Sunday, April 05, 2009

Larry Cuban's critique of computers in school: a discussion we have to have

Computers only work well in schools when there is a high degree of access and teachers who are enthusiasts

At the moment in most schools computers are stuck in labs and students on the average obtain 35 minutes per week access, or something like that (figure from excellent Steve Hargadon interview of Larry Cuban, reference at bottom)

By my reading Larry Cuban is not a Luddite, far from it - he acknowledges that 10% of teachers do wonderful things with computers in schools - but a realist who is aware of and sympathetic to the enormous pressures on teachers. His description of pressure on high school teachers is spot on:
Although information technologies have transformed most corporate workplaces, our teacher's schedule and working conditions have changed very little. She teaches five classes a day, each 50 minutes long. Her five classes contain at least three different preparations. She has two classes of Introductory Algebra, two of Geometry, and one Calculus class. In those five classes, she sees 140 students a day. She has one period a day set aside for planning lessons, seeing students, marking papers, making phone calls to parents or vendors, previewing videos, securing a VCR or other equipment, and using the school's copy machines for producing student materials. Our math teacher, like most of her colleagues elsewhere is a very busy person who could use rollerblades as she tries to meet all of her obligations...

In addition to these daily tasks, our math teacher is expected to know the subject inside and out; she is expected to maintain order in their classrooms; she is expected to be both friendly and demanding of each and every student; finally, with higher academic standards and the mandate to take tests that can spell the difference between graduating high school or staying in school longer, she is held accountable for her students doing well on high-stakes tests. So teaching high school, besides knowing one's subject-matter thoroughly, requires the grit of a long-distance runner, the stamina of a boxer going 15-rounds, the temperament of a juggler, and the street-smarts of a three-card monte dealer...
Putting 10,000 netbook computers into primary schools in Northern Victoria (see here) will change the readiness of access issue but how is it going to transform teachers who are not currently computer enthusiasts into effective teachers of computer rich classrooms? It will provide far more opportunity but it's not going to happen overnight and in some or many cases it won't happen at all.

I've always been against this approach. I argue for computer saturation at schools but if and only if there is a computer enthusiast teacher on the job. There we have it. I want computer saturation in my classes because I have done the hard work of figuring out how to make it work. But I don't think it should happen in classrooms where teachers, often for legitimate reasons, have not done that work.

This 2006 audio interview by Steve Hargadon interview of Larry Cuban critically discusses a range of important issues. Go to this page and search for "Cuban" and download the mp3 or ogg version (46 minutes)

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