Posts Tagged ‘Larry Cuban’

The ‘Routledge Handbook of Language Learning and Technology’ (eds. Farr and Murray, 2016) claims to be ‘the essential reference’ on the topic and its first two sections are devoted to ‘Historical and conceptual concepts’ and ‘Core issues’. One chapter (‘Limitations and boundaries in language learning and technology’ by Kern and Malinowski) mentions that ‘a growing body of research in intercultural communication and online language learning recognises how all technologies are embedded in cultural and linguistic practices, meaning that a given technological artefact can be used in radically different ways, and for different purposes by different groups of people’ (p.205). However, in terms of critical analyses of technology and language learning, that’s about as far as this book goes. In over 500 pages, there is one passing reference to privacy and a couple of brief mentions of the digital divide. There is no meaningful consideration of the costs, ownership or externalities of EdTech, of the ways in which EdTech is sold and marketed, of the vested interests that profit from EdTech, of the connections between EdTech and the privatisation of education, of the non-educational uses to which data is put, or of the implications of attention tracking, facial analysis and dataveillance in educational settings.

The Routledge Handbook is not alone in this respect. Li Li’s ‘New Technologies and Language Learning’ (Palgrave, 2017) is breathlessly enthusiastic about the potential of EdTech. The opening chapter catalogues a series of huge investments in global EdTech, as if the scale of investment was an indication of its wisdom. No mention of the lack of evidence that huge investments into IWBs and PCs in classrooms led to any significant improvement in learning. No mention of how these investments were funded (or which other parts of budgets were cut). Instead, we are told that ‘computers can promote visual, verbal and kinaesthetic learning’ (p.5).

I have never come across a book-length critical analysis of technology and language learning. As the world of language teaching jumps on board Zoom, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, Skype (aka Microsoft) and the like, the need for a better critical awareness of EdTech and language learning has never been more urgent. Fortunately, there is a growing body of critical literature on technology and general education. Here are my twelve favourites:

Big Data in Education1 Big Data in Education

Ben Williamson (Sage, 2017)

An investigation into the growing digitalization and datafication of education. Williamson looks at how education policy is enacted through digital tools, the use of learning analytics and educational data science. His interest is in the way that technology has reshaped the way we think about education and the book may be read as a critical response to the techno-enthusiasm of Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier’s ‘Learning with Big Data: The Future of Education’ (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014). Williamson’s blog, Code Acts in Education, is excellent.


Distrusting Educational Technology2 Distrusting Educational Technology

Neil Selwyn (Routledge, 2014)

Neil Selwyn is probably the most widely-quoted critical voice in this field, and this book is as good a place to start with his work as any. EdTech, for Selwyn, is a profoundly political affair, and this book explores the gulf between how it could be used, and how it is actually used. Unpacking the ideological agendas of what EdTech is and does, Selwyn covers the reduction of education along data-driven lines, the deskilling of educational labour, the commodification of learning, issues of inequality, and much more. An essential primer.



The Great American Education Industrial Complex3 The Great American Education-Industrial Complex

Anthony G. Picciano & Joel Spring (Routledge, 2013)

Covering similar ground to both ‘Education Networks’ and ‘’ (see below), this book’s subtitle, ‘Ideology, Technology, and Profit’, says it all. Chapter 4 (‘Technology in American Education’) is of particular interest, tracing the recent history of EdTech and the for-profit sector. Chapter 5 provides a wide range of examples of the growing privatization (through EdTech) of American schooling.



Disruptive Fixation4 Disruptive Fixation

Christo Sims (Princeton University Press, 2017)

The story of a New York school, funded by philanthropists and put together by games designers and educational reformers, that promised to ‘reinvent the classroom for the digital age’. And how it all went wrong … reverting to conventional rote learning with an emphasis on discipline, along with gender and racialized class divisions. A cautionary tale about techno-philanthropism.



Education Networks5 Education Networks

Joel Spring (Routledge, 2012)

Similar in many ways to ‘’ (see below), this is an analysis of the relationships between the interest groups (international agencies, private companies and philanthropic foundations) that are pushing for greater use of EdTech. Spring considers the psychological, social and political implications of the growth of EdTech and concludes with a discussion of the dangers of consumerist approaches to education and dataveillance.




Stephen J. Ball, Carolina Junemann & Diego Santori (Routledge, 2017)

An account of the ways in which international agencies, private companies (e.g. Bridge International Academies, Pearson) and philanthropic foundations shape global education policies, with a particular focus on India and Ghana. These policies include the standardisation of education, the focus on core subjects, the use of corporate management models and test-based accountability, and are key planks in what has been referred to as the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM). Chapter 4 (‘Following things’) focusses on the role of EdTech in realising GERM goals.


Education and Technology7 Education and Technology

Neil Selwyn (Continuum, 2011)

Although covering some similar ground to his ‘Distrusting Educational Technology’, this handy volume summarises key issues, including ‘does technology inevitably change education?’, ‘what can history tell us about education and technology?’, ‘does technology improve learning?’, ‘does technology make education fairer?’, ‘will technology displace the teacher?’ and ‘will technology displace the school?’.



The Evolution of American Educational Technology8 The Evolution of American Educational Technology

Paul Saettler (Information Age, 2004)

A goldmine of historical information, this is the first of three history books on my list. Early educational films from the start of the 20th century, educational radio, teaching machines and programmed instruction, early computer-assisted instruction like the PLATO project, educational broadcasting and television … moving on to interactive video, teleconferencing, and artificial intelligence. A fascinatingly detailed study of educational dreams and obsolescence.


Oversold and Underused9 Oversold and Underused

Larry Cuban (Harvard University Press, 2003)

Larry Cuban’s ground-breaking ‘Teachers and Machines: The Classroom Use of Technology since 1920’ (published in 1986, four years before Saettler’s history) was arguably the first critical evaluation of EdTech. In this title, Cuban pursues his interest in the troubled relationship between teachers and technology, arguing that more attention needs to be paid to the civic and social goals of schooling, goals that make the question of how many computers are in classrooms trivial. Larry Cuban’s blog is well worth following.


The Flickering Mind10 The Flickering Mind

Todd Oppenheimer (Random House, 2003)

A journalistic account of how approximately $70 billion was thrown at EdTech in American schools at the end of the 20th century in an attempt to improve them. It’s a tale of getting the wrong priorities, technological obsolescence and, ultimately, a colossal waste of money. Technology has changed since the writing of this book, but as the epigram of Alphonse Karr (cited by Oppenheimer in his afterword) puts it – ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’.



Teaching Machines11 Teaching Machines

Bill Ferster (John Hopkins University Press, 2014)

This is the third history of EdTech on my list. A critical look at past attempts to automate instruction, and learning from successes and failures as a way of trying to avoid EdTech insanity (‘doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results’). Not explicitly political, but the final chapter offers a useful framework for ‘making sense of teaching machines’.



The Technical Fix12 The Technical Fix

Kevin Robbins & Frank Webster (Macmillan, 1989)

Over thirty years old now, this remarkably prescient book situates the push for more EdTech in Britain in the 1980s as a part of broader social and political forces demanding a more market-oriented and entrepreneurial approach to education. The argument that EdTech cannot be extracted from relations of power and the social values that these entail is presented forcefully. Technology, write the authors, ‘is always shaped by, even constitutive of, prevailing values and power distribution’.



And here’s hoping that Audrey Watters’ new book sees the light of day soon, so it can be added to the list of history books!







In my last post, I looked at the way that, in the absence of a clear, shared understanding of what ‘personalization’ means, it has come to be used as a slogan for the promoters of edtech. In this post, I want to look a little more closely at the constellation of meanings that are associated with the term, suggest a way of evaluating just how ‘personalized’ an instructional method might be, and look at recent research into ‘personalized learning’.

In English language teaching, ‘personalization’ often carries a rather different meaning than it does in broader educational discourse. Jeremy Harmer (Harmer, 2012: 276) defines it as ‘when students use language to talk about themselves and things which interest them’. Most commonly, this is in the context of ‘freer’ language practice of grammar or vocabulary of the following kind: ‘Complete the sentences so that they are true for you’. It is this meaning that Scott Thornbury refers to first in his entry for ‘Personalization’ in his ‘An A-Z of ELT’ (Thornbury, 2006: 160). He goes on, however, to expand his definition of the term to include humanistic approaches such as Community Language Learning / Counseling learning (CLL), where learners decide the content of a lesson, where they have agency. I imagine that no one would disagree that an approach such as this is more ‘personalized’ than a ‘complete-the-sentences-so-they-are-true-for you’ exercise to practise the present perfect.

Outside of ELT, ‘personalization’ has been used to refer to everything from ‘from customized interfaces to adaptive tutors, from student-centered classrooms to learning management systems’ (Bulger, 2016: 3). The graphic below (from Bulger, 2016: 3) illustrates just how wide the definitional reach of ‘personalization’ is.


As with Thornbury’s entry in his ‘A – Z of ELT’, it seems uncontentious to say that some things are more ‘personalized’ than others.

Given the current and historical problems with defining the term, it’s not surprising that a number of people have attempted to develop frameworks that can help us to get to grips with the thorny question of ‘personalization’. In the context of language teaching / learning, Renée Disick (Disick, 1975: 58) offered the following categorisation:


In a similar vein, a few years later, Howard Altman (Altman, 1980) suggested that teaching activities can differ in four main ways: the time allocated for learning, the curricular goal, the mode of learning and instructional expectations (personalized goal setting). He then offered eight permutations of these variables (see below, Altman, 1980: 9), although many more are imaginable.

Altman 1980 chart

Altman and Disick were writing, of course, long before our current technology-oriented view of ‘personalization’ became commonplace. The recent classification of technologically-enabled personalized learning systems by Monica Bulger (see below, Bulger, 2016: 6) reflects how times have changed.


Bulger’s classification focusses on the technology more than the learning, but her continuum is very much in keeping with the views of Disick and Altman. Some approaches are more personalized than others.

The extent to which choices are offered determines the degree of individualization in a particular program. (Disick, 1975: 5)

It is important to remember that learner-centered language teaching is not a point, but rather a continuum. (Altman, 1980: 6)

Larry Cuban has also recently begun to use a continuum as a way of understanding the practices of ‘personalization’ that he observes as part of his research. The overall goals of schooling at both ends of the curriculum are not dissimilar: helping ‘children grow into adults who are creative thinkers, help their communities, enter jobs and succeed in careers, and become thoughtful, mindful adults’.

Cubans curriculum

As Cuban and others before him (e.g. Januszewski, 2001: 57) make clear, the two perspectives are not completely independent of each other. Nevertheless, we can see that one end of this continuum is likely to be materials-centred with the other learner-centred (Dickinson, 1987: 57). At one end, teachers (or their LMS replacements) are more likely to be content-providers and enact traditional roles. At the other, teachers’ roles are ‘more like those of coaches or facilitators’ (Cavanagh, 2014). In short, one end of the continuum is personalization for the learner; the other end is personalization by the learner.

It makes little sense, therefore, to talk about personalized learning as being a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ thing. We might perceive one form of personalized learning to be more personalized than another, but that does not mean it is any ‘better’ or more effective. The only possible approach is to consider and evaluate the different elements of personalization in an attempt to establish, first, from a theoretical point of view whether they are likely to lead to learning gains, and, second, from an evidence-based perspective whether any learning gains are measurable. In recent posts on this blog, I have been attempting to do that with elements such as learning styles , self-pacing and goal-setting.

Unfortunately, but perhaps not surprisingly, none of the elements that we associate with ‘personalization’ will lead to clear, demonstrable learning gains. A report commissioned by the Gates Foundation (Pane et al, 2015) to find evidence of the efficacy of personalized learning did not, despite its subtitle (‘Promising Evidence on Personalized Learning’), manage to come up with any firm and unequivocal evidence (see Riley, 2017). ‘No single element of personalized learning was able to discriminate between the schools with the largest achievement effects and the others in the sample; however, we did identify groups of elements that, when present together, distinguished the success cases from others’, wrote the authors (Pane et al., 2015: 28). Undeterred, another report (Pane et al., 2017) was commissioned: in this the authors were unable to do better than a very hedged conclusion: ‘There is suggestive evidence that greater implementation of PL practices may be related to more positive effects on achievement; however, this finding requires confirmation through further research’ (my emphases). Don’t hold your breath!

In commissioning the reports, the Gates Foundation were probably asking the wrong question. The conceptual elasticity of the term ‘personalization’ makes its operationalization in any empirical study highly problematic. Meaningful comparison of empirical findings would, as David Hartley notes, be hard because ‘it is unlikely that any conceptual consistency would emerge across studies’ (Hartley, 2008: 378). The question of what works is unlikely to provide a useful (in the sense of actionable) response.

In a new white paper out this week, “A blueprint for breakthroughs,” Michael Horn and I argue that simply asking what works stops short of the real question at the heart of a truly personalized system: what works, for which students, in what circumstances? Without this level of specificity and understanding of contextual factors, we’ll be stuck understanding only what works on average despite aspirations to reach each individual student (not to mention mounting evidence that “average” itself is a flawed construct). Moreover, we’ll fail to unearth theories of why certain interventions work in certain circumstances. And without that theoretical underpinning, scaling personalized learning approaches with predictable quality will remain challenging. Otherwise, as more schools embrace personalized learning, at best each school will have to go at it alone and figure out by trial and error what works for each student. Worse still, if we don’t support better research, “personalized” schools could end up looking radically different but yielding similar results to our traditional system. In other words, we risk rushing ahead with promising structural changes inherent to personalized learning—reorganizing space, integrating technology tools, freeing up seat-time—without arming educators with reliable and specific information about how to personalize to their particular students or what to do, for which students, in what circumstances. (Freeland Fisher, 2016)


Altman, H.B. 1980. ‘Foreign language teaching: focus on the learner’ in Altman, H.B. & James, C.V. (eds.) 1980. Foreign Language Teaching: Meeting Individual Needs. Oxford: Pergamon Press, pp.1 – 16

Bulger, M. 2016. Personalized Learning: The Conversations We’re Not Having. New York: Data and Society Research Institute.

Cavanagh, S. 2014. ‘What Is ‘Personalized Learning’? Educators Seek Clarity’ Education Week

Dickinson, L. 1987. Self-instruction in Language Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Disick, R.S. 1975 Individualizing Language Instruction: Strategies and Methods. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich

Freeland Fisher, J. 2016. ‘The inconvenient truth about personalized learning’ [Blog post] retrieved from (May 4, 2016)

Harmer, J. 2012. Essential Teacher Knowledge. Harlow: Pearson Education

Hartley, D. 2008. ‘Education, Markets and the Pedagogy of Personalisation’ British Journal of Educational Studies 56 / 4: 365 – 381

Januszewski, A. 2001. Educational Technology: The Development of a Concept. Englewood, Colorado: Libraries Unlimited

Pane, J. F., Steiner, E. D., Baird, M. D. & Hamilton, L. S. 2015. Continued Progress: Promising Evidence on Personalized Learning. Seattle: Rand Corporation retrieved from

Pane, J.F., Steiner, E. D., Baird, M. D., Hamilton, L. S. & Pane, J.D. 2017. Informing Progress: Insights on Personalized Learning Implementation and Effects. Seattle: Rand Corporation retrieved from

Riley, B. 2017. ‘Personalization vs. How People Learn’ Educational Leadership 74 / 6: 68-73

Thornbury, S. 2006. An A – Z of ELT. Oxford: Macmillan Education