A chat with Larry Cuban @ Stanford

When Larry Cuban spoke at EDMEDIA in Hawaii, we were excited. “Oversold and Underused” was fresh in our minds, and many graduate students were interested in a sound critique of educational technologies. We had grown somewhat tired of the usual talks correlating educational technology and (potential) educational change, or the short and quick studies that demonstrated significant results, but little applicability in practical scenarios of educational practice.

At about the same time a small group of us was devising a separate track at the conference, ambitiously entitled “Pushing the boundaries: Thought provoking papers on technology in education”. We wanted graduate students to submit articles to this track that would follow in the vein and spirit of Cuban’s work and critique.

Since then, I have learned that thoughtful critiques of educational technology go back quite a while. I have tried to contribute some of my own to the mix. In doing so I have found a select group of consistent critics of educational technology, who do the essential job of helping us hover over our taken for granted practice to get away from the speeding spinning wheel of academic productivity and external pressures for constant disruption.

As I did then, many who enter the field have the sense that these critiques of educational technology are new. I have often spoken to educators who have grown an interest in “technology” and see themselves as pariahs in the field populated by the fanatics who constantly experiment with new technologies in schools. I am here to tell you, more than ever, you are not alone. Since the turn of the century, critics of educational technology, in many manifestations, have been with us. Within this group of helpful critics, what I think makes Larry’s work so relevant and unique is that he excels in historiography and ethnographic research – a rare combination in this field.

So what could I learn from Larry, for the short hour we met in his office at Stanford? I had the opportunity to share and discuss what I felt were the most important points I had gathered from his work.

Larry assured me he is not a Luddite (though I think he is as we’ve begun to revisit the term). He emphasized the peripheral role teachers have always played in any sort of school change, only to be continuously blamed for the problems these implementations create. The centrality of bad policy and top-down decision making as a change mechanism has often left us with poor and limited (in time and scope) implementation. We also talked about the necessity to go beyond a ‘one best method’ for organizing school and pedagogical practices – many things work, and our obsession with efficiency has lead us to focusing on the wrong question.

Our conversation also reassured me that educational technology as a field is no longer. My doctoral degree says “Instructional Technology”, but my cohort was the last at my university to have it. Other universities have followed suit, adopting names that are even more restrictive in scope. Those interested in improving learning, if they hope to effect any sort of sustainable change and scale, must use a wider lens. Experimenting with new devices and strategies continues to have the glow of novelty and excitement, but contributes very little to school change, which we know to be incremental, conservative, and important. If you plan to work with schools, you cannot be an “educational technologists” or a “learning scientist” you must be an educational change agent and respect actors, complications, and implications.

Our sessions on “Pushing the boundaries” did come to fruition, but lasted for two years. The submissions we got differed little from the types of papers we got for the regular conference tracks. Perhaps those who submitted felt they were actually pushing the boundaries with the studies on the implementation of novel devices in the classroom. It is clear our minds did not meet. “Pushing the boundaries” was perhaps a bad name. In retrospect, that is not what we meant; but would you submit an article to a conference entitled “Respecting the boundaries”? Can we learn to respect boundaries while attempting to foster change?

Our conversation help me revisit some of Larry’s main arguments and reflect on how this connects with the field of educational technology and open education as a whole. In reading this, you might not learn anything new about Larry and his thoughts on educational change. One thing you won’t get from his readings: Larry is a very nice guy.

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