Why Education Needs More Healthy Skeptics and Diehard Optimists Like Larry Cuban

Why Education Needs More Healthy Skeptics and Diehard Optimists Like Larry Cuban

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Stanford professor and edu-scholar Larry Cuban doesn’t hate technology—but he doesn’t take it at face value, either. And with good reason—he’s been a teacher, a superintendent, a professor, a historian, and everything in between. This guy knows his stuff.

When I was a teacher, I read his work. When I was an administrator, I read his work. When I went to graduate school, I read his work. And all the while, I got the sense that he wasn’t buying into the edtech fanaticism and device obsession that other bloggers were. So, you can imagine my surprise when I read his blog post back in January where he wrote that he would be “shifting [his] focus from disappointments and failures in uses of new technologies to best cases of such use in districts, schools, and classrooms.”

As I soon came to understand, Cuban doesn’t consider himself an edtech cynic. Rather, he’s a healthy skeptic and an ever-vigilant education optimist. I sat down with him to talk edtech buzzwords, the problem with venture capital, and much more.


Q: Larry, thanks for sitting down with us. You’ve a lot of references and titles—you're a researcher, a professor, a former teacher, a blogger. But who do you consider yourself first and foremost?

I would call myself a teacher at different levels. I’ve taught in high schools, I’ve taught at the university, and I teach through my writing. You teach through writing because you’re getting ideas out there, and if it’s a post on a blog, you’re getting comments and you can have a back-and-forth. It’s not the same as a face-to-face interaction, but it’s the next best thing. You’re starting a conversation, and you never know where it’s going to go... I call writing a form of teaching because it’s another way to get ideas out in the arena and have interactions with people.

Speaking of your writing, when I talked to some of my team members, they said they like reading your blog because they sense a note of “fresh cynicism” when it comes technology. So, your honest opinion. The growing interest in edtech—how do you feel about it?

What’s happened is that the interest has accelerated and expanded, but remember—the desktop computers came out thirty years ago. The first Apple, the Atari, those Macs came out in 1981-84, and it exploded. But the access on the part of teachers and students was very, very limited for the first 15-20 years. In the 90s with laptops coming out, it really accelerated.

But I think what has given edtech a huge push has been the larger reform ideology, which is informed by business interest and trying to increase public schools efficiency and effectiveness. That was triggered a lot by the Nation at Risk Report (1983), where basically the CEOs of the nation combined with civic leaders said, “American schools are lousy.” They used international test scores as proof. Well, technology was going through the economy and changing the job structure and industries. So, the application of technology to public schools seemed natural.

When the money became more and more available, and as the technology improved student access, you had not an “explosion” but rather an “evolving” interest in technology that fit in with the reform ideology.

So the two—reform ideology and technology—mutually catalyzed each other?

Exactly. It started with the assumption that public schools were failing… and that the application of efficiency devices and attitudes were what schools needed. And we’re still there!

In all of this history, do you see more evidence of failure with technology or promise with technology?

Well, I’m not a cynic, as your colleagues say. I’ve never been a cynic. I wouldn’t be in education. To be cynical means that the disappointment is so severe, and you have no energy to do anything about it. I’m skeptical. Being skeptical is very different. Skepticism and curiosity are very close in my mind.

I’ve been skeptical of technology because the early technologies I studied began with the film. That morphed into radio, instructional television, and then the computer. By looking at all the hype that surrounded each one of these, the access to those early ones was very limited. When I started teaching, there was one 16mm projector in the department’s store room, back in 1956. The pattern of hype leading to disappointment, leading to another cycle of overpromising with the next technology, has a long history to it. If I cite MOOCs… that’s just the most recent incarnation of that.

I get the question constantly of whether technology will ever replace teachers. Can teachers and edtech coexist peacefully?

If you look upon teaching as a helping profession like social work, nursing, psychotherapy… those are completely dependent upon interaction. Now, all of those have had new technologies applied to them. But if you believe that teaching is anchored in a relationship between an adult and a student, then that can’t be replaced.

Now, there are a long of things about teaching that can be automated. A lot of teachers’ administrative stuff—like gradebooks—can be very helpful! But to replace teachers? No. That’s a rosy scenario that borders on fantasy.

Look, you’ve got cyber charter schools, and some of them are for-profit. There’s a lot of evidence that shows that they’re trying to eat at the trough of public funding. But the nonprofit virtual schools and a lot of online schooling provide services for different groups of people that are isolated. I think that’s terrific! But that will not replace teaching. When I was a superintendent, personnel was 70% of the budget. The dream of cutting back on that, of making education less expensive, now that’s hardly talked about publicly. But that’s part of the drive.

Now, let’s talk about where you are right now. Back in January, you laid out your reasons for shifting focus from disappointments and failures in use of new technology to best cases of such use in districts and classrooms. Why the change?

Well, I’ll be a skeptic until I go into the ground. But in reading about teachers who are using technology, another way to find out about the strengths and shortcomings of edtech is to look at best cases. The disappointments and failures won’t go away because technology is so embedded in our culture as a positive good that there will always be overpromise. I’m more interested in the best cases, and I want to see them at the classroom level, at the school level, and at the district level. There are individual teachers that are exemplars who anyone who loves technology would embrace. But whether you can scale it up to a school, that’s harder… and then at a district, that’s even more difficult.

I’ve been in this area for 30 years, and I know a lot of people. I’m in the San Mateo High School District, and I’ve been observing some teachers. And then I’ve contacted Dianne Tavenner, founder of Summit Public Schools, who was a former student of mine. When I had this idea, I contacted her and she welcomed me in. And then another friend of mine runs an upscale, private Catholic school. She was talking about the cultural principles that motivates a Catholic school, and whether technology reinforces that, undercuts it… I think that’s very interesting.

You know, it’s funny. I came here expecting I was going to get a lot of answers, but I’m coming away with more questions!

Well, that’s the difference between skepticism and cynicism. Cynics have the answers; I don’t have answers. I have a lot of hunches.

What’s fascinating is that we just featured Dianne Tavenner on the EdSurge podcast in a debate about personalized learning. That must be coming full-circle for you! And I have to ask—do you believe in personalized learning with technology involved?

Well, I want to see it at work at Summit. I had a nice conversation with Dianne and CAO Adam Carter, and I was really taken with the fact that they came to [technology] very late as a way of dealing with an issue that crept up on them. [Years ago] they graduated all these kids to go to college, and just over half are finishing. What I admire about what Dianne and the staff is doing was that they said, “Let’s take a look at what we’re doing to see how we can strengthen the experiences of kids while they’re here, so that they’ll have the skills and attitudes necessary to finish college.” And that’s where personalized learning comes in.

Before I let you go, my final question has to do with entrepreneurs and investors—the people that are making and funding the tools. You’ve mentioned technology not being the be-all, end-all. But are tools being made without the users in mind?

Well, that’s been a pattern in the industry. There are some startups and firms that are user-friendly. Dianne told me that Facebook sent four software engineers over to Summit, and the engineers started with “We don’t know what you guys know, so we have to learn from you.” That’s very rare in my experience.

Getting back to your question, I see it as a fundamental dilemma. There is a clashing of two highly-prized values. There’s the desire for profit—you’re not going to give a small company $10 million unless you believe there’s a 1 in 10 chance that it’ll pay off. The other is the highly-prized value that technology is indeed the answer to educational problems. People believe that deeply. A lot of venture capitalists believe that. People who do startups in the education realm believe that. I’m not critical of that—that’s a belief system. But when it comes to schools, the complexity of teaching and the complexity of relationships is not often thoroughly understood by those folks.

I don’t believe that there is a technical solution to teaching, to running a school, to governing a district. Education is far too complex. 


Interested in hearing the full interview? Hear it on the EdSurge podcast!

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