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Posted at 5:00 AM ET, 01/ 5/2011

How technology will and won't change schools by 2020

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by Larry Cuban, a former high school social studies teacher (14 years, including seven at Cardozo and Roosevelt high schools in the District), district superintendent (seven years in Arlington, Virginia) and professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, where he has taught for 20 years. His latest book is "As Good As It Gets: What School Reform Brought to Austin." This appeared on his blog.

By Larry Cuban
I just read a list of high-tech tools that have become obsolete in the past decade (e.g., floppies, fax machines). I used many of these myself and remember junking them, saying to myself: Hey, these were highly touted, I bought the second- or third-generation version and now I am dumping them (of course, in an ecologically correct manner). Still the number of high-tech machines and applications that hit their expiration date so quickly stunned me.

Then I read another list of high-tech predictions for 2020 that was equally entertaining about the future of schools, well, not schools as we know them in December 2010. This list posted by a high-tech enthusiast who yearns for a paperless society and totally customized instruction with smaller, greener schools tickled me because while I do agree with some of the items, others are, well, dreams. I have been reading such lists (here and here) for years with high-tech devices having different names but a glorious future just around the corner.

In 2009, I posted my predictions for high-tech in schools in 2020. Here is, in part, what I said then:

Clear trend lines for U.S. classrooms in the next decade are hand-held mobile devices (iPhone, Blackberry, e-book variations) and online learning (distance education).


Handhelds will permit the digitizing of texts loaded on to the devices. Student backpacks will lighten considerably as $100 hardbound books become as obsolete as the rotary dial phone. Homework, text reviews for tests, and all of the teacher-assigned tasks associated with hardbound books will be formatted for small screens. Instead of students’ excuses about leaving texts in lockers, teachers will hear requests to recharge their Blackberries, iPhones, etc.

Based on current Twitter and other future social networking traffic, shorter and shorter messaging will also become a mainstay of teacher-student communication. Some sample Twitter messages:

*In a college course on consumer sciences, the professor asked his 250 students to post questions on Twitter. On the topic of car insurance for those under 25 years of age, a student asked: ‘What happens if you get married and then get divorced at 24? Would your insurance go up?’ ”

*In the same course, during an exam, a student tweeted a fellow student and asked for the answer to a question. Teacher caught the student because although the software said “anonymous” on the handheld, the name of the student showed up on the teacher’s screen.


Proponents talk about this form of teaching and learning as a powerful innovation that will liberate learning from the confines of brick-and-mortar buildings. Estimates (and predictions) of online learning becoming the dominant form of teaching turn up repeatedly and, somehow, fade.

Surely, there will always be students and adults drawn from rural, home schooled, and adult populations that will provide a steady stream of clients for online courses. Nonetheless, by 2020, well over 90 percent of public school students will be in places called schools going at least 180 days a year to self-contained classrooms where a teacher will be in charge.

The error that online champions make decade after decade (recall that distance learning goes back to the 1960s) is that they forget that schools have multiple responsibilities beyond literacy. Both parents and voters want schools to socialize students into community values, prepare them for civic responsibilities, and yes, get them ready for college and career. Online courses from for-profit companies and non-profit agencies cannot hack those duties and responsibilities.

So by 2020, uses of technologies will change some aspects of teaching and learning but schools and classrooms will be clearly recognizable to students’ parents and grandparents. Online instruction will continue to expand incrementally but will still be peripheral to regular K-16 schooling. End of prediction.”

Of course, I could be just another one of those benighted folks who predicted that automobiles, planes, and television were mere hype and would never replace horse-drawn carriages, trains, and radio. Here is a list of those failed predictions to chuckle over as you ring in the new year.

Whatever your guesses are for next year or for 2020, the questions that need answers are not about the rapid expiration dates of the next newest device –including the “revolutionary” iPad–nor to what degree technology will be ubiquitous in home and school nor even how new technologies will be used by the next generation of teachers and students.

No, those are not the questions that need to be asked.

Instead, fundamental questions have to deal with matters of educational philosophy. What knowledge has the most worth? Why? What are the best ways of teaching and learning?

These questions, in turn depend on broader moral and political questions about what is the “good” life and how one lives a useful and worthy life.

When these questions are asked and answered then, and only then, can new technologies play their role in schools and classrooms.


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By Valerie Strauss  | January 5, 2011; 5:00 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Larry Cuban, Technology  | Tags:  education technology, handhelds, larry cuban, technology, technology in schools  
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Some points you make are a little fearful for me, being a more "seasoned" citizen. The one point of antiquity concerns me from both a learning point and cost. Have we learned nothing? The cost of what we have, maintenance of what we have, and shelf life are all costs well above the "old-fashioned" book.

None of the words in your Kindle will disappear with time. Replacing the media, over time will cost with every new model, software, or administration. That cost is removed from student time and learning since the cost also impacts teachers and other supplies.

I completed grad school and I still have my books. None are antiquated by hardware, software, or upgrades. Now, there may be newer additions, but even with those changes books will service more children over time than our technology.

I go back to the days of ditto mat reproduction. While it too antiquated, it never replaced a teacher, it never taught a thing, it only provided a service. Just keep things in perspective.

Posted by: jbeeler | January 5, 2011 7:26 AM | Report abuse

Larry Cuban is a giant in the industry. It's comforting to see reputable posters on this blog, even if only sporadically.

Missing for me from this piece is any mention from Professor Cuban on the two enormous advantages of online learning; convenience and a customized pace of learning for each student. These two variables alone could easily propel this model into a very favorable public status by 2020.

The traditional "class" no longer has to be conducted every morning at 9 AM. The teacher and students can get to the material at a time convenient for them during the day.

Most important, and FINALLY, kids will learn at the pace comfortable for them. Under this customized/individualized model, no student should be bored because the teacher is going too fast and conversely, no student should be overwhelmed because the pace of instruction is too rapid. The pace for each student is geared to their level.

While this type of model has been available all along for teachers to employ, few, if any, have chosen this path because it's too hard (whine, cry, complain)!!!!!. It's too difficult (scream, protest, refuse)!!!

In order for genuine education reform in this country to ever be realized teachers are going to have stop spending the bulk of their day in front of the class presenting one lesson to the whole group. Simply put, it's convenient for the teacher but ridiculous for the students. Slower learners are lost two weeks into the year while the brighter kids are completely turned off because they already know the material being presented.

Posted by: phoss1 | January 5, 2011 9:04 AM | Report abuse

My apologies.

" student should be bored because the teacher is going too fast," should read, no student should be bored because the teacher is going too SLOW.

Again, sorry about that.

Posted by: phoss1 | January 5, 2011 9:19 AM | Report abuse

Not sure about technology making school unrecognizable by 2020, but I am put in mind of Adolf Hitler's promise in 1933 that "In 12 years, Berlin will be unrecognizable!" And sure enough, in 1945, it was.

Will Fitzhugh

Posted by: fitzhugh1 | January 5, 2011 9:52 AM | Report abuse

Instead, fundamental questions have to deal with matters of educational philosophy. What knowledge has the most worth? Why? What are the best ways of teaching and learning?
The problem in public education is simple. Too many children never learn how to read.

The technology for helping children to learn early on how to read was available in 1993 with read along books from Disney.

This type of learning tool is still not available in public schools for young children even though it does not need the latest and greatest computer technology.

The truth is that children that have never been introduced to reading before entering public school have a good chance of never learning how to read.

Meanwhile in 2020 public schools will probably have spent billions more on worthless technology.

At some point educators will recognize that if a child can not read by 8 years old you might as well not spend any more money in pretending that child can be educated.

Disney's Animated Storybook Winnie the Pooh & Tigger Too

Pocahontas; Disney's Animated Storybook

Posted by: bsallamack | January 5, 2011 12:25 PM | Report abuse

Take a trip to India and some of the other emerging markets where they just do not have the schools or the teachers ..and will never be able to build them, hire enough of them the only solution is technology.

The Education industry's future is not in the sclerotic markets like the US and Europe ..but those where they have no other option but to use the scalability, flexibility and quality offered by technology. It is also another reason in 50 years these economies will completely leapfrog the US and the like.

Our time in the spotlight has passed !

Posted by: BondiBoy | January 6, 2011 2:22 AM | Report abuse

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