'Oversold and underused' was a wake-up call in 2003. Bob Harrison asks Larry Cuban what has changed since then
Larry CubanLarry Cuban: more willingness to consider tough questionsLarry Cuban, professor emeritus at Stanford University, has spent many years researching, thinking, reflecting and writing about the relationship between digital technology, teaching and learning and classroom practice. His book Oversold and Underused - Computers in the Classroom was, in 2003, a critical contribution to the then emerging debate about the potential impact of digital technologies  on classroom practice.

For nearly three years Larry’s blog “School reform and classroom practice” has informed the debate and challenged some of the myths which surround this issue. And while he remains a trenchant critic, he feels more positive about technology's inroads into classrooms.

Over the past few years I have made regular study visits to California's Palo Alto and some of the organisations that have been born from the unique combination of Stanford’s intellectual capacity, venture capital and an entrepreneurial spirit. Companies like Google, Linkedin, Cisco, Sun, Apple, Hewlett Packard to name a few.

This year Larry kindly invited me to spend some time at his home so we could explore whether his views had changed given the increased volume of research now available, and to discuss conditions in the the USA and the UK – the US has recently published its ambitious National Technology for Education Plan and last year the Coalition Government buried the “Harnessing Technology” policy and closed down national ICT agency Becta.

So over a cup of tea and a chocolate brownie I put these questions to Larry: 

It is ten years since you published your book. Have your views about the use of technology for teaching and learning changed?

LC: Over the past decade, I have met with teachers, administrators, state policymakers, and district board members across the nation, all of whom were eager to talk about their experiences in using computers for instruction. Many had read Oversold and Underused; others had heard about the book and the research that I had reported. Many wanted me to answer their questions, tell me where I had erred, and raise issues that I had neglected to cover in the book.

In responding to the questions, I made clear that my views about the centrality of the teacher – the gatekeeper to the classroom – had not changed a bit. However, my views about the degree to which teachers would adopt and use hardware and software as part of daily lessons had. What I reported in Oversold and Underused was minimal teacher and professor use of technology in classrooms. Since then, with new machines appearing on the market and in schools annually, particularly, hand-held devices, I have seen in my research in schools a clear trend line of increasing teacher and student use of new technologies in classrooms. The growth of online schooling and rise of blended learning options have contributed greatly to that trend as well.

While the trend is toward greater integration of technology into lessons, the overall portion of daily use falls well below half of teach time spent in instruction, even in those schools with 1:1 computing. I also note that the uses of the new technologies tend to be familiar (ie internet searches, direct instruction via interactive whiteboards, PowerPoint presentations, word processing, etc) and fall within the usual sequence of lessons (eg going over homework, use of textbook, teacher questioning, worksheets – often on screens now, etc) rather than the imaginative uses that champions of the new hardware/software envisioned.  

A common and recurrent theme through your research and writings is the importance of the role of the teacher in using technology. Do you feel this is still the case?

LC: Of course, teachers’ expertise, beliefs, and thinking are central to student learning in schools. It is not the only influence on students, of course, but it is pivotal, especially when it comes to the use of hardware and software in classroom lessons. As a gatekeeper to the classroom and policy broker, that is, the teacher determines what comes into the classroom and what stays insofar as lessons are concerned. Teachers are crucial in figuring out how to integrate laptops, tablets, and hand-held devices. For blended schools where online learning is customised for individual students for part of the school day, teachers still work with students in classes and small groups. I, for one, do not foresee online learning where teaching occurs at a distance replacing regular schools, so teachers will remain central to formal schooling.

The debate seems to become very polarised between “Techno-zealots” and  “Techno-sceptics”. The emergence of “blended” learning suggests that it is not either-or? What is your view?

LC: I do not think the debate is as fractious as it once was, especially when it is removed from the media spotlight and the over-heated rhetoric of bloggers and headline chasers. I have found that discussions among serious folks interested in the issues and personal conversations about computers in schools have become less testy, less polarising, and more engaging in their policy implications than exchanges I had a decade ago.

Name-calling, at least public scorn for anyone who would question the prevailing belief in the magical efficacy of computers in schools, is unfashionable. I found educators and non-educators who deeply believed in classroom computers as engines of learning, willing to listen to critics when concerns were raised about the many goals of schooling in a democracy, the small part technology plays in overall classroom instruction, and insufficient technical support.

In the past, promoters of new technologies, be they vendors, practitioners or policymakers, would curtly dismiss these concerns by calling sceptics "Luddites" (note the labels may have to be updated now). No more. At least in public.

As investments in new technologies continue to mount, as the all-important concept of total-cost-of-operations has sunk into the skulls of policymakers, and as fiscal retrenchment has reduced school budgets, there is far more willingness on the part of ardent promoters to pause and consider answers to tough questions:

  • What keeps teachers from integrating new technologies into their daily instruction?
  • How much of the technology budget is devoted to on-site professional development and technical support of teachers?
  • What kind of research designs have to be pursued to show that teacher use of classroom technologies has caused gains in academic achievement?
  • How can online learning be blended into the regular school day to help students learn more and better?

That these questions could be asked and thoughtfully considered is encouraging.

I know you were a frequent user of the Becta website and research database. Is there a need for a national strategy or agency to ensure systemic change?

LC: Yes, I believe that such a clearinghouse of research information and promoter of a national database is necessary in both UK and the US. That it has disappeared in the UK and is thoroughly fragmented in the US is disappointing and unhelpful to those of us that need data to spot trends.

In your view what are the key opportunities offered by technology in supporting and extending learning?

LC: In the hands of smart, skilled teachers who see how new technologies can become useful additions to their repertoire of teaching approaches, access to new devices, support from others who have used devices to integrate their lessons, and on-site technical assistance, expand the classroom learning opportunities exponentially. However, when policymakers and administrators purchase and deploy new technologies without involving teachers, those opportunities shrivel and disappear.

And what are the challenges to overcome?

LC: Policymakers and administrators who suffer from memory loss when it comes to earlier attempts to use technologies to improve teaching. The supreme over-confidence of policymakers who believe that schooling can be transformed through technology and willfully ignore the many purposes of tax-supported public schooling beyond transmission of knowledge.

Bob HarrisonBob Harrison is an education consultant who works with the National College for Leadership of Schools and Children's Services and Toshiba UK. He runs Support for Education and Training.

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