Flight of a butterfly or a bullet? Cuban's quest

US academic Larry Cuban is an important weather vane for those interested in using technology for learning and teaching. Published in 2003, his Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom was a timely reminder to technophiles and technophobes alike, along with policymakers, of the realities of classroom and school life and the challenge of culture change.

Now he's tweaking his image as the bearer of bad tidings. He is researching, and finding, evidence of changing practices in technology use and this will be published in his new book next year. It considers whether the paths of reforms such as technology for learning "fly like a butterfly or a bullet".

My annual visit to the Stanford Graduate School as a reviewer of its innovative Learning Design with Technology Masters programme is always a special time. It gives me the opportunity to catch up with the latest thinking and research in education technology and spend some time with some of the great minds and researchers behind educational technology innovations.

It's also the home of the MOOC movement and famous names like Daphne Koller, Andrew Ng of Coursera and Sebastian Thrun of Udacity who have been pioneers in online learning. But MOOCs (massive open online courses) are only a small part of the Stanford story.

It's also the birthplace of Hewlett Packard, Google, LinkedIn et al and home to renowned education researchers Linda Darling-Hammond, Roy Pea, Paolo Blikstein, Bridget Barron and dean of teaching and learning John Mitchell. The president, John Hennessy, a well-known advocate of online learning and of Google as a start-up, retires this year. Professor emeritus Mike Kirst is chair of the California State Board of Education but my personal favourite, and universally acknowledged as the godfather of research into technology for teaching and learning, is 81-years-young Professor emeritus of education Larry Cuban.

Five years ago we met at his home for afternoon tea and brownies (see “Larry Cuban – scourge of 'memory loss' policymakers”) to explore if he had shifted his ground since publication of his critique of the use of edtech, Oversold and Underused. So this year it was my turn to take some good old English lemon drizzle cake and see whether Larry's thinking had moved on again and to pry a little into his latest research project.

'The hype and glorification of technology is still there'

His mind is just as balanced, agile and as fast as his continued cycling proficiency around the Palo Alto Campus. But don't think for a minute that he is shifting into soft-focus mode with his research. "The hype is still there and the glorification of technology is still there – that it will solve the problems," he says.

What has changed is that he has grown tired of "compiling the disappointments, the failures". "I've done that," he says. "Others can do that and it will continue to be done because disappointment and failure exist."

Of particular interest to him are the emerging shoots of change he is discovering in local schools. He has been highlighting some of them on his blog and has been commissioned by a publisher to bring them together, and research more by the end of the year, for a new book expected in 2017.

He sets out his research agenda with this new blog post, "How I Am Researching Technology Integration in Classrooms and Schools (Part 1)".

"I am more interested in seeing how some teachers and schools have integrated the technology into their lessons seamlessly so that the lines don't show," he explains.

Has he found any? "Yes, certainly at the classroom level. I have been focusing on the Bay area because Silicon Valley, well, if it's not working well here it ain't going to work well anywhere. And the hype is mountainous here. So, sorting through the hyperbole is always an issue. But I have identified classrooms and schools and a few districts that integrate."

The context of the work has also changed because of the sheer ubiquity of mobile technology: "the spread of tablets, particularly as the price has come down, across the country. There is much more one-to-one exposure on the part of kids, and I have seen a lot of that.

'The access problem has been pretty much licked'

And so the access problem has pretty much been licked, and it's the use of these devices/machines that's still an issue. There is still a digital divide but not as much as there once was because of all the tablets that are now available. Chromebooks in this country are running at $2-300, and laptops $700, $800, $900. So the spread has increased access dramatically across the country and that's a big deal. Use has increased on the part of teachers too.

"My current project is taking a look at those classroom, schools and districts that put technology in the background rather than in the foreground and they integrate it into the daily teaching. And there are examples although they are by no means a majority. They are a small slice of what is going on and I decided I wanted to look at them."

One of the lessons learned in the UK has been that forcing new technology into old pedagogies is never going to work. What we really need to do is look at what new technology can offer us and look at how we currently teach and assess, and how we can adapt that in ways that make best use of the technology. Has Larry Cuban found any evidence?

"I have found examples," he confirms. "The thing about it Bob is that there are stages. First you take an existing technology and you fit it in to the way you have been teaching and the way the kids have been learning. That continues to go on and is probably the mainstream, but there are other folks who move on to a different stage where they adapt it and they use some of the strengths of the hardware and software, particularly the software, to extend students’ learning. They incorporate it into project-based teaching. They extend it into what is called personalised learning or adaptive learning, or flipped learning or blended learning. I have seen examples of all of that.

"What I am looking for is much more the integration where the technology is not front and centre as it usually is – ‘Oh, look at these machines, look at these devices, look at this new software’ – but it’s used to teach similar content to what was taught and it’s used to help students learn to assess themselves. It helps students learn in different ways to extend learning, so I am looking at examples of that, where the technology is no longer front and centre but is used in subtle ways and the seams don’t show."

Teachers helping teachers is the best road to wisdom

What are the implications in this for teachers? Do they need different skillsets? According to Larry Cuban, "They certainly have to be highly motivated. and believe that whatever new technologies – hardware and software – they use are going to benefit the kids. They have to believe that. That’s a given. Once they believe that, and they are motivated, then they acquire the skillset step by step, incrementally and they ask around, other teachers. Teachers helping teachers is the best road to wisdom. Over and over again you see it in action.

"So teachers then grow together; some collaborate, some don’t, some learn on their own. And they then widen their repertoire. So that technology is no longer something unusual, uncommon – it’s how they do it. It’s like if you wire your house and your coffee turns on automatically at six in the morning you don’t think about it any more."

What he is describing sounds like the antithesis of what happened in Los Angeles when the district spent millions of dollars in a failed attempt to introduce one-to-one iPads with Pearson software, proving an adage that you can do an awful lot with teachers but not much to them. Does he agree?

"If there has been anything that has been continuous since we last talked it's been that teachers by and large are not consulted about these major decisions. There will be token teachers on committees and the notion of software people, software engineers, consulting with the users, ie the teachers, I hear a little more of that going on, which I am glad to hear, but by and large that's not a mainstream pattern yet."

The UK and US political systems are going through major changes. The UK is undergoing the 'Brexit' process and political leadership is trying to push through the philosophies it subscribes to, for example spending £42 million on 'Shanghai maths'. And we are passing through a time when there has been a strong lobby from the technology industry, exemplified in massive edtech shows like BETT in the UK. But are we seeing changes in practice emerging that we could say are driven by teachers? In which case it might not matter so much about policy and lobbying?

Technology and schools: 'changes in different areas at the margin'

"I think it's an overstatement to call it ‘teacher-driven’ yet here in the US – the UK I can’t speak for," he replies. "What you see in pockets here are individual teachers who drive what they want to do in their classrooms because teachers are gatekeepers. I visited a number of teachers between February and May in this area who I see have basically done it themselves.

"When it comes to the school level you need leadership and, in effect, you hire those teachers where technology is natural for them to use and you show them that the educational issues/questions have to be answered first and how can technology help you answer them. I have seen a few schools that are like that.

"At the district level you can have superintendents here in the US that provide leadership for that but you have to develop an infrastructure, you have to have resources and you have to provide teachers with all the necessary expertise and help and technical assistance to do this. There are a couple of districts that do that but not many. So in the US if anyone wanted to say has the topography of technology and schools changed a lot, I would say that it changes in different areas at the margin right now. I see more of that and I want to document some of these kinds of changes in one area. That's my current research project."

Research carried out in collaboration with teachers

The new research is being carried out by visiting classrooms, with the teachers' consent, to start what is a collaborative process. "I write up a description of what I see," explains Larry Cuban, "and send it to the teacher to correct any mistake I have made — not to quarrel with my interpretation but to correct mistakes. They send them back to me and I publish them on my blog. I have about 15 of those on my blog, starting in March.

"That aspect of the research comes from teachers and then I visit a number of schools, particularly one set of schools that I think is unusual — what we call Charter Schools, and I have written about those schools too.

The process of sharing and commenting provides suggestions and constructive criticism that can be used to further shape the project.

And the title? "I call it 'The flight of the butterfly or the bullet?' It comes from a quote by researcher Philip Jackson, and the reason I use it is because a lot of people, policymakers included, have seen technology initiatives as separate from school reform. For me, technology is a subset of school reform. A lot of people want to change what goes on in the classrooms and those people, called reformers or however they are labelled, often see technology as a tool for reform within the classroom. So while I call it 'The flight of the butterfly or the flight of the bullet?', well it's not a bullet by any means – it's far more like a butterfly, landing here and then there. Not linear at all."

Cuban 'missives rather than missiles'

Sometimes Larry Cuban's work has been seized upon, wrongly, by "techno-sceptics" in the UK who viewed Oversold and Underused as some sort of educational Cuban missile crisis. But his contributions are missives rather than missiles, and he is not a techno-sceptic, just a teacher educator and researcher who tells it as he sees it and is not swayed by clamour or hype.

It is hard to disagree with him when he reiterates that there has always been too much hype when technology drives the debate. And he rightly points out that the outcomes have yet to live up to the early promise from the technology industry and some education leaders, and he should know. After all, he has been writing about media, including technology, for 30 years.

The inference from technologists' take on the failure of education to effectively exploit technology is that it is somehow the fault of teachers — something he, and I, find irritating. And he asks, sardonically, "Who else are they going to blame?"

I always find my time with Larry Cuban inspirational and affirming. The view consistent with the evidence (and lack of it) is that technology on its own has had no impact on learning outcomes, but teachers using technology effectively can improve learning.

Bob Dylan once sang, "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows." But in the sometimes overblown world of technology and education we need at least a weather vane, and that is at least one role Larry Cuban has fulfilled admirably.

At a time when politicians and some policymakers seem hopelessly adrift when it comes to strategy for learning and teaching with technology, I look forward to the publication of The flight of the butterfly or the bullet? so we can all get a rational and constructively critical picture of what good learning and teaching can look like when technology seamlessly enters the mix. The evidence and the role of researchers are crucial.

Roll on 2017

First published on Agent4Change.net here Flight of a butterfly or a bullet? Cuban's quest