Cramming computers: It’s still the same old story


Sep 8, 2011

The New York Times woke many with a start over the weekend when it reported in its Sunday edition on a school in Arizona investing lots of money in technology but seemingly getting few results from the investment, as student test scores remained stagnant.

The article, “In Classroom of Future, Stagnant Scores,” indeed shows that bolting technology solutions on today’s existing education system is a bad strategy for improving student learning. As my coauthors and I wrote in Disrupting Class, this has been true for some time. The United States has wasted well over $60 billion “cramming” technology in schools in this way to little effect over the past couple decades—and predictably so, according to our research. That some schools continue to do this is unfortunate—particularly in tough budget times—and is worth reporting.

But to generalize beyond this case study that all technology in education is not worth the investment makes no sense and asks the wrong question, as Jonathan Schorr argues persuasively. As Tom Vander Ark points out, this storyline is both an old and outdated one.

Simply put, people should not take from this article that technology will not be a significant part of the answer for the struggles of the country’s education system. It will likely be the very platform for it.

Technology has the potential to transform the education system—not by using technology for technology’s sake through PowerPoint or multimedia at the expense of math and reading or something like that—but instead as a vehicle to individualize learning for students working to master such things as math and reading, thereby creating a student-centric system as opposed to today’s lockstep and monolithic one.

According to the article (and with a full caveat that the article of course may not capture the true intent of the school officials profiled), a goal here was to create a computer-centric classroom. If this is true, it dramatically misses the point. As others have noted, a critical problem with the notion of creating the “classroom of the future” is just that phrase—“the classroom of the future”—for the ways in which that language locks in our imagination around the current paradigm of schooling and even sometimes implies that creating this should be the goal in and of itself.

Instead we need to be doing what an increasing number of schools like another Arizona-based school, the Carpe Diem Collegiate High School and Middle School, are doing and disrupting that flawed paradigm by implementing online learning to create a student-centric system—not to increase costs for the community through bond measures or otherwise, as the article reports—but to use existing resources to prioritize student learning and achieve great results.

Those cited in the article who criticize those in favor of upgrading technology first and asking questions later about how it will impact student achievement are exactly right, as Bror Saxberg—one of the leading thinkers in understanding how to use technology to bolster learning—argues here.

Nor does this rule only apply to technology. Spending on virtually any K-12 educational initiative without having increased student learning as the ultimate priority makes no sense.

Michael B. Horn

Michael is a co-founder and distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute. He currently works as a principal consultant for Entangled Solutions.

  • Rick Mueller

    Michael, the fact that putting computers in the classroom represents cramming does not serve as evidence that on-line education has the potential (or more importantly – should be expected) to disrupt the well established system from which the great majority of employers received their training and from which they can be expected to draw from to fill employment openings as they arise (which is the real job-2-B-done of a college degree and – except for vocational training – each tier of education leading up to it).

    While on-line learning (and the other examples you mention) do have the potential to expand educational opportunity as well as simultaneously increase its quality, if we depend on the terminology of Disruption for our description of mistakes (e.g. ‘cramming’), then we should have Disruption as the objective – and improvements along the traditional trajectory (whch these are) does not Disruption make

    Rick Mueller

  • Michael B. Horn

    If I understand you correctly, Rick, good point and agreed.

  • Larry W

    I can think of no better mechanism for creating (maintaining?) a lockstep educational system than using technology. Computers are dumb machines, and the software running on them are dumb (though softer) machines. Software and computers cannot individualize or make student-centric any material. Okay, given a set of programmed tasks, if the student gets 3 out of 10 questions wrong, the computer can be programmed present a little more material for further practice. But this is not individualization of education.

    A frown or a smile from a student can tell a teacher more than any technology will ever know. A few probing questions by a teacher can tell a teacher what lack of understanding, what small piece of the labyrinth of knowledge seems weak and to offer personalized at-that-moment student-centric support. No technology will ever do that.

    No more disruptive technology or anything else. Teaching and learning have been enough disrupted by biannual fads, politics, money, testing, and opinions from all quarters. We’ve had 50 years of disruption. Enough already!

  • Dan Bartell

    my eighth grade daughter said last night – “we dont need so many toys”, refering to the technology and other accoutrements being shown to her in school. “We just need more books!” Of course that warmed my heart as a publisher, but i also understood exactly what she meant as I was tutoring her in some math. She meant she only needs the careful instruction, and the on target practice problems that she had just reviewed in the book. What it helped her do was put together what the teacher was doing in class that day (a very good teacher who was counting on the book to reinforce the concepts she introduced and discussed with students that day) The book my daughter is using is simply a helpful and very effective learning tool. And properly applied, it will help any student succeed.
    But the other thing she meant was, she needed a second book, one for school, one for home so she didnt need to carry it back and forth. Technology will help us solve that problem. Tonight, we will find an web based alternative for home, then I will help her figure out the way she can best use it. And thats one last point, she does need help to figure out the best way to use the material on the web.