Virtual Schools: Will Education Technology Change the Nature of Learning?

Education Next, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Virtual Schools: Will Education Technology Change the Nature of Learning?


Can new education technologies short-circuit change-resistant politics and remake our schools? Or are well-intended advocates once again overhyping the ability of electrons and processors to solve thorny problems of teaching and learning? In this Education Next forum, John Chubb of Edison Schools and Stanford University political scientist Terry Moe make the case for the transformative power of today's technology. Twenty years ago, this duo coauthored the debate-changing Politics, Markets, and America's Schools. Their new book, Liberating Learning: Technology, Politics, and the Future of American Education, lays out a bold vision of the future. A more skeptical view of technology's potential impact on education is offered by Larry Cuban, professor emeritus of education at Stanford University and author of Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom.

EDUCATION NEXT: How likely is it that technology will make advances in education in the next decade that go far beyond any changes that have taken place in the past?

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John Chubb and Terry Moe: The world wide revolution in information technology has globalized the international economy, made communication virtually instantaneous and costless, put vast storehouses of information within reach of everyone on the planet, and in countless other ways transformed how life is lived. Technology is destined to transform American education as well. The driver of change is simple enough: technology has enormous benefits for the learning process, and they promise to change the nature of schooling and heighten its productivity. Curricula, teaching methods, and schedules can all be customized to meet the learning styles and life situations of individual students; education can be freed from the geographic constraints of districts and brick-and-more-tar buildings; coursework from the most remedial to the most advanced can be made available to everyone; students can have more interaction with teachers and one another; parents can readily be included in the education process; sophisticated data systems can measure and guide performance; and schools can be operated at lower cost with technology (which is relatively cheap) substituted for labor (which is relatively expensive).

But the advance of technology is also threatening to powerful education groups, and they will resist it in the political process. Precisely because technology promises to transform the core components of schooling, it is inevitably disruptive to the jobs, routines, and resources of the people whose livelihoods derive from the existing system. And these people are represented by organizations--most prominently, the teachers unions--that are extraordinarily powerful in politics, and are even now taking action to prevent technology from transforming American education.

Such resistance is not new. Technology is just the latest target of their politics of blocking. The key question is whether this resistance can be overcome. And the answer, as we will later explain, is yes. Technology is going to have transformative effects not only on education, but also on politics--effects that will weaken the opponents of change and open the political gates. This is the real crux of the story. In the years ahead, it is the political transformation that will make the educational transformation possible.

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Larry Cuban: Technology is linked to progress in the American mind and has a rich history in the culture. Because both public and private schooling have been deeply embedded in society for the past three centuries, educational technology (by which I mean the various communication and information devices and processes that administrators and teachers use to make schooling efficient and effective) also has a rich history (e.g., textbooks, chalkboard, film, radio, computers). …

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