.

Summit is very focused on sharing its model, through its Basecamp program. Is there any reason to believe they will be successful in taking their approach to scale, where so many have struggled before them?

This issue of transferring innovation from an original site to other sites has been very perplexing to school reformers for the past century. It’s not a new issue.

I would not be that confident. Teachers in other schools may get very excited about it, but they have to come back to context they live and work in, and they make adjustments all the time, and those adjustments are changes. That will be disappointing to people who say Summit has to go scale. But that’s the story of teaching.

So have you gone from skeptic to believer?

I wouldn’t go that far. Skepticism is in my DNA.

What I do see are meaningful, incremental improvements in how teachers organize and teach a lesson.

See also:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.