Sunday, June 8, 2008

Oversold and Underused

Maximal Access, Minimal Change: Review of Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom


Many educators, public officials, business leaders, and parents argue that school computers and Internet access will improve academic learning and prepare students for an information-based workplace. In an effort to examine the validity of this argument, Larry Cuban provides a critical look at the actual use of computers by teachers and students in early childhood education, high school and university classrooms in Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom. Combining an historical overview of school technologies with statistical data and direct observation of classroom practices in several Silicon Valley schools, he concludes that, "Without a broader vision of the social and civic role that schools perform in a democratic society, our excessive focus on technology use in schools runs the danger of trivializing our nation's core ideals"(P.197).

Key Points

The key points of the book are surrounded by the discussions on the following questions:

(1) What were the goals of promoting computer technology in schools? Was that supposed to be “transformative" or just a means of "catch up" for teachers and students?
(2) How do teachers and students use computers in classrooms for instruction in schools where computers are readily available such as those Silicon Valley schools?
(3) Have the promotion and investment in computer technologie changed the landscape of the teaching and learning? Why or why not?
(4) Are the technology investment in schools worth the cost?

In order to answer those questions, Cuban offers three explanations to the unexpected findings and outcomes of his work: (a) the slow change will eventually transform teaching and learning; (b) history and context of teaching -- gaps between different sectors of society and the beliefs that these people hold influence what happens in the classroom; and (c) culturally constrained choice -- while teachers’ beliefs and values reflect what they do in the classroom and while they choose what to endorse, reject, and modify, they are still influenced by the structure of American institutions (p.170).

However, Cuban does not fully validate these explanations. He asserts that computers have been oversold by policy makers and technology marketers, and underused by teachers and students. To fully deploy new technologies reform, he suggests that teachers, parents, policy makers, workplace leaders, and other stake-holders should work closely to build stronger communities and citizens with technology and achieve larger social and civic goals through financial investment (Lomicka, 2003).

Limitations of the Study

Although Cuban’s study is profound and scholarly, I found the following flaws that might have weakened the strength of the research.

(1) The statistic data in the book was accurate at the time the research was conducted. But some of them, such as school profiles, frequency of home use, and the use of technology in a college setting, are extremely outdated today.
(2) I do not quite understand why Cuban would think that “neither age, experience, nor gender was a significant factor in our data” (P.98). These variables sometimes produce quite different results, according to a recent research based on the understanding of the digital divide from a multicultural education framework which indicates that “equal access is considerably different from equitable access” (Gorski, 2002).
(3) In Cuban’s study, students surveyed in the schools reported little to no use of computers in foreign language classes. However, according to a language professor (Lomicka, 2003), it may be interesting to “conduct a longitudinal study documenting the use of computers in second language classrooms.” “Had Cuban included observations that document the recent growth and development of telecollaborative work”, Lomicka suggests. “Perhaps findings in the area of language learning may have yielded somewhat different results in his research.”

Questions and Thoughts

Finally, there are a couple of questions and thoughts that I came up with during the reading. I hope they will be helpful for my further study.

(1) Can we afford such a luxurious experiment on the adoption of computer technology in classrooms? How big is the risk that stakeholders are taking by doing that?
(2) What are the changes in the classrooms since Cuban’s research was conducted? Actually we don’t see much of that, if any. And will the next decade see the same scenario (or even worse due to the education budget cut)?
(3) On the one hand, when teachers are not given a say in how the technology might reshape schools, “computers are merely souped-up typewriters and classrooms continue to run much as they did a generation ago.” On the other end, the pressures and the traditions that block many teachers from making more powerful use of these new tools exacerbate the former. Will this form a vicious circle of technology use struggling in a dungeon that Cuban called the “slow revolution?”

Although Cuban does not provide answers for these questions, like he does not point out how technology investments can be turned into impressive learning gains, his examination of the unexpected outcomes should to a large extent help technology planners and educational leaders improve their future efforts, and, more or less, “remind us of the deepest civic and humane goals of education” (Wald, 2003).


Cuban, L. (2001). Oversold and underused: computers in the classroom. Library of Congress.

Wald, R. (2003).Radical teacher book review. Available online at

Lomicka, L. (2003). Review of Oversold and Underused. Language Learning and Technology, Vol. 7, No. 3.

Gorski, P. (2002). Dismantling the digital divide: A multicultural education framework. Modern Education online, Fall 2002. Available online at

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