Friday, September 08, 2006

Interview with Larry Cuban, Author of “Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom”

The link above is to my interview with Larry Cuban, Emeritus Professor of Education at Stanford University, and the author of the 2001 book “Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom.” (This interview could not be “skypecast” because of some problem at Skype at the time.)
Maybe this was not a natural interview for someone who sells computers for a living, but let’s chalk it up to the the quest for “truth” and a desire--as a computer lover--to understand why the efforts to put computers in the classroom have not had broader success in improving teaching and learning. And while there was a natural tendency in the interview to focus on the "oversold" part of Dr. Cuban's message, the opportunity seems to lie in understanding the "underused" part.

Professor Cuban provides a very balanced and thoughtful perspective on the use of computers in schools–or rather, the non-use thereof. First, to counter the perception that it is the fault of the teachers that computers aren't being more broadly adopted in the classroom, he shows that most teachers are actually active computer users themselves as they prepare for their classes and organize their work. We therefore, he says, need to look deeper than a perceived “resistance” by teachers to explain the lack of technology integration in the classroom.

Dr. Cuban gives us a glimpse of the incredible challenges teachers face in trying to accomplish all that is asked of them, and asks us to consider that teachers would more likely embrace computer technology in the classroom if it actually helped them do their jobs better or more easily. He gives the example of the video-cassette player and the overhead projector--both technologies that became quickly and easily integrated into teaching. Can we really expect, if there are relatively few computers available to students, if they are available only for limited periods of time, and if they are often unreliable, that it would really make sense for a teachers to change the way they teach because of computers?
While pointing out that there are ways in which computers have been clearly shown to improve academic performance, he says that by and large there is a surprising lack of significant studies or real data to show where those benefits exist and where they don't. Instead, he is concerned, the factors which really seems to drive the purchase and implementation of computer technology are not usually the teachers' needs or requests, but a push from those outside of the classroom: politicians, parents, and administrators. Well before the publication of The World Is Flat, and across political lines, there has been a concern that we are "a nation at risk," and that we need to make sure our children are computer "savvy." He made a fascinating point in the interview: if you go to a college campus, you will see computers in active use by faculty and students--so the absense of computer use in high schools doesn't seem to impede their use in college. (I didn't mention it, but my brother, who is a professor of business, has actually banned the use of computers in his classes because the constant instant messaging and other non-class-focused uses of the computer were distracting from his ability to teach.)
What occurred to me is that when the pressures to use computers are external, then the more detailed understandings of how they can be used successfully get lost. In one of the articles I read to prepare for the interview, Dr. Cuban separates computer use in education into three categories: computer-assisted instruction, computer-managed instruction, and computer-enhanced instruction. (Noticeably missing, but probably intentional, is vocational technical training.) While the first two, according to the article, have been pretty-well documented to improve academic performance, it is the third--the use of computers in such a way that transforms the educational process--that is less understood. What I think I notice from my interactions with proactive and engaged teachers who are excited about certain technologies (like blogs and wikis, or Moodle) is that they are experiencing this transformational change; and I would imagine that they are likely to have have been able to do this because they were so proactive and engaged. And if his theories hold true, it will be these kind of technologies that really capture teachers' imaginations and desires that can ultimately lead to more ubiquitous use of the computer in the classroom.

I did ask Dr. Cuban specifically about blogs and wikis, but got the sense that these are technologies that are not yet fully on his radar as educational tools. I meant to ask about Moodle, and forgot. Based on his perspective, I am particularly encouraged by the fact that these technologies don’t require buying new computers (or even having "current" technology), since they really only require a web browser to work.

We also talked about the role of commercial companies play in "selling" technology to schools. In a free-market economy, it is hard to see an alternative, but Dr. Cuban recommends being a "skeptical" consumer of those commercial offerings. I've been thinking long and hard about this, since I sell computer hardware to schools. The conclusion that I have come to is that, as a vendor of technology, I need to be exploring ways to understand how to make the computer a better and more reliable tool for teachers. K12Computers is way too small to effect broad change, but if I ask the right questions and start to find the right answers, maybe we can make a difference.
He also pointed out that if the end-goal is truly academic achievement, it may sometimes be measurably better for a school to reduce class size or hire more aids than to buy computers. Most of those involved in our educational system need to get paid for their work, but are actually involved in the work because of a personal commitment to the cause of education. It seems, as a vendor to schools, we should hold ourselves to the same standard. I'm not quite sure how to do this, but it does seem important.

It also seems that Linux and Open Source Software hold the potential to reduce acquisition and maintenance costs for providing a computing environment. The work in Indiana, in particular, should be very instructive. If the cost of having one-to-one computing can be significantly reduced, there should be a great opportunity to study the transformative effects of this kind of program. And I can't stop thinking about the concept of a "web appliance:" a no-maintenance computer that provides access to the web. If every classroom in a school had some number of "webstations" that the teachers knew were always available and would always work, would they begin to integrate web reasearch and other web tools into their classwork as easily as they have the overhead projector? This is something I would like specific feedback on, and would like to try some testing if anyone is interested.

Listen to the WebCast in MP3 format