Larry Cuban on “The technology mistake”: Confusing access to information with becoming educated

July 20, 2012 at 3:04 am 11 comments

Historian Larry Cuban has a great perspective on the role of technology in learning.  His book on “How Scholars Trumped Teachers” is one of my favorites on the history of higher education in the United States.  Here is his take on what’s not working, and what is. This was essentially the point that Woodie Flowers was making at the ACM Education Council meeting — new online courses are great for training (getting access to information), and that may be what much of the first two years of undergraduate are about, but real education is more than that, and online courses are probably not enough.  I found an interesting piece by Milton Friedman that talks similarly, about the citizenship role of education and the need for the government to support that.

What technology enthusiasts, however, forget, neglect, stumble over — pick a verb — are the multiple purposes of tax-supported schools in a democracy. They and many others futurists err — my choice of the verb — in equating access to information with becoming educated. Even worse, these very smart people ignore the crucial and historical purposes public schools have served in a democracy.

Tax-supported public schools have been and are social, political, and moral institutions whose job is to help children and youth acquire multiple literacies, enter the labor market well prepared, vote, serve on juries, contribute to their communities, think for themselves, and live full and worthwhile lives.

via The technology mistake: Confusing access to information with becoming educated – The Answer Sheet – The Washington Post.

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The Great Pretender: Turing as a Philosopher of Imitation – Ian Bogost – The Atlantic What would Constitute Evidence that Open Education is helping a Global Economy?

11 Comments Add your own

  • 1. dennisfrailey  |  July 20, 2012 at 6:32 am

    I fully support the argument that there’s a difference between knowing how to access information and being educated (although there’s much to be said for knowing how to access information in both the scholarly world and the world of the practitioner). And I agree that there’s a difference between education and training. And that many methods of teaching do not really educate. I find compelling examples of these differences in my day to day activities, both professional and educational, and it bothers me that so many people don’t really want to be educated and seek to get by with less. However I do not agree that distance or on-line programs cannot educate. Poorly conceived distance or on-line programs often do not educate (as do poorly conceived conventional education programs). At least with the traditional academic model, there are good examples of how to educate (from Socrates on down), although there are many unsettled issues about how to educate properly. Because it is relatively new, there are few good examples of distance education done right and many examples of it done wrong. But having taught and, I believe, educated in distance mode for over 40 years, I know that one can educate if one sets that as a goal.

    So instead of fighting distance education, I appeal to my colleagues to embrace it as I did and make it more effective. (Hint: it doesn’t require a lot of technology but it does require rethinking how you teach.)

  • 2. alanone1  |  July 20, 2012 at 6:45 am

    It is hard to take seriously any screed on this subject that doesn’t at least identify printed books as “high tech distance learning devices” that changed western civilization and its notions of education, and mostly for the better.

    (It’s what I would expect from any author who is speaking as an educated person …).

    However, the flaws here could be artifacts of the moment or whims of the newspaper editors…. but that seems unlikely.

    A stronger approach would note what books bring to the table, and what they exclude (and how both the additions and many of the exclusions have been found to have very positive influences on learning and thought).

    Then we could look to see what computer based media bring (and don’t) and try to see what this means for high quality notions of education. (This is tricky because most computer media are just imitations of previous media put into a more convenient (and sometimes a lower resolution) form.)

    There should be a section on what is special and unique with respect to how computers can represent and carry out both modeling of ideas -and- the extents to which they can go beyond what books bring to start overlapping very strongly with many of the important roles that human teachers play.

    After this understanding, perhaps the most important distinctions that people on all sides of the questions have to understand are those between naive (and even stupid) uses of computers in education (and life) and what can and -should- be done with them.

    Without these distinctions what remains are quite unhelpful articles like Cuban’s, which unfortunately resemble some of the rhetoric and approaches being used in contemporary politics.

    • 3. Nathan  |  July 20, 2012 at 11:43 am

      Yes! I’ve made the same comparison of these courses to being somewhat glorified, online, and static textbooks. I’ve been devoting some of my spare time towards thinking about online education for about the past 5 years (before Khan got popular) and built up a mental model of what I thought on-line education should be. And you’re right, what I’ve seen emerge since that time has been something akin to the textbook model of education. That is — the static delivery of content. Perhaps the only contribution these new courses bring (beyond their reach) is the ability to turn individual topics into small and easily consumed web lecture/videos with on-line quizzes/assignments intermixed. It seems to me that these online courses are just running with the de-personalized aspect of education (one-way lectures).

      One of the reasons that brick and mortars exist is for students to gain access to the educators. Educators can help students that run into problems. They can drill down when problem areas are found, suggest additional exercises, provide additional context, and monitor/observe the progress of the student to assist them through the course material… The frustrating thing, to me, is that this can definitely be attempted in a web-based environment through some automated means to provide personalized learning experiences to millions of students. I can’t be sure how it would turn out, but I’m optimistic and this has been the major focus of the mental model I built up 5 years ago.

      There is so much potential for these online courses but they are unfortunately just delivering static, one-size-fits-all learning experiences. The web offers the ability to create a dynamic framework which allows for real-time assessment of student progress. This could enable additional (drilled-down) instruction as students run into difficulties and can provide adaptive sequencing of exercises to help reinforce topics for students that are having difficulty grasping them.

      I wish these initiatives would adapt to provide dynamic learning environments. I’ve just become a faculty member in CS so perhaps now I can allocate some of my research time towards further developing my 5-year-old model. Unfortunately nobody else has made much progress on it for me, in spite of all of these online courses that have sprouted up since then.

  • 4. Don Davis  |  July 20, 2012 at 11:11 am

    Discussions of computers such as Colella’s, Wilensky & Resnick’s, and Brenham’s use of computers to teach systems thinking are common in learning sciences circles. Certainly such approaches are very important – however, they also rely on constructivist learning frequently negotiated with others.

    It seems that one of the biggest dilemmas in this discussion (as with others of course) has to do with embedded assumptions/ worldviews/ interpretive frameworks, etc.

    People use and are able to use computers differently owing to how they’re modeled and the expertise available in (social) networks. Much of Warschauer’s work (e.g. Warschauer & Matuchniak, 2010) highlights that computers are used in meaningfully different ways dependent on ambient expectations and customs.

    Much of the problem arises here – do programs and decontextualized information help people to learn? Certainly. Some people, those who have been trained in such processes flourish in such environments (Guzdial’s importance of decontextualization in CS with Cohoon and others’ discussion on the important of context in CS). However, for others, such tasks aren’t necessarily meaningful, engaging, or (conceptually or cognitively) accessible (cf. Moll et al., 2006; Suarez & Orosco et al. 2008).

    Much of this discussion is certainly carried on the wings of “we love technology”; however, at the core of many such “good-hearted” intentions are simple profit-maximizing motives. Many of the online schools aren’t embracing distance learning best practices, but profit-maximization practices to the detriment of students (Ravitch).

    For better and worse schools are used for many extra -curricular (hegemonic) ideological processes (Bale, 2012; Brookfield, 2002; cf. Hertzberg, 1998).

    Whatever the intention of good-hearted constructivist technologists, the fact that technologies have failed to revolutionize schools has more to do with schools than with the technology (a previous blog post included a link to Papert’s discussion of this). Papert’s assertions are replete in the findings of Warschauer and others conducting similar research.

    Though I agree with many of alanone1’s comments, I think that a discussion of the (historical, far-reaching) benefits of books would shift the discussion away from what should be the real focus on the conversation – namely:

    what are the systemic, underlying reasons for a push towards online learning environments? Arne Duncan is not an educator – he is a businessman – his decisions are business and not pedagogical decisions.

    Who benefits and who loses in such systems? Without sufficient modeling and structured environments to take advanatage of some/many of the proposed tech steps forward in education, existing disparities in education for those who struggle most will be exacerbated rather than diminished.

  • 5. Cecily  |  July 20, 2012 at 11:24 am

    Unfortunately, the idea of a “public school” as a “moral institution” is rapidly becoming out-dated, as I have learned in my short time as an educator. Far too many administrators, teachers, and parents are more interested in being their students and children’s friend than they are in being their children’s authority figure, and even rather simple and straight-forward concepts, such as obeying the rule, are quickly disappearing as part of the educational experience. The ideas of diversity and inclusion have also been embraced almost to a fault, as many curricula have become overly dilute, and many standards have been lowered to a point where they are accessible to many/all, but they challenge very few.

  • 6. Jeff Clark  |  July 20, 2012 at 5:14 pm

    I do agree that learning has turned into a way for students to learn how to access information. My question though is why does this make us any less educated? If I am smart enough to know how to access the information I need compared to someone else who would just give up then I would say that I am educated. Do not get me wrong I did learn a lot in college and I feel that I am educated both with principals and concepts of subjects as well as with the knowledge to locate information when I need it. But knowing how to find information when you need it is just another way of being educated. Just my thoughts.

    • 7. alanone1  |  July 22, 2012 at 7:45 am

      Consider having an “IQ” of 500 in 10,000BC, what will you be able to do — or Leonardo’s in his own century: he still couldn’t transcend his time enough to invent motors for his vehicles.

      Consider being much less smart than Leonardo, but being born into a more felicitous century e.g. Henry Ford. You can do what Leonardo couldn’t.

      So in many cases knowledge dominates basic thinking power.

      But, consider that the big difference between Leonardo’s time and our time was an enormous qualitative change in perspectives and outlooks and context for thinking over the last several hundred years.

      If we go back in history, we find a few other monumental changes in “how thinking was thought about”.

      These changes were not about “more information” to be learned, but in learning to learn and think in different ways. (And especially to learn to think in ways importantly differently than the way our brain/minds are set up by nature.)

      These qualitative changes in outlook are what defines “Education” (and sets it apart from “Training”). Education is not primarily about “subjects” but “outlook”.

      The quandary today is that so many institutions that have “Education” in their name no longer actually carry out these processes, nor do they insure that their graduates have undergone these changes.

      The double whammy is that one of the outlook changes is to understand the difference between “information” and “outlook”. If this doesn’t happen, then it is hard for many people with college degrees to see that they might not have “gotten” much of an “Education” in college.

      Not a great phrasing, because Education is a manner of traveling, not a destination you get to.

      I think for most students, being in actual contact with people who are traveling through their lives finding more outlooks as well as just knowledge, is the strongest motivation for them to look deeper than they have been.

      And for many, actual physical, social and oral contact in a “school” has much more impact than reading a book or seeing a video.

      However, the revolution of writing, books, and especially the printing press, showed that real Education can happen without real-time oral contact. And in fact, that it is much more efficient furnishing points of view and alternative outlooks. Combine this with letter writing to others who are also interested in ideas, and you have the distance learning society before the last half of the 20th century.

      The last key idea for this too long reply is that one of the outlooks needed for real Education is a sense of threshold for both what is discussed and argued, and how it is discussed and argued. As Neil Postman pointed out years ago, this used to be the most important service rendered by an “Educational institution”, and the one most worth paying for.

      This no longer seems to generally exist. One indicator from the US Dept of Ed is that only 31% of graduates of 4 year colleges can read with “proficiency” (and this is not a high standard). This means that most colleges are not actually trying to carry out “Education”, and that most students are buying something very different than “Education”.

  • 8. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  July 21, 2012 at 2:13 pm

    I’m a little bothered by vague expressions lie “these online courses” that lump all online courses into a single mental category. There are enormous differences between different courses. Some are huge lecture-based courses (which seems to be what people are mostly talking about). Others are small courses with personal (albeit not face-to-face) contact, like dennisfrailey seems to have in mind.

    My son has experienced small on-line courses of very high quality from Art of Problem Solving (see ). We’ve not yet tried any of the MOOCs, since watching video lectures does not appeal to us.

  • […] launch almost a year ago.  Educating students is only part of what Universities do (and there is some question about whether MOOCs education or simply train).  But when it comes to education, a research university can provide a unique learning […]

  • 10. Comparing MOOCs and books « Computing Education Blog  |  December 7, 2012 at 8:26 am

    […] on-line courses are more comparable to books than face-to-face classes, an issue raised and discussed in the comments to the recent blog post about Larry Cuban and described pointedly in a recent comment by Mark Urban-Lurain on this blog.  A […]

  • […] Larry Cuban is a remarkable educational historian.  He’s written an article about why requiring coding is a bad idea, and links it to the history of Logo in the 1980’s.  I think #1 is the most important, and is similar to Seymour Papert’s “Why School Reform is Impossible” article and to Roy Pea’s concerns about requiring computing. […]


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