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3 Reasons Why Sloppy Thinking Leads to Careless Educational ICT

Larry Cuban


If ICT means the use of computers in schools and classrooms and if learning means what academic content, skills, and behaviors students can perform in and out of school, then the massive investment over the past 30 years in wiring schools, buying computers and the latest hand-held device has fallen far short of being a “revolution” in students’ learning and teachers’ teaching (Failure of computers PDF 1995). While not a fruitless mission – a fool’s errand – the idea that ICT would revolutionize schooling was, at worst, sloppy thinking and, at best, ardent wishfulness.

Note I said “use” of ICT, not access to it. For access to ICT has been an unvarnished success. From a national average of 125 students per computer in the mid-1980s now there are about 4 students, on average, per computer in the U.S. (2009 tech survey). In fact, many districts and a few states now give each student a laptop. Moreover, the digital gap between high poverty and low poverty schools in having ICT and Internet access is nearly closed.

So while access has been a success, actual use by most (but not all) teachers and students in classroom lessons has disappointed ICT champions. Without regular use in classrooms, then ICT advocates cannot even hope for increases in student academic achievement, transformed teaching, and technologically proficient students entering the job market.

Instances of falling far short of “revolution”:

  • After spending $30 million on computers in Louisville (KY) schools, two-thirds to three-quarters of the teachers did not regularly use computers in their lessons in 2006. Subsequently, new technologies have been purchased and improvements have been claimed (Tablets for Teachers 2010).
  • When researchers directly observed classrooms rather than relying on teacher reports of use, they have found a distinct minority of teachers integrating the use of computers into daily lessons. Most teachers, however, used computers occasionally for instruction. They also found that even now with abundant access, large numbers of teachers never use ICT in their classrooms.

These patterns of classroom usage occur in spite of the easily observable fact that nearly all teachers use their home computers daily and administrators swear by their Blackberries, iPhones, and iPads . (2009 tech survey).

Why in the face of abundant access to machines at school and home is there such limited student use of ICT for instruction in schools?

The reason is that technology-driven policymakers, educators, reformers, and vendors err in their thinking about the role of schools in a democratic society and the nature of classroom teaching and student learning.

  1. Technological enthusiasts overestimate the importance of students’ access to technology in schools and underestimate teachers’ influence on students’ learning.

Most policymakers, parents, and reformers assume that availability of machines is the same as using them. That error in equating access to use has bedeviled decision-makers for decades. The crucial link between any announced policy, deployment of machines, and classroom learning is not the devices, but the teacher.

In fact, the current Utopian hype about “disruptive innovations” and “Liberating Learning” transforming teaching and learning through online instruction and hybrid schools tries to outflank teachers by focusing on parents and students as home consumers rather than upon teachers using devices in schools regularly with students.

  1. Technological enthusiasts see public schools as only about learning.

Surely, learning concepts, facts, and skills are a central task of tax-supported public schools. Preparing students for college and the workplace is important. But voters, taxpayers, and parents expect more of their public schools. They want schools to socialize the young into the workplace and community, provide for their personal well-being, and produce civic-minded, engaged adults. As multipurpose and compulsory institutions that serve the community, schools, then, do far more than teach content and academic skills. Utopian claims that bringing new technologies into schools—laptops, iPads, etc.—will transform both teaching and learning fail to consider the all-important social and political tasks that teachers and principals face every day.

  1. Technological enthusiasts indulge in magical thinking.

Researchers have failed again and again to show that students using computers in classrooms will improve test scores, lift graduation rates, and reduce dropouts. The lack of evidence-based practice in students using computers in classroom lessons, however, has seldom stopped policymakers, reformers, and vendors from promoting even more devices for teachers and students. These Utopian fantasies have the virtue of spinning out beautiful scenarios of individually tailored lessons for students but are divorced from current school and classroom realities.

Not a revolution or fool’s errand, just careless ICT policy

These three errors add up to sloppy thinking about ICT in schools. Sloppy thinking leads to careless policymaking about technology’s link to learning. While no “revolution” has yet occurred in schools, a “fool’s errand,” technology is not.

Why? Because schools are political and social institutions that have to be responsive to voters and parents who provide funds to build schools, hire educators, and insure that children get taught what the community expects. What every U.S. community now expects from its schools is for their children to be technologically literate, college-educated, and skilled to step into the labor market upon graduation. With these expectations, public schools, dependent upon voters and parents, must make some effort to buy and deploy the most recent technological tools even as school boards and superintendents know that they cannot keep up with constant technological changes.

So no “revolution” yet and not a “fool’s errand.” Just more muddling through as ardent educators, decision-makers, and entrepreneurs wrestle with the complexities of using new technologies to implement abiding political, social, and economic goals in highly vulnerable but essential public schools.

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9 Responses to “3 Reasons Why Sloppy Thinking Leads to Careless Educational ICT”

  1. "If ICT[4E] means the use of computers in schools and classrooms"

    But why would that be a good definition of ICT4E?

    In the Netherlands, almost 100% of children have access to computers and the Internet, and almost 100% use computers several hours a week. If I look at the children I know, I would go for "hours per day". But that would be at home.

    Why limit ICT4E to schools and school time? Children (should) spend hours a day doing home work. At least in high school. Then there are no teachers and no peers to teach and help. That is when ICT can make a big difference.

    That quite some money spent on installing ICT in schools is wasted, no arguing with that. But claiming ICT does not make a difference in education is rather short sighted.

    And then this is the USA. We did not even started to talk about education in the developing world.

    • I agree with the point you bring about the definition of technology in Education.. ICT(4E) is not just about use of computers in schools, without taking into account learning. At MIT, we don't use the term ICT, because of the shallow definition and implications for learning. If you already start with the assumption that ICT has nothing to do with powerful learning, how can you expect to have any impact in the learning and the "academic" results?

  2. I just read Larry Cuban's posting and I must ask, is there a widespread
    > belief that technology is even being used in classrooms, on such a large
    > scale? As we try to base our commentary on evidence, I would like to see
    > such evidence that technology is being extensively used in classrooms,
    > particularly in developed nations as a part of a concerted effort to
    > "transform" our classrooms. I don't see it and in the US and Canada, usage
    > of technology, again in a systemic manner, is very limited. I still have
    > superintendents refer to our 1:1 initiative as "Hey Ron, is your district
    > still doing that laptop thing?" I can tell you that unofficially, even
    > some technology suppliers have decided to move towards other devices for education because they
    > really couldn't make a dent with the laptops. They will try with other products, but
    > I am fairly certain that this too will pass with the same results.
    > I know that technology is present, no doubt, but in my many, many, many,
    > many discussions with policy makers, district leaders, ministers of
    > education, etc., rarely have I heard somebody articulate a specific
    > orientation towards the "major league" integration of technology into the
    > classroom.

    The "Stock Market" approach, that we now live within the world of public education, has created the illusion that school districts, aka, schools and teachers, must report on quarterly basis on achievement and advancement. Politicians, policymakers, and parents have all developed this expectation. To be able to effectively measure the successful integration of technology should take at least 3-5 years, for initial assessment and include a series of longitudinal studies. Where Larry Cuban is correct, is that there are promises of the quick fix and it simply doesn't happen.

    Yes, there are many instances of technology being used, but in limited
    > contexts when compared to the introduction and usage of "Word Walls", "Five Minute Reading
    > Periods", Early Intervention, Special Needs Integration, etc. that we see constantly used in classrooms.

  3. Technological enthusiasts indulge in magical thinking.Well, yeah. But you could say that constructionism and active-learning enthusiasts indulge in magical thinking too. Especially in relation to disadvantaged students and low-resource schools. The difference is that constructionism ain't so costly to implement and no one cares when you scrap it. Data-driven decision-making will emerge as the sine qua non in education planning / policy over the course of the next 3 years, I bet. And tech will be _critical_ to data-collection, analysis, and use at the school level. (The school-level part is critical!) Everybody now: "Information management for school improvement!"

    • Why do you say that " constructionism and active-learning enthusiasts indulge in magical thinking too. Especially in relation to disadvantaged students and low-resource schools…"? I think that there is a problem with test scores and what they measure, and those need to change to reflect impact of the goals that the programs define, but it is not happening yet.
      I have witness change and improvement, not necessarily the one measure by multiple choice test. I have also seen reports of reduction of dropouts by many educational programs that use technology in developing countries.

  4. "Without regular use in classrooms, then ICT advocates cannot even hope for increases in student academic achievement, transformed teaching, and technologically proficient students entering the job market."

    Reading this lines make me think again about the vision about the end goals… is it to increase academic achievements, transform teaching, or achieve IT skills? I would say we have a fundamental difference in what we look to achieve, specially children in developing countries. Yes, schools are places where our kids socialize and spend time while we work, but that is not even the case in developing countries. The difference in vision is fundamental!

    People are really looking at school as the opportunity to improve their lives and to change their ways of living and doing things. Our kids use technology at home (not just computers), and they use it freely… find information, take and edit pictures, make videos, participate in online communities, etc. Kids in developing countries, if they happen to hace access to a school, receive an education that is not going to help them achieve the change they need. The second diference is in the context of where we do the work!

  5. Great blog post! 😀 – Love your blog! Keep posting great entries man! Also love the way you describe the whole stuff, keep up the good work!

  6. ashish chakravarty

    There is an over hype created by technologists that ICT is a must in school education . i beg to differ. Technocrats may book their profits but at least in elementary school education i feel there is no need of any promotion of ICT.

  7. See http://www.thecontentcompany.co.za. ICT type solution for primary and secondary education.

    Streetwise is an affordable alternative that delivers the same outcomes as costly IT systems, but at a fraction of the price. Streetwise provides learners with fast and reliable access to information in terms of streamlined online content, tailor-made to complement the school syllabus while teaching users vital computer literacy skills.

    Streetwise intelligently streamlines Internet content by removing secondary information (e.g. images and videos). This controlled access filters the important text-based content while radically reducing bandwidth demand. The Streetwise services and content suite is managed by the back-end Streetwise platform. These services have been designed for ease of use and reliability, with an uncluttered interface that allows users to navigate straight to the service.s they need, regardless of their level of literacy


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