The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"It was not so very long ago that people thought that semiconductors were part-time orchestra leaders and microchips were very small snack foods."... ...Geraldine Ferraro.

Commentary of the Day - December 13, 2001:  Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom - a review.

For more than the past 15 years Larry Cuban, professor of education at Stanford University and author of the slim volume Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom, has been riding an anti-technology hobby horse when it comes to the use of computers in schools.  His latest book continues the theme.

Cuban's primary argument is that even though very large sums of money have been spent on equipping K-12 schools, colleges, and universities with computers and on connecting these computers to the Internet, there have been no revolutionary changes in the way schoolteachers and college professors teach.  He argues further, that since the claims of the most ardent proponents of introducing technology in the classroom have fallen short, the effort has largely been a waste of time and money.

Cuban's favors  "constructivist, student-centered" pedagogy as opposed to "teacher-centered", direct instruction; and, he claims that there is little evidence that the use of computers in the classroom has done much to change prevailing pedagogies.  In other words, if a teacher used predominantly direct instruction methods before the introduction of computers he or she simply would use the computers to supplement that teaching style (if the computers were used much at all).  Cuban also argues that there is little evidence that computers have much effect on student performance on standardized tests and the like.

Cuban supports his contentions with "research" that he carried out in a relatively small number of Silicon Valley schools, and at Stanford University.  Generally, this consisted of visits to a number of kindergarten classes, a number of high school classes, and a recitation of the history of instructional computer usage at Stanford.  He uses the results of more extensive surveys done by other investigators to bolster his conclusions, but does so in a rather selective way.

Surprisingly, many of the observations that Cuban describes in his book actually do little to support his contentions.  Instead, they relate relatively positive results that have been obtained by teachers and faculty members who are comfortable using computers in instruction.  In any event, the cases that Cuban quotes in the book hardly qualify as serious research into the issue.  There are far too few of them, and the Silicon Valley is hardly representative of the nation as a whole.  (To be sure the region is technology rich, but California public schools have been cash poor for a long time.)  Even though Cuban argues to the contrary, it is hard to see how such a limited range of direct observations can be extrapolated to the conclusions that he reaches with any sort of validity.

Notwithstanding the shallowness of Cuban's research, the IP has some sympathy for his contentions.  For decades now the "true believers" have argued that technology of one sort or another is about to revolutionize teaching and learning.  The fact of the matter is that teaching and learning are intensely personal activities, and at best technology helps to facilitate the interaction between teacher and learner.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of Cuban's study, however, is that he has missed the truly transforming impact of computers and computer networks on the way students learn.  By focussing his study on what happens in the classroom, he has missed what happens outside the classroom.  As he readily admits in his book, both teachers and students now use computers extensively outside the classroom.  The range of information that is readily available to them through the Internet is enormous.  Cuban rightly asserts that this information is neither knowledge nor understanding.  However, it certainly opens up possibilities to both teachers and students that were not there a decade ago.  The task of the teacher remains to help students convert this information into knowledge and understanding.

In the IP's own field of physics, the impact of computers on teaching and learning has been impressive, even though most physics teachers and faculty members have not changed their basic teaching methods.  Now that cheap, powerful computers are readily available much of the drudgery of data acquisition and analysis in teaching laboratories is being done by the machine.  This leaves much more time for both students and teachers to explore the meaning of the results.  Likewise, many highly instructive theoretical problems that formerly were deemed inappropriate for undergraduates because the mathematics was too difficult or intractable, can now be examined because the "messy" mathematics can be done by symbolic manipulation problems such as Mathematica and Matlab.

Cuban suggests that the "obsolescence cost" of classroom technology is too high to justify major investments.  In the last few years, however, the price to performance ratio for computers has decreased markedly.  These new, cheap machines have more than enough power to remain useable for several years.

The IP would encourage anyone interested in reading Cuban's book to also read the extensive survey work of Henry Jay Becker.  This work provides some evidence that computers, when used properly, can have a positive effect on education at the K-12 level.  The IP's own experience at the college level suggests that instructional computer usage in higher education, while no panacea, will be here for a while.

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