1:1 Laptops Transforming Classrooms: Yeah, Sure
by Larry Cuban - October 31, 2006
Most professors have yet to use laptops and other computers in their teaching as often as they use overhead projectors or textbooks. And that is the take-away lesson for K-12 policymakers, practitioners, and parents. 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. Much about how laptops will be used in K-12 schools can be learned simply by peeking into university classrooms.
From time to time, stories of professors telling students in their classrooms not to use their laptops during class lectures and discussions appear in the media. Such stories often cause readers to snicker since the very machines promised to transform teaching and learning seem to get in the way.
No snickering yet in K-12 classrooms where policymakers and administrators seek to make these machines standard equipment just like in university classrooms. Massive outlays of public dollars have sent laptops to individual students (sometimes called 1:1 programs) in individual states (e.g., Maine) and many districts (e.g., Henrico County, Virginia). Public funds, unlike in higher education, where families buy laptops for their college-going sons and daughters, fuel the current effort to bring 1:1 laptops to every child.
The argument K-12 policymakers use for each student having a laptop goes like this: Each student has a textbook, each has a pen and notebook; each student, therefore, should have a computer. In what business, in what hospital, in what police precinct, in what university, advocates of 1:1 ask, do four or five employees, doctors, officers, or professors have to compete for one computer? None. If you want productive employees, give each one a computer or hand-held device to use in school.
The uncritical embrace of 1:1 laptops by elites, parents, and many educators is similar to earlier responses to new technologies that promised increased teacher and student productivity, transformed teaching and learning, and improved academic achievement. Before there were computers, school policymakers had introduced film and radio in the 1920s, and instructional television in the 1950s as technological innovations to make teaching and learning faster and better.
After they entered classrooms, researchers found there was initial excitement over how the innovation would revolutionize teaching and learning. Equipment was purchased and put into schools. Then researchers went into schools to see how often and in which ways teachers were using these technologies in lessons. They found very limited and unimaginative classroom use by teachers.
So it comes as little surprise that as laptops become available to each and every student, their champions paint utopian pictures of transformed teaching and learning unlike anything that existed before. In these scenarios, students work alone or in small groups at home and at school using laptops. Students consult occasionally with a teacher, but are mostly independent learners.
I question these rose-tinted educational utopias where learning is 24/7 because policymakers have ignored what has happened in university classrooms, where desktop computers and 1:1 laptops are common.
Based on my research, direct observation, and careful reading of the recent literature on classroom uses of technology in higher education, I can make the following statements about the use and outcomes of computers:
1. Professor and student use of new technologies is widespread in doing assignments, preparing lessons, Internet searches, and email, but lags far behind in daily classroom use. Academics are hardly technophobes. Many are involved in online instruction. At home and in the office they use computers to write, analyze data, communicate with colleagues, and draft syllabi and handouts for courses.
Personal accounts and surveys report again and again that most academics are enthusiastic about using computers and other technologies for routine tasks in laboratories, lecture halls, and for data analysis. Moreover, PowerPoint presentations are ubiquitous among professors. Although these colorfully illustrated and jazzed-up bullet points slide in from the side of the screen, these presentations are, more often than not, gussied-up versions of lectures, since students either take down the bullet-points or take notes on the printed out slides professors make available to students. Furthermore, adventurous faculty members have designed software for particular courses; they have been the first to sign up for especially equipped smart classrooms. But these pioneers are a tiny minority. I estimate that this small band of serious users among professors is less than 5 percent of the faculty on most campuses.
2. Even with abundant access and slowly increasing use among professors, few marked changes in pedagogy have occurred. Champions of laptops see these machines overhauling the dominant lecture-based form of instruction. Yet, as faculty surveys have shown repeatedly, in classroom instruction they use computers to reinforce existing ways of teaching (e.g., PowerPoint as illustrated lectures) producing few changes in how they teach and how their students learn. Current and past data reveals clearly, however, that the introduction of computerseven with coaching and technical supporthas not altered mainstream pedagogies of more than 5 to 10 percent of current professors.
Repeatedly in these surveys, faculty members displayed strong interest, and even enthusiasm, for using new technologies. Still, professors noted constant personal conflicts between their interest in learning how to use computers in their teaching and squeezing out time to do that in an already packed schedule of doing research, writing, securing grants, committee workall of which had more pay-off in promotion and tenure than learning how to use ICT in their classrooms.
Thus, most professors have yet to use laptops and other computers in their teaching as often as they use overhead projectors or textbooks. And that is the take-away lesson for K-12 policymakers, practitioners, and parents. 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. Much about how laptops will be used in K-12 schools can be learned simply by peeking into university classrooms.