Larry Cuban. Perennial dilemmas policymakers and practitioners face in the adoption and classroom use of ICT: the U.S. experience

Notes from the conference Perennial dilemmas policymakers and practitioners face in the adoption and classroom use of ICT: the U.S. experience, held at the MACBA Auditorium within the framework of the Debates on Education, initiative of the Jaume Bofill Foundation and the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, in Barcelona, Spain, 16 November 2010.

Perennial dilemmas policymakers and practitioners face in the adoption and classroom use of ICT: the U.S. experience
Larry Cuban

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In recent years we’ve witnessed the wiring and the introduction of Information and Communication Technologies in schools. Notwithstanding, we’ve yet to see a shift in teaching practices or an impact in learning achievement. Puzzlingly, teachers do use their own computers for their personal use, even to prepare their own classes. Why is it so?

The big picture:

  • In a market-based, politically driven democracy, policy elites and interest groups with access to major media identify problems (e.g. poverty, slow economic growth, national defence) that need to be solved.
  • Sometimes the severity of these economic, social and political problems lead to popular movements to correct the ills.
  • In the US, historically, in these social movements to solve national problems, reformers often looked to schools for solutions. Schools were used to solve all the problems of society: provide doctors, engineers, etc. Human capital became the unit of measure of progress.
  • In “educationalizing” national problems, reformes have sought to alter one or more of the basic structures of US schooling established in the past two centuries. People expect schools to socialize, train, literate students, etc.
  • These historical patterns, contexts and basic structures of schooling clearly influence but not determine classroom teaching and learning. The school is filled with competing demands from teachers and parents, that push educational goals towards their own goals. Achievement becomes norm and the only final goal, in a way that it fits everyone’s needs of own goal measurement.
  • Yet, amid these historical patterns, contexts and structures that frame what practitioners do in schools, individual teachers and groups have stretched these constraints to create schools and classrooms tahs make a differences in the lives of children and youth.

That said, why is it there so few evidence in the academic use of computers, both in teaching and learning?

What is the difference between using and not using computers to perform a specific task in the classroom? As it is almost impossible to measure that (because of complexity and cost), serious research is rare to be found. Nevertheless, the existing research have found correlation (not causality) between gaming, or ICT usage and specific skills.

The reason of not having access to computers is no longer a big issue for most families, as a broad majority have both access to computers and connectivity.

Again, usage of ICTs by teachers and students is also regular, that is, at least one or more times during a week. And they use several devices (mobiles, laptops, desktops) and for several tasks (taking notes, searching for information on the Internet, etc.).

But teachers still do not teach what has to be taught to students by using computers. So, despite the fact that computers are such powerful machines to manage and transmit information, they are not effectively used for teaching. And it is not a fact, in general, of resistance to new technology, of lack of skills or of lack or interest.

There is a dilemma in teaching: the academic role demands that teachers keep a distance between them and students, so that they have a sense of authority; on the other hand, their emotional/social role demands that teachers be close to the students, to encourage them, to empathise with them. Here’s the dilemma, because these are competing roles.

Some teachers put the academic role on top (“I’m not my students’ friends, I’m here to educate them”), while some others put the emotional role on top.

The introduction of computers necessarily turns upside-down the difficult balance between these two roles, especially the academic role, that shifts the teacher from an authority to a guide, a mentor. Indeed, not only the balance changes, but also the academic role is undermined in its roots, as knowledge is not only scarce and impersonated in the teacher, but abundant and to be found everywhere.


Q: We should change the curriculum and teach our students skills and not content, and find new ways to assess their achievement. A: Yes, of course. The problem is that the social beliefs of the policy makers and the tax payers is that syllabuses have to be the way they are and that assessment has to be done the way it is. There will not be change inside the school before there is a social movement outside of the school.

Q: How can one deal between the two roles: academic and emotional? A: This is very difficult and it depends on the context. Most of the times, it is the obligation to give grades the one that leads one’s behaviour.

Miquel Àngel Prats: how well are teachers trained in the US and how well do they perform when teaching? What is the role of technology in the training of teachers? A: Nowadays, the bias of teacher training is towards student centred teaching (e.g. use projects to teach, etc.). The problem is that this approach is not realistic in practice, as applying it is most difficult with 5 classes with 25 students each. So, even if teachers are digitally literate and want to apply e.g. wikis in their classrooms, they just cannot.

Q: How can older teachers keep up with all the recent educational and technological changes? How to cope with finding, all of a sudden, that everyone is bringing their laptop to the classroom? A: One of the biggest problems in the US is finding teachers that master their disciplines, their subjects, but know little about pedagogy. In this framework, professional development states that we have to keep teachers learning all the time. But when budgets shrink, guess what gets cut. But, though I personally support professional development, concerning technology development the problem is not that teachers do not follow the courses, but that they do not apply what they learn in their classrooms.

Q: How long will it take to witness a change? A: There have been three waves of computing in schools (a) teaching will be faster and better; (b) learning will be faster and better; (c) there will be a global revolution and we all need digital skills. The three waves still apply, they have different approaches, they require different solutions, so it is not only a matter of speed, but of model.

Q: Can you elaborate on the “educationalization” of problems? A: Policy elites have in their heads their own idea of what and how schools should be, and they use them to solve several problems (e.g. unemployment) without taking into consideration how schools really are and function.

Q: What has the history been like of policy making in adapting curricula? A: Actually, in the US, changing the curriculum is quite easy. But teachers still have some degrees of freedom, so officially changing the curriculum is not the same thing as actually changing it. This is both a good and a bad thing, depending on the sign of the change, the need for consensus, etc.

More information


If you need to cite this article in a formal way (i.e. for bibliographical purposes) I dare suggest:

Peña-López, I. (2010) “Larry Cuban. Perennial dilemmas policymakers and practitioners face in the adoption and classroom use of ICT: the U.S. experience” In ICTlogy, #86, November 2010. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
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4 Comments to “Larry Cuban. Perennial dilemmas policymakers and practitioners face in the adoption and classroom use of ICT: the U.S. experience” »

  1. Muchas gracias por un resumen tan detallado. Una conferencia fascinante; ¿se grabó en vídeo?

  2. Juan Rafael,

    Sí, me consta que se grabó en vídeo y, si vas a la página oficial del evento ( verás que, en cuanto puede, la organización cuelga un breve resumen, la presentación del ponente (Larry Cuban dio la conferencia sin apoyo audiovisual), la grabación en vídeo y la grabación en audio.

    En definitiva, un lujo de organización :)


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  4. Pingback: La escala crea al fenómeno. De porque fracasan las tecnologias redentoras en el aula — Filosofitis

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