In 2001 Larry Cuban published his book ‘Oversold and Underused - Computers in the Classroom’ in which he addresses the effect that the adoption of computer technology has had on education. Larry concludes that based on his research, the evidence is stacked against the belief that technology will revolutionise education. In 2001 despite claims by enthusiasts that computers would change the nature of education and promote the adoption of new student centred paradigms, the reality is that computers are used for little other than word processing and internet searches. Larry goes on to offer and critique possible reasons for the failure of technology to live up to expectation and bases this on a comparison of the adoption of other technologies such as film projects and VCRs.
That said there are strong trends to technological adoption that seem to be accelerating and as a result the use of computer technology across western society is becoming increasingly taken for granted. Since Cuban wrote his book technology has marched forward to a point where computing is not restricted to its use in wired labs with machines on desktops. The shift of the unit of computing to mobile devices changes the landscape in a fundamental way. The devices our students take for granted today have more in common with ball point pens and notepads, both of which are technological innovations that did have a transformative effect on education but maybe not ones that radically changed what or even how students learn. Maybe the technological revolution will come not from broad teacher adoption but from a process where access to technology becomes transparent and slides into the background. Maybe it occurs where the transect of ease of use, ubiquity of access and familiarity, means that using a device to access, share and create ideas is as taken for granted as is the use of pen and paper.
With growing demands for a ‘New’ revolution in education centred around the development of skills and dispositions required for a post industrial world where creativity and problem solving are the essential skills for success, it is worth looking back at the themes of ‘Oversold & Underused’ to find connections that may hamper the adoption of this new paradigm. To my mind the core theme of ‘Cuban’s' book is that history shows a pattern of efforts to revolutionise education by adding a ‘new’ idea and in each case the results have been less than was imagined. In each case out of a mostly political call to fix education and in doing so alleviate the woes of society, has emerged a new solution. In a post industrial revolution world this has largely been in the form of technological solutions; although you could categorise other trends born out of loosely researched psychological, pedagogical or other holistic trends in the same way.
The common thread is that in each case the identified panacea has been an add on to what already existed, at best it was to be a transformative practice but in each case it failed because it was not born out of a full and complete analysis of what was supposedly wrong with schools or an understanding of what we hoped students would gain from schools. Had this analysis been undertaken we may have gained a clearer image of what was or was not required, instead we have had technology tacked on but no clarity of objective has gone with it. The use of computers, we are told, will make us more efficient learners, enable collaboration between learners and promote interconnectedness across boundaries but we are not told to what ends. In this post industrial age what is the purpose of education, what must our students be like when they emerge and how do we get them there? Surely to this, technology is secondary and I think it is these questions to which Cuban is guiding us.
If schools are now expected to transform to be centres that produce creative problem solvers capable of innovative thought, how do we ensure that their teachers are adequately equipped to provide the right experiences to do this. How do we encourage and allow teachers to move away from the model of learning they or their students' parents experienced and expect? If our teaching is to be focused on guiding students towards the abilities to imagine BIG questions that have the potential to change the world, how do we avoid a curriculum burdened by content to an overly prescriptive and politically mandated degree. This of course leaves the question of how do we fix schools very much on the table and open for debate but hopefully this time the solution that is supported starts within the minds of educators with a deep understanding of what we truly need and want from our education systems.
By Nigel Coutts