Opinion | Technology in School

2017’s Ho-Hum, Unremarkable, But Too-Often Ignored Lessons in Education Technology

By Larry Cuban     Dec 27, 2017

2017’s Ho-Hum, Unremarkable, But Too-Often Ignored Lessons in Education Technology

As someone who has taught high school history, led a school district, and researched the history of school reform along with the use of educational technologies over the past half-century, I found little that startled me in 2017 (with the exception for one event noted below). When it comes to digital tools in classrooms, it was the same o’, same o.’ Nothing remarkable in high-tech trends—more money, more devices, more hype.

Sure, I have seen a lot of successes and failures in school reform efforts. But I am neither a pessimist nor a naysayer. I am a tempered idealist who is cautiously optimistic about what U.S. public schools have done and still can do for children, the community, and the nation. Both the idealism and optimism—keep in mind the adjectives I used to modify the nouns—have a lot to do with what I have learned over the decades about school reform, especially when it comes to technology.

So for 2017, I offer no lessons that will shock, but ones distilled from my experience.

Lesson 1: When it comes to student use of classroom technologies, talk and action are both important. Differentiating between the two is crucial.

Anyone interested in improving schooling through digital tools has to distinguish between what the media hypes and what policies are actually adopted. There’s a difference between the promises of “personalized learning” and the policies that school leaders enact—whether through changing academic standards, testing tools, teacher accountability and technology implementation—to make them a reality.

Then, one has to further distinguish between the hyperbole and adopted policies and programs before determining what teachers actually do in their classroom lessons. The process is the same as parsing hyped ads from the unwrapped product in your hand.

These distinctions are crucial in making sense of what teachers do once the classroom door closes.

Lesson 2: Access to digital tools is not the same as what happens in daily classroom activities.

District purchases of hardware and software continue to go up. In 1984, there were 125 students for each computer; now the ratio is around 3:1 and in many places 1:1. Nothing startling here—the technology shopping spree began in the early years of this century and it continues.

Because this nearly ubiquitous access to new technologies has spread across urban, suburban, exurban, and rural school districts, too many pundits and promoters leap to the conclusion that all teachers integrate these digital tools into daily practice seamlessly. Anyone who regularly visits classrooms will see wild variation in the type and quality of lessons among teachers using digital technologies.

Yes, teachers are incorporating digital tools into daily practice. But—and there is always a “but”—even those who have thoroughly integrated new technologies into their lessons reveal both change and stability in their teaching.

In 2016, I visited 41 elementary and secondary teachers in Silicon Valley who had a reputation for integrating technology into their daily lessons. They were hard working, sharp teachers who used digital tools as familiarly as paper and pencil. Devices and software were in the background, not foreground. The lessons they taught were expertly arranged with a variety of student activities. These teachers had, indeed, made changes in creating “playlists” of activities for students, pursuing problem-based units, and organizing the administrative tasks of teaching.

But I saw no fundamental or startling changes in the usual flow of lessons—setting goals, designing varied activities and groupings, eliciting student participation, assessing student understanding—that differed from earlier generations of sharp teachers. The lessons I observed were teacher-directed and post-observation interviews revealed continuity in how teachers have taught for decades.

Okay—there was one event that did startle me, and from which I will make a couple of predictions for 2018. That was the election of Donald Trump as President.

First, I do not believe that his tenure in the White House, or that of his Secretary of Education, will alter the nation’s direction in schooling. The Every Student Succeeds Act shifts policymaking from federal to state offices. Sure, there is much talk in D.C. about more school choice, charters, and vouchers—but much of it remains talk. Little change in what schools do or what happens in classrooms will occur.

What is disturbing is the President’s disregard for being informed, making judgments based on whim, tweeting racist statements and telling lies. (Politifact has documented 325 Trump statements that it judges mostly or entirely false.) In less than a year, these habits have already shaped a popular culture where “fake news,” “truthful hyperbole,” and “post-truth” are oft-used phrases.

Indirectly, the election of Donald Trump—and here is my second prediction—will spark district and school renewal in emphasizing critical thinking skills and helping teachers and students parse both mainstream and social media content for accuracy. Maybe the next generation will respect facts, think more logically, and be clearer thinkers and more intellectually curious than our current President.

Opinion | Technology in School

2017’s Ho-Hum, Unremarkable, But Too-Often Ignored Lessons in Education Technology

By Larry Cuban     Dec 27, 2017

2017’s Ho-Hum, Unremarkable, But Too-Often Ignored Lessons in Education Technology

As someone who has taught high school history, led a school district, and researched the history of school reform along with the use of educational technologies over the past half-century, I found little that startled me in 2017 (with the exception for one event noted below). When it comes to digital tools in classrooms, it was the same o’, same o.’ Nothing remarkable in high-tech trends—more money, more devices, more hype.

Sure, I have seen a lot of successes and failures in school reform efforts. But I am neither a pessimist nor a naysayer. I am a tempered idealist who is cautiously optimistic about what U.S. public schools have done and still can do for children, the community, and the nation. Both the idealism and optimism—keep in mind the adjectives I used to modify the nouns—have a lot to do with what I have learned over the decades about school reform, especially when it comes to technology.

So for 2017, I offer no lessons that will shock, but ones distilled from my experience.

Lesson 1: When it comes to student use of classroom technologies, talk and action are both important. Differentiating between the two is crucial.

Anyone interested in improving schooling through digital tools has to distinguish between what the media hypes and what policies are actually adopted. There’s a difference between the promises of “personalized learning” and the policies that school leaders enact—whether through changing academic standards, testing tools, teacher accountability and technology implementation—to make them a reality.

Then, one has to further distinguish between the hyperbole and adopted policies and programs before determining what teachers actually do in their classroom lessons. The process is the same as parsing hyped ads from the unwrapped product in your hand.

These distinctions are crucial in making sense of what teachers do once the classroom door closes.

Lesson 2: Access to digital tools is not the same as what happens in daily classroom activities.

District purchases of hardware and software continue to go up. In 1984, there were 125 students for each computer; now the ratio is around 3:1 and in many places 1:1. Nothing startling here—the technology shopping spree began in the early years of this century and it continues.

Because this nearly ubiquitous access to new technologies has spread across urban, suburban, exurban, and rural school districts, too many pundits and promoters leap to the conclusion that all teachers integrate these digital tools into daily practice seamlessly. Anyone who regularly visits classrooms will see wild variation in the type and quality of lessons among teachers using digital technologies.

Yes, teachers are incorporating digital tools into daily practice. But—and there is always a “but”—even those who have thoroughly integrated new technologies into their lessons reveal both change and stability in their teaching.

In 2016, I visited 41 elementary and secondary teachers in Silicon Valley who had a reputation for integrating technology into their daily lessons. They were hard working, sharp teachers who used digital tools as familiarly as paper and pencil. Devices and software were in the background, not foreground. The lessons they taught were expertly arranged with a variety of student activities. These teachers had, indeed, made changes in creating “playlists” of activities for students, pursuing problem-based units, and organizing the administrative tasks of teaching.

But I saw no fundamental or startling changes in the usual flow of lessons—setting goals, designing varied activities and groupings, eliciting student participation, assessing student understanding—that differed from earlier generations of sharp teachers. The lessons I observed were teacher-directed and post-observation interviews revealed continuity in how teachers have taught for decades.

Okay—there was one event that did startle me, and from which I will make a couple of predictions for 2018. That was the election of Donald Trump as President.

First, I do not believe that his tenure in the White House, or that of his Secretary of Education, will alter the nation’s direction in schooling. The Every Student Succeeds Act shifts policymaking from federal to state offices. Sure, there is much talk in D.C. about more school choice, charters, and vouchers—but much of it remains talk. Little change in what schools do or what happens in classrooms will occur.

What is disturbing is the President’s disregard for being informed, making judgments based on whim, tweeting racist statements and telling lies. (Politifact has documented 325 Trump statements that it judges mostly or entirely false.) In less than a year, these habits have already shaped a popular culture where “fake news,” “truthful hyperbole,” and “post-truth” are oft-used phrases.

Indirectly, the election of Donald Trump—and here is my second prediction—will spark district and school renewal in emphasizing critical thinking skills and helping teachers and students parse both mainstream and social media content for accuracy. Maybe the next generation will respect facts, think more logically, and be clearer thinkers and more intellectually curious than our current President.

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