Is technology a neutral tool or does it have implications for fundamental questions about curriculum studies & the mission, vision, values and goals of contemporary educational institutions? How does technology shape our schools, curricula, teachers, students and leaders? With the growth of technology integration, blended learning, online learning and a myriad of applications of technology in education; this paper provides a set of definitions and three starting points for deeper reflection about such questions, considering the affordances and limitations of technology in modern education, challenging scholars and practitioners to consider the values amplified and minimized by various technological decisions.
Technology is Values Laden
If you ever attended a presentation on educational technology, there is a good chance that you heard the presenter make the comment, “It is not about the technology.” Such presenters usually continue by claiming that, “technology is just a tool.” This tool-based approach to describing technology makes intuitive sense, but it also risks missing several important facts about the role of technology in life and learning. As a result, following is a definition of technology that has promise to serve us in thinking more deeply about the nature and role of technology in education, as well as give us an important clarification about a philosophy of educational technology.
If technology is just a tool, what is a tool? Here is one common definition: “a device or implement, especially one held in the hand, used to carry out a particular function: ‘gardening tools’ (Oxford English Dictionary Online, 2015). In other words, specific tools are created for specific uses and not other ones, they have biases toward some applications and away from others. What would it mean for us to claim that a hammer is just a tool, and that it all depends upon how we use it? By this, we might mean that it is not the fault of the hammer if someone happens to use it to hit another person on the head. However, most hammers are created to hit things. In fact, different hammers are created to hit different things. While it is not the intent of a hammer to hit a person on the head, one is more likely to do that with unpleasant results than if the same person were holding a pillow. This is why we are more comfortable letting small children play with pillows than we are with hammers.
This example has other important elements. Some hammers have intended uses beyond hitting things as well. A ball-peen hammer, for example, was not created for the same purpose as a carpenter’s hammer. Or consider the fact that a gavel, a judge’s hammer, is mostly a communication tool. Imagine using a gavel to help build a birdhouse, or a judge opting to use a sledgehammer instead of a gavel. While it might reinforce the judge’s authority, it might also put a hole in the desk.
Is technology neutral? Is it just about how a person uses the technology? Or does the design of the technology itself impact how one uses it? The hammer illustrations seem to reveal that technologies have affordances (benefits) and limitations, a concept articulated more fully in several of Neil Postman’s texts (1985, 1992, 1995). Technology makes certain things possible and more likely. As a result, when something is more possible, we tend to think about that possibility. Sitting in front of a block of concrete that needs removal with a ball-peen hammer in one’s hand will not lead most of us to start chipping the pavement. Sitting in the same place with a sledgehammer is far more likely to lead and inspire one to think about taking a swing. The affordances of a technology lead us to consider possibilities that were otherwise hidden. Similarly, technologies have limitations. The limitations of that ball-peen hammer includes the fact that it is not an especially useful tool for a person needing to break up a concrete block.
Perhaps a different definition will help us think more broadly about technology in life and learning. Technology can be understood as applied systematic knowledge. We discover something, learn about how it works or functions, and then use that knowledge to design a tool or collection of tools to help solve one or more real-world problems. That design is a technology, knowledge applied to meet a need in the world. A carpenter needs to find a way to attach different types of wood. As human knowledge progressed, people invented nails and hammers as technologies to help accomplish such tasks. To say that hammers and nails are just neutral tools would not make sense in this context. The tool was created to solve a specific problem. Hammers like nails more than screws. It is not just about how the wielder of the hammer desires to use it. Regardless of the user’s skill or intent, hammering screws will produce unhelpful results. If an uninformed aspiring carpenter sought to ignore such facts, the results of trying to drive a screw into two pieces of wood would have an evident and qualitatively different end.
There are important exceptions to this. It is possible to “hack” a problem with a hammer, a term with new connotations in some aspects of popular culture (Urban Dictionary, 2015). A hacker can be seen as a person who uses technologies and resources in unexpected and often creative ways, using a tool to solve a problem for which it was not intended. One might, for example, use three hammers to entertain someone by showing how a skilled person can juggle them. One might be locked in a room and use an available hammer to break out of the room.
While it is possible to ignore the intended purpose of a given technology, things do not always work out. We might fail in these efforts, or we might succeed only to find one or more unintended consequences. One can use a sledgehammer to solve a finish carpentry problem, but it might leave a few more dents and scratches than if one used the tool designed for the job.
Implications for Education
What does this extended example have to do with education and schooling in a technological age? Following are three potential applications. First, our definition of technology is too narrow, not leading us to consider the full impact of our technological decisions in schools. Second, if technologies have intended uses, we are wise to get informed about those uses, learning about the affordances and limitations of the technologies in our schools and lives. Third, current educational technologies are not as simple as the hammer example. Their intended uses are not as transparent. However, thoughtful reflection can help us to make wise decisions.
Broadening Our Definition
If we accepted the proposal of a broader definition for technology, that it is applied systematic knowledge, we soon discover ourselves surrounded by technologies, even in what we otherwise thought as the most low-tech school or classroom. While many think of technology in terms of computers, this broader definition invites us to think about thousands of educational technologies in our schools: bell schedules, pens, school desks, the configuration of classrooms, school architecture, grading systems, lesson plan templates, textbooks, curricula, even school policies and classroom management models. Inventors of such things gathered existing knowledge on the subject, organized it, and designed something to address a specific problem. Of course, technology also includes things like the Internet and the devices we use to connect to it, interactive whiteboards, cell phones, and web-based software and tools.
This broader definition of technology shows that educational technology and schools are inseparable. There are few examples of schools today that do not make heavy use of educational technology. Even the way that we separate subjects is a technology. Consider the fact that many study social studies as a distinct subject from science, math separate from language arts, and art separate from physical education. These are inventions and conventions, not discoveries. They are taxonomies and organizational systems to help us categorize knowledge. This leaves us with a significant challenge and opportunity to better understand how all these technologies influence the mission, vision, values, and goals of a given learning community.
Exploring Intended Uses, Affordances and Limitations
With this broad definition of educational technology, we have the challenge and opportunity for reflection and study about the intended uses, affordances and limitations of them. Interestingly, there are no books (books, by the way, are an educational technology) that address the broad spectrum of school technologies in this way. We are often left to do our own homework (homework, by the way, is also an educational technology). Such an exercise is not something that is easily addressed by reading a quick resource on the subject. Instead, we find ourselves needing to research, to find lesser-known and referenced resources. Consider, for example, the fact that the contemporary letter grade system is, in the big picture, a young technology. Scan resources on the history of letter grades, and we find claims that they were first used in the United States in the early to middle 19th century (Cureton, 1971). Prior to that, much American education did not use the letter grade system. Taking the example of the educational technology known as the letter grade system, we then have the challenge of figuring out the intended use of the letter grade system, reflecting on the affordances of such a system, as well as the limitations of it. Only when we engage in such work do we begin to discover how this technology helps and hinders our deepest beliefs and values associated with schools in a specific time and location.
Neil Postman, a prolific author and social critic from the twentieth century, suggested that one ask the question, “What is the problem to which this technology is the solution” (Postman, 2007)? Consider that question with the grading system. What problem was the grading system created to solve? Does that problem still exist today? Is it the best solution available to us? Are there potentially alternative solutions that better align with our distinct mission, vision, values and goals in education?
Complexity with Technology & Education
This concept of affordances and limitations is distinct from asking about what is good or bad. This study of the affordances and limitations recognizes that there are always benefits and limits to any technology. No single technology is free from downsides. As such, it becomes important to spend time in reflection, study, and collaboration with colleagues that helps us become more informed about these matters. For example, using devices connected to the Internet as part of formal schooling can be justified in many ways. We return to Neil Postman’s question, “What is the problem to which this technology is the solution?” I will add a second question to that, “What are the possibilities made available by this technology?” Asking these and similar questions to educators, learners and other stakeholders is likely to produce different answers. We might hear responses like:
- Using such tools and technology is an important public relations and marketing strategy so that people see us as providing a comparable education to the public schools.
- It gives us access to an unprecedented amount of free resources.
- It helps us equip students for the nature of life in a connected world.
- It allows us to create more customized and personalized learning experiences for students, which further helps us embrace our call to meet the unique needs of each learner and not teach all learners as if they were the same.
- It engages students who grew up in the digital world.
- It allows us to connect with people and resources around the world, discovering more diverse perspectives and ideas in the world.
One need not agree with each of these reasons, but these are the types of affordances that people might point to when thinking about the adoption of a given technology or set of educational technologies. Getting informed about such affordances allows for my thoughtful decisions. Similarly, it is beneficial to recognize the limitations and the biases associated with them. Sticking with the example of devices connected to the Internet, people might share one or more of the following limitations:
- It is expensive and takes away from investments in other aspects of education.
- It exposes young people to inappropriate content and resources.
- It can turn the classroom into something that focuses on “bells and whistles” and less on the important skills and content.
- It leads to classroom management problems.
- It contributes to young people who are more connected to devices than they are to people in front of them.
- It promotes a digital divide between students with rich technology resources at home and those who do not have Internet access in their homes.
Again, the items in these incomplete lists are debatable. Nonetheless, they help us become more informed and intentional about our choices.
It is less advisable to rush ahead with educational technologies, while labeling those with questions and concerns as Luddites or self-serving. Read about the history of writing, and we find grave concerns from people like Socrates, who believed that writing would dull the memory. Of course, it was writing that allows us to even know that Socrates supposedly made such a claim. Yet, Socrates was correct. The art of memory is less prevalent and emphasized by people today (Foer, 2011). That is an accurate limitation of embracing such a technology. Nonetheless, most Americans are likely to find that the affordances of writing as a technology outweigh the limitations. In other words, we move forward in the reflective and thoughtful use of technologies, but do not move forward blindly or uninformed. We listen and learn from different perspectives, carefully considering affordances and limitations.
Even with such careful study, there can be unexpected consequences to educational technology decisions. As noted before, there are always benefits and limitations. Over time these unexpected consequences become apparent to us. Consider the massive media about the failed 2013 Ipad initiative in the Los Angeles public schools. This is a well-resourced team of decision-makers, and yet several challenges emerged that led them to cancel the program and collect all of the iPads they had recently distributed to each student (Gilbertson, 2014).
Given the inevitability of unexpected consequences, how do we prepare for this? This brings us back to the mission, vision, values and goals of the school. With any new innovation or educational technology adoption, it becomes important to start with a plan to collect data about how things are going, what is working well, what is not working well. In other words, the challenge of examining the affordances and limitations is not simply something that we do in advance of adopting a new technology. It is important to continue to explore this, even as we adopt and use a given technology. Consider the following questions and how a school or teacher might go about collecting data on these questions in an ongoing way. In conclusion, following are some potential questions for ongoing reflections about the many educational technologies that already shape the nature of life and learning in most American schools.
- What is working and what is not?
- If there are problems, it is inherent to the technology, or is to more related to how we are using it?
- Are we noticing any unexpected consequences?
- How is this helping to increase student learning?
- What inequities are minimized or amplified?
- How is it helping us to pursue the mission, vision, values and goals?
- How is this technology changing the way that teachers teach and students learn? What are the benefits and drawbacks to these changes?
- What is this technology amplifying and what it is minimizing?
- Are the benefits worth the cost of this investment?
- What adjustments could be made to make this work better?
- Are there any students who are not benefitting or are being harmed from this new technology adoption?