Instructional TV… a short-lived love affair

In Chapter 2 of Teachers and Machines, Larry Cuban reminds us of the cyclic nature of technology implementations in education. Instructional TV goes through its cycle… Early adopters are followed by varied degrees of adoption. Small pockets of best-practice appear and some poor usage is noted. Eventually the novelty wears off and there is a subsequent  decline in utilization. All this leading finally to a measurement of a pitifully small impact on education on the large scale (p. 43).

What can be learned from these observations? I came up with four “truths” from this reading.

First truth: No technology (instructional television or otherwise) fits every teacher’s teaching style or students learning style. Ideally, teachers will select the technology that best suits their  needs. Teachers need to be regarded as the content experts, and should be involved in the decisions as to what technologies are appropriate for their content areas.

Second truth: No technology is going to completely replace the teacher.  The best practices seen in instructional television involved teachers planning activities for before and after television program. Students still need a hook to engage them and a task master to keep them engaged through the design of the activities the students will participate in. In Samoa, where televised instruction was used the most widely and students spent the most time watching programs, students were unhappy with this approach. When there is a shortage of teachers, technology may fill a short-term need. However, a television does not substitute for a teacher.

This made me think about what I have read and heard about high school education transitioning to online delivery formats. If history repeats itself, and the implementation of online learning is anything like the implementation of instructional television, it is more likely that we will see hybrid models of high school instead of completely virtual ones. There are some students whose needs will not be met in a completely online environment, and some subjects that are not well suited to the online environment.

Third Truth: Some technologies will be used as “filler” and not as true instructional tools. Cuban documented increased use of television programs in the afternoon, supposedly to give students a break after learning all the hard stuff in the morning (p. 44).  Some teachers did not plan around the program and did not ensure student engagement with the content of the program (pp. 45-6).  Surely this is not an effective use of this technology. I know I see similar ineffective implementations in classrooms today, where the computer is used as a game station or a fun extra thing to do, instead of using it to build student knowledge.

Fourth Truth: It has yet to be shown that the use of instructional television yielded increases in student learning compared to other methods of instruction (p. 38). This remains as a barrier to increased implementation by many teachers.  If it aint’ broke, why fix it?  Is this new tool better than what I am already using?  Is it worth the effort to implement?

So in the end, Chapter 2 continues the theme of Chapter 1. Technology implementation cycles have come and gone for film, radio and TV. How can we learn from this in our modern day technology implementations? We need research-based solutions that are proven to improve student outcomes. We need to involve teachers in the development and implementation of educational technology applications instead of having business and government pushing technologies into schools.

Also interesting… Larry Cuban’s January 31, 2010 blog revisiting Teachers and Machines


  1. I agree with your overall observations, but would like to speak to two in particular.

    First, as a big believer in the power and value of online learning, I nevertheless recognize that online teaching and learning (OTL) cannot be all things to all people. Some subjects, especially those that teach a performance skill such as language acquisition or lab sciences, can use the online environment part of the time. However, some of the activities and assessments require face to face interaction. So, as you noted, the hybrid model of education would be the best option for such classes.

    Also, we should never negate the central role of the teacher in our discussion of technology. Even a good teacher, given a tool with which he/she is unfamiliar, may not use it to its highest potential. Never mind those teachers who regard technology as a good diversion only and not an instructional tool! You point out, as does Cuban, that teachers should be involved and engaged in choosing technolgoy. Those who are not involved in the initial choice should still be allowed to use or not use the technology as it best matches the needs of the class and lesson content.

  2. I agree with your observations and like your discription of the cycle that many technologies follow with implmentation. I also completely agree that all technologies are not appropriate for all classrooms, teaching styles and learning styles. The teacher must know what their students know and are able to do in order to prescribe the appropriate learning expeirences with the right resources to enrich that experience. The teacher has to be able to match the appropriate technology with the content being taught and the instructional methods being used. I think that is the main issue not only with the radio, film and television, but also with the many new devices we see in our classrooms today. Teachers must know how to integrate or embedd it appropriately in instruction (not just phyically use the device) or else the learning expeirence is lost. How do teachers learn this? Through high quality professional development….that is another large topic!! 🙂

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