Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Technology in education: a ground-map, part a (revision 2)

CAC comment: This is an edited version of my original post from 9/13/08, taking into account comments received (thanks for those!) and some further thinking about this topic.

For this month's "Monthly Forum" (yes I know I'm late to start this was last month's topic), I'd like to get a conversation going about the role of technology in education.

For myself, I'm trying to develop a "ground-map of the province" (if you will allow me an obscure reference to Dewey) of issues related to technology in education. This is part of a project that will result in a chapter on philosophical issues related to technology in education for a forthcoming book to which I've been asked to contribute.

Key question #1: What is educational technology?

Technology is "the application of science (or knowledge) to meet objectives or to solve problems." (source)

Technology is not science itself, which is primarily concerned with the production of knowledge and the sorting out of which knowledge is privileged within the academy society, by certain people who call themselves "scientists," or by policy-makers. While science clearly has a role in education (both because we want to have a public that understands its methods, issues, and major findings, and because we want to know how people learn best so we can design education to be efficient and effective), this essay isn't dealing with science per se, but with its application. When we apply science/knowledge to solve educational problems, we are (often? always?) using technology. On this broad definition of technology, schooling is largely a technological enterprise.

(Schooling is the systematic formal process whereby the behaviors [and ideas] of [mostly young] people are shaped to meet adult expectations. Education is the [largely informal] experiential process through which a person comes to know and be who s/he is. These definitions were developed by my FND 510 class this quarter.)

Technologies used in schooling include classrooms, chalkboards, books, podiums, graded classrooms, chair-desk, bells, bell schedules, school buses, school buildings, playgrounds, athletic fields, band rooms, band instruments, colored chalk, the architecture of schools, p.a. systems, teacher certification systems, the ways we "divide" subjects into "disciplines," testing (and other assessment approaches of all kinds), school districting, "catchment" areas, curriculum plans, "standards" statements, and many many other activities/processes/devices/frameworks. It is important to emphasize, "technology" isn't just things, but the systems of ideas that legitimate and constrain the use of things. On this expanded notion of technology, we can say that "schooling" is the application of technology to make mass education the mass alteration of the behaviors [and ideas] of [mostly young] people not only possible, but affordableand effective.

(Of course, it's also the application of technology to do things schooling achieves other things as well, such as warehousing kids, but let's leave that aside for the moment.)

Related to this, technologies can roughly (thanks Jason!) be divided into those that are "old" (that is, taken for granted as being "necessary" for schooling) and those that are new (that is, still being negotiated in terms of their role--or lack thereof--in schools). This, of course, depends on one's perspective, since a technology that is taken for granted by a young person might be still be considered to have an unsettled role to an older person. Similarly, technologies that are taken for granted in wealthier, suburban or private schools (such as interactive whiteboards) are often considered exotic or a luxury in poorer, urban schools. Such differences in attitude are never about whether a particular technology is really needed for education; they are always about whether they deserve to be funded or mandated for all schools--again, the central question of educational policy.

But we don't tend to talk about this question as if it were a question about technology. Instead, we limit our explicit discussion of technologies to a subset of those that are applied to policy questions about schooling, as if educational technology policy was only "about" relatively new, digital technologies, especially those tools and approaches that are not yet universal (or nearly universal) in their application to schools. "Technology," then, is used as a euphemism for "things that we're still trying to decide whether we need," or "things that only some schools can currently afford."

This limitation of the application of the concept of technology tends to draw attention away from certain critical perspectives (such as those of Michel Foucault, Neil Postman, or Michael Apple) which talk about, for example "technologies of [political] control." Surely these critical perspectives are justified in used of the word "technology," just as much as the common person is justified (in some ways) in limiting discussion of technologies to what I've described above as "digital technologies." What's important is realizing that any limitation of the word "technology" to particular types of technologies has both motivations and consequences, which should be examined. Thus, the limitation of the discussion to "digital technologies" tends to take OFF the table many of the other things I've listed, such as bell schedules and P.A. systems, even though THOSE technology are pernicious and omnipresent in schools.

I guess wWhat I'm saying is, the question of what we MEAN by "technology" is ahas political oneimplications that perhaps logically antecede questions about the use of particular technologies in particular situations. [However, let me add here, without going into it in greater detail, that a "technology" can not be completely separated from the "use" of that technology, because, well, a technology without an application in a specific situation isn't a technology at all.]

Key question #2: What criteria do we use in evaluating educational technologies?

Like all technologies, each item on the list I just generated above can be critiqued from several many different perspectives, using many different criteria. Among such criteria for criticism include effectiveness (in reaching whatever objectives are desired), efficiency, humanity, cost-effectiveness, opportunity costs, ease-of-use, standardizability (can they applied in a consistent manner), teachability (can teachers/administrators/students actually learn to use them), fairness, beauty, "fit," conformity to [public] values of all kinds, carbon footprint, etc. etc.

(For the general public, probably, the most important criterion is whether the use of a technology conduces to the achievement of [whatever measure of success is given credence, for example] higher standardized test scores. But that criterion is hotly disputed by many.)

Given the importance of the choice of criteria to apply, perhaps I'd say the essential question of educational policy is the question of which criteria to apply to evaluating the technologies of education, because this question is basic to other questions such as what resources should we make available to all schools or all students, or to which students, and why. A key corollary of this insight is that anyone who merely argues for or against using a given technology without spelling out exactly what criteria go into (or are being ignored in) making that recommendation is not to be trusted without further investigation.

Okay, enough revision for now. Stay tuned for Part B, where I'll talk about some of the political, cultural, and ideological forces at work in discussions about educational technology, including those that are ostensibly concerned with student learning.


Anonymous said...

You talk a lot and say nothing.

Richard said...


I like the post, but wonder if the definition of technology is too broad, undermining its ability to explain anything? I like the definition offered by Marshall McLuhan that technology is the "extension of the human." Thus some of your examples make sense and others less so. I don't really see an athletic field or a teacher certification process as technology, but do see the advantages of expanding our notion of technology beyond the idea of computers and other electronic/digital devices.

As to how we measure the effective use of technology, I understand the obvious choice of standardized tests, but wonder if a broader conceptualization of their positive and negative effects would be more profitable. Illich argued in Tools of Conviviality that we should find ways to ensure that technology improves our collective lives, rather than simply increasing efficiency and serving as forces of power and control. I think the same question should be asked of educational technology: does it improve the lives of children and what they learn in school or in fact simply push us away from the primary task of education (though not schooling), which is to help children grow individually, socially and, in a Dewean spirit, politically.


The Tablet PC In Education Blog said...

Interesting musing. Thanks for the revisions. It remains that increased learning exists as the only necessary criterion for using any technology in a U.S. public school. Without more learning than through street trial-and-error, schools exist as some other social function, however important to any individual or entity. Yes?