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Classroom Technology Opinion

Framing the School Technology Dream

By Larry Cuban — April 16, 2013 4 min read
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For more than a century, educational technology ads have glistened with hope. Newly invented devices from the typewriter to film projectors, from the overhead projector to instructional television, from the Apple IIe to the iPad, have painted pictures of engaged students who will learn more, faster, and better. They have pictured teachers using new technologies to teach effectively. Of course, it is the nature of advertising to promise a rosier future, appealing to what policymakers, administrators, and, yes, parents yearn for ... a better, easier, and even enjoyable way for teachers and students to teach and learn. And that is what these ads do. They assure readers that both teachers and students will be better off using these machines.

Take the Royal Portable typewriter ad from over a half-century ago that shows a joyful teenager looking at a report card with Mom and Dad in the background beaming. The ad announces: “A new Royal Portable can raise her marks up to 38%.” The first paragraph adds: “It happens every day! Many so called ‘slow students’ learn to type and then show up on the honor roll.”

"A new Royal Portable can raise her marks up to 38%."

Or consider the 1960 ad for a new filmstrip projector. Next to the image of the projector are reasons for buying this cutting-edge device. “Your teaching efforts are more effective. ... Pupils comprehend faster with the brighter, more detailed image.” (See the film-projector ad and others in an online slideshow.)

Or the recent ad for the All-In-One iPad app that swears the application “seamlessly combines interactive instruction, formative assessment, progress tracking, and longitudinal reporting against standards with ANY content so the quality of instruction is measurably better and students make authentic performance gains.” Engaged students, higher achievement, and effective teaching are constants in ads for new technology over the past century.

Not to be ignored, however, is the explicit message of lower costs. Consider a 1986 Apple ad (not shown here or online; Apple did not grant permission to republish its advertisements) for a network package connecting the teacher’s desktop station to as many as 30 students’ computers. The ad proclaims: “Now Apple makes it easy to become attached to your students.” Best of all, the ad went on, the Apple SchoolBus network does “it all at 20% less than the cost of individual standalone systems.”

See Also

For a visual tour of the school technology products and pitches that educators have seen since the 1950s, view our online slideshow, “The Promises of Ed. Technology Ads.” To view, click here or scroll down.

Sure, it’s easy to analyze and even poke fun at ads for high-tech devices ranging from overhead projectors in the 1930s to interactive whiteboards in the early 2000s. I do not want to do that. Instead, I will ask two simple questions about these ads: Who are they aimed at? Why do these ads for new technological devices over the past half-century have these constant dreams of students learning and teachers teaching more, faster, and better?

The answer to the first question is easy. An overwhelming majority of such ads are directed toward those who have the money to buy these devices: school board members, administrators, and parents. The claims for the new technology, including visuals of engaged students and the prospect of higher achievement at less cost, clearly attract school policymakers and administrators. For parents who seek an edge for their children in climbing the ladder to economic and social success in life, these machines shine with that promise. These ads are seldom aimed at either children or teachers (one exception is the filmstrip projector).

If parsing the words advertising copywriters create is important because the words stir hopes of educators and parents, and if knowing that the primary audiences for these ads include policymakers, administrators, and parents, then why do these ads decade after decade cling to the same message of enhancing classroom effectiveness and efficiency?

What helps explain the half-century of promises made in these ads is knowing about the love affair Americans have had with new technologies in life and in schools."

What helps explain the half-century of promises made in these ads is knowing about the love affair Americans have had with new technologies in life and in schools. Consider the early-19th-century Frenchman who wrote of his travels in America. He said: “Every new method which leads by a shorter road to wealth, every machine which spares labor, every instrument which diminishes the cost of production, every discovery which facilitates pleasures or augments them” impressed Americans. Alexis de Tocqueville saw the practical side of this nation in the early 1830s when he toured it with a companion. Americans’ subsequent embrace of steam engines, railroads, turbines, telephones, assembly lines, automobiles, airplanes, and one technology after another right up to the iPhone 5 and beyond is a history of falling in and out of love with the latest device that will “lead to a shorter road to wealth.”

Inventors from Thomas Edison and Henry Ford to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs have become iconic heroes in this country. Each developed a device, a process that “spares labor ... diminishes the cost of production ... [and] facilitates pleasures.” As for schools, it was Edison who said in 1922:

“I believe that the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system and that in a few years, it will supplant ... the use of textbooks. ... I should say that on the average we get about 2 percent efficiency out of schoolbooks. ... The education of the future, as I see it, will be conducted through the medium of the motion picture where it should be possible to obtain 100 percent efficiency.”

Those who produce ad copy and images for the newest laptop, tablet, and smartphone, aimed at enabling students to learn more, faster, and better at less cost, tap into a technology-filled past where heroes spun dreams of using the newest of new tools to advance both the individual and society.


Enlarge this slideshow.
Slideshow Editors: Mary-Ellen Phelps Deily, Briana Boyington | Producer: Stacey Hollenbeck

A version of this article appeared in the April 17, 2013 edition of Education Week as Framing the School Technology Dream

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