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Laptop Computers and Teacher Change

Larry Cuban of the Stanford School of Education has published a short article titled 1:1 Laptops Transforming Classrooms: Yeah, Sure. In it, he repeats his argument from Oversold and Underused that classroom computing initiatives have not significantly transformed American classrooms.

In higher education, where students willingly choose to attend (in K-12 they are compelled by law to go to school), where students have already achieved 1:1 computing capacity, teachers and students mainly use these powerful machines to reinforce existing ways of teaching and learning.

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I have no doubt about this. But I also recall from personal conversation with Larry that his argument says more about the profession of teaching in general than it does about laptop computers in particular. In his Stanford course The History of School Reform, Larry Cuban and David Tyack repeatedly drove the point home that American schooling has been incredibly resistant to change for at least a century. Different school reforms — bigger, smaller, more vocational, single-sex, magnet, gifted and talented — have hardly changed the typical American school.

What does Cuban’s perspective on schooling and technology imply for those of us working in one school? First, let us remember that Cuban recognizes the transformation of other activities by technology — communication and research especially. You could attempt to justify a computing initiative purely on these grounds. Next, let us ground technology initiatives within the space of other changes in schools. Just as a school might consider adopting a block schedule, starting school later in the day, or eliminating AP classes, school leaders should carefully consider the match between technology innovations and pedagogical theory, the time and energy required for teachers to change practice, and the amount of social capital one possesses within a group of professionals to make such a change.

Cuban estimates that only five percent of teachers considerably change their practice in the presence of new technologies. If we want to better that mark, then let us keep our heads screwed on straight when pushing for new technologies.