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[school-discuss] Interview with Larry Cuban, Author of “Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom”


The link above is to my EdTechLive.com 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

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

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

Steve Hargadon
916-899-1400 direct

www.SteveHargadon.com - (Blog on Educational Technology)
www.K12Computers.com - (Refurbished Dell Optiplexes for Schools)
www.TechnologyRescue.com - (Linux Thin Client Solutions)
www.LiveKiosk.com - (Web Access and Content Delivery Solutions)
www.PublicWebStations.com - (Disaster & Shelter WebStation Software)
www.K12OpenSource.com (Public Wiki)
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