Is it unethical to use untested technology in the classroom?

(Jared Soares / For The Washington Post) (Jared Soares / For The Washington Post)

Is it unethical to use untested technology in classrooms? Answering the question is education historian Larry Cuban, who was a high school social studies teacher for 14 years and a district superintendent (seven years in Arlington, VA). He is now professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, where he has taught for more than 20 years. His latest book is “Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice: Change without Reform in American Education.” This appeared on his blog, Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice.
By Larry Cuban

In a recent Teachers College Record commentary, M.O. Thirunarayanan, Associate Professor of Learning Technologies in the College of Education at Florida International University, argues the following:

When it comes to technology integration, no testing or research is done upfront to determine if they help students learn. Such products are typically purchased by schools and used in classrooms before educators start conducting research to determine if they are effective. This is akin to providing treatment using drugs whose effects have not yet been studied. Both are unethical. Not to mention the millions of dollars that are spent every year by schools to acquire these technologies, just so the leaders of these schools can claim that their schools are on the “cutting edge.”

Every time a new technological tool is developed, manufactured, and sold, its potential to improve learning is hyped up to a great extent. A tool that has a new or unique feature is sold as the tool that will help solve all problems in education. Such a product is overbought and underused in schools for a few years until the next best technological tool becomes the hottest product that has to be purchased and used in all schools….

He then concludes:

Those who develop technological products should be asked to spend their own funds to conduct research to find out the benefits of using their products in schools. They should be allowed to sell only those products that have been extensively researched and found to be helpful to learners and teachers. Any side effects should be noted on warning labels that are affixed to the products.

One part of me is sympathetic to the argument that Professor Thirunarayanan makes. The hype associated with hardware and software raising academic achievement, engaging students like nothing else, and transforming instruction is well-known and seldom passes the sniff test nowadays. Moreover, many software products are (and have been) sold as beta versions to districts, meaning that they have not been fully tested. Teachers and students point out all of the glitches giving vendors very valuable data to improve the product. So I am sympathetic to points that he makes.

But, then, I think of the many instructional practices that have been used for centuries such as textbooks, worksheets, blackboards, and homework that underwent no tests then or now. Also I think about the flawed assumption that the author makes about technology, in of itself, determining academic achievement when that outcome results from many in-school and out-of-school factors. Finally, comparing clinical trials on medical treatments with the kinds of research that ought to be done on new hardware and software overlooks the very narrow questions that drive experimental/control testing and the recent questioning of the worth of the knowledge gained.

Decisions made by school boards and superintendents over buying and deploying new technologies may be unwise. But not unethical. Or even researching the worth of new technologies without capturing the complexity of the many factors determining academic achievement may be myopic.  But using untested technologies in classrooms “unethical,” I do not think so.


The best way for me to answer the question is to give a clear example of what I believe is (and has been) an unethical practic in the use of technology.

Readers over the age of 45 will remember Channel 1, a technological innovation where entrepreneur Chris Whittle gave hardware (TV monitors, VCRs, and satellite dishes) to schools that lacked the funds to buy equipment (mostly enrolling children from poor families) in exchange for secondary school students watching news programs that contained commercials for products that teenagers consume. Beginning in 1990, Channel 1 continues its 10-minute news broadcasts (of which two minutes are ads) in 10,000 schools across the country.

What makes this unethical (but not illegal) is that school boards and superintendents made the decision to contract with the for-profit firm of Channel 1 knowing that for two minutes a day, commercials would be shown to a captive audience. Under state law, parents are compelled to send their children to school until they are teenagers. Students must stay in their classrooms while commercials are shown. For Channel 1, public officials have abandoned their moral responsibility for children and youth’s  safety, health, and academic achievement by forcing them to watch ads.

For those who like to cite research studies, there is one field study with randomly assigned seventh and eighth graders to control and experimental groups that found those watching Channel 1 remembered the commercials more than news items and in the previous three months had bought over two items advertised on Channel 1.

For these reasons, I find requiring teenagers who are compelled to attend school to watch this program is an unethical act.


Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.



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Valerie Strauss · February 8, 2014

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