No easy answers

Technology hasn't proved to be education's miracle cure

In the bad old days of the Soviet Empire, engineers who couldn't complete ill-conceived governmental projects were labeled "wreckers" and found themselves in prison camps.

Today, in the US, it's teachers' turn to take the hit for the lack of success that computers have brought to education.

Why haven't test scores gone up with the increased availability of computers? Why do computers with all the latest programs sit unused in classrooms, or at best serve only as word-processors or Internet searchers?

Those policymakers who giddily poured funding into technology as a cure for the ills of public education blame, among other scapegoats, stuck-in-the-mud teachers.

But offering faculty more extra-curricular seminars in the newest technological innovations is the wrong approach, Stanford professor Larry Cuban argues. In "Oversold and Underused" he writes, "By asking teachers to redouble their efforts, we take the spotlight off poorly designed hardware and software and inhospitable organizational structures that constrain teacher use."

In his interesting and readable study, Cuban notes other innovations that were to have transformed American education: film, radio, and TV. As we know, none of them did. Not for lack of trying, but because no matter how sophisticated or dazzling the technology, teaching boils down to communication. Electronic technology in the classroom is just another new gadget in a teacher's toolbox.

"Since the nineteenth century, chalk and blackboard, pens, pencils, and textbooks have proven themselves over and over again to be reliable and useful classroom technologies. Teachers added other innovations such as the overhead projector, the ditto machine (later the copying machine), and film projector (later the VCR) because they too proved reliable and useful. But most teachers continue to see the computer as an add-on rather than as a technology integral to their classroom ... instruction."

Cuban examines first-hand, rather than relying on self-reporting, how nursery and high school teachers in Silicon Valley actually use computers. Students more often learn (and use) computers at home than at school, and teachers use computers for writing and preparing lessons, not teaching.

Hard-pressed teachers choose what they need from computers, Cuban reminds us, just as engineers and doctors do. The very mysterious process of how people sitting in a classroom share and discover experiences and ideas is independent of technology, so why necessarily factor computers into the equation?

"Any high school teacher who manages to use computers in the classroom has somehow overcome a host of organizational obstacles, political decisions made by others remote from the classroom, and difficulties associated with the technology itself, including mismatches between 'rampant featurism' and the teacher's practical needs in the classroom."

Cuban's biggest concern is that the original goal of public education, creating good citizens, is being usurped by economic interests. "[W]hat dominates media and policymakers' discussions of education is that schools achieve success on business-style assessments such as standardized test scores (de facto profit sheets) through business-inspired technical means."

Why should we spend billions on the latest technology when schools are begging for so much other support? "[T]he most serious problems afflicting urban and rural poor schools ... have little to do with a lack of technology."

Through application of historical background and current research, the book advocates discussion - not that there is any evidence policymakers have interested themselves in what teachers and students say they need or want.

Cuban's only daring suggestion is one he knows won't be taken. He is tempted "to call for a moratorium on buying any more computers for K-12 schools. A moratorium might startle people into openly debating serious questions about how and why computers are used and how they fit in with the larger purposes of universal education."

Bob Blaisdell edited and introduced 'Tolstoy as Teacher: Leo Tolstoy's Writings on Education.'

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