The Bipolar Literature on Technology in U.S. Schools by Larry Cuban

Reform-minded researchers, techno-enthusiasts, and skeptics in the U.S. have created an immense, convoluted literature on the use and effectiveness of computers in classroom, schools, and districts. It is a literature that is bipolar.

At one end there is the fiercely manic accumulation of success stories of teachers and schools that use devices imaginatively and, according to some researchers, demonstrate small to moderate gains in test scores, increased student engagement, teacher satisfaction, and other desired outcomes (see here and here). These success stories, often teacher surveys and self-reports, clothed as scientific studies (see here and here) beat the drum directly or hum the tune just loud enough for others to hear that these new technologies, especially if they are student-centered (see here) and “personalize learning” (see here), are just short of magical in their engaging disengaged children and youth in learning.

At the other end is the depressing collection of studies that show disappointing results, even losses, in academic achievement and the lack of substantial change in teaching methods during and after use of the new technologies (see here and here). Included are tales told by upset teachers, irritated parents, and disillusioned school board members who authorized technological expenditures (see herehere, and here).

These two poles of manic and depressive research studies replicate the long-term struggle between factions of Progressives who vowed to reform public schools beginning in the early 20th century. The efficiency-driven, teacher-centered wing of these Progressives whipped the experiential, whole-child, student-centered wing then but these losers in the struggle have returned time and again to preach and teach the ideology they hold so dear. Each pole of this spectrum, then, recapitulates the century-old struggle but this time the slogans and phrases are embedded in the language of new technologies. “Project-based learning” and “personalized learning” have been appropriated by current reformers who, still seeking efficiency and productivity in teaching and learning have adopted the language of their historical opponents. Knowing this historical backdrop, however, does not create a middle to this continuum. And that is necessary.

Reducing modestly the bipolarity of this literature are individual and collective case studies (see here), carefully done ethnographies (see here), and meta-analyses of  research studies done over the past half-century to ascertain the effects (or lack thereof) of computers and software upon students and teachers (see herehere, and here).

Even with these meta-analyses, the overall literature oscillating between manic and depressive has yet to develop a midpoint. Inhabiting that midpoint in this bipolar distribution of computer studies would be rigorous (and longitudinal) studies of classrooms, schools, and districts that combine technology exemplars and failures; carefully done classroom and school analyses that go beyond teacher responses on questionnaires to show the pluses and minuses of “blended learning, “project based teaching,” and “personalized learning” (see herehere, and here).  Yet such studies are occasional, not common, entries into the research swamp of technology-in-schools.

So What?

What’s the big deal about a skewed distribution of research studies and non-scientific articles and books? Here are a few reasons.

  1. By making clear that the literature is bipolar, readers can be more discriminating and less promiscuous in assessing claims researchers make and picking and choosing which research studies meet minimum standards of acceptability (e.g., rigorous qualitative, random controlled trials; size and representativeness of samples; brief or extended time of study; sponsored or independent research studies).
  2. Without much of a middle to the spectrum, readers seeking accurate information about the use of computers in public schools, would end up sampling studies at either end of the bipolar continuum and would get a grossly inaccurate picture of computer use and its effects in U.S. schools.
  3. Being aware that the current pushing and shoving over the aims of the new technologies and how they are implemented in school mirror historic strugglesamong different wings of educational Progressives a century ago can give the current generation of reform-driven policymakers and practitioners  a broader perspective on the fractious rhetorical and policy choices both educators and non-educators face now.

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