Saturday, September 13, 2008

Technology in education: a ground-map, part a

For this month's "Monthly Forum" (yes I know I'm late to start), 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.

Allow me to do some "thinking out loud" here.

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

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, by certain people who call themselves "scientists," or by policy-makers. Science clearly has a role in education 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.

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 technologies 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. On this expanded notion of technology, we can say that "schooling" is the application of technology to make mass education possible, affordable, and effective.

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

Like all technologies, each item on the list I just generated can be critiqued from several different perspectives, or using many different criteria. Among such criteria include efficiency, effectiveness, humanity, cost-effectiveness, opportunity costs, ease-of-use, standardizability (are they applied in consistent manner), teachability (can teachers/administrators/students learn to use them), fairness, various aesthetic criteria of beautify and "fit," conformity to public values of all kinds, carbon footprint, etc. etc.

Indeed, 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.

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 schooling. Most commonly, we refer to digital technologies such as computers, networks, software, digital cameras, interactive whiteboards, peripherals, etc.

Other ways to delineate a subset of technologies to be referred to are certain critical perspectives (such as those of Foucault or Michael Apple) which talk about "technologies of control." Surely these perspectives are justified in referring to technologies, just as much as the common person is justified 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.

Perhaps the common approach,then, is to limit "technology" to those tools and approaches that are not yet universal (or nearly universal) in their application to schools. "Technology," then, is a euphemism for "things that we're still trying to decide whether we need," or "things that only some schools can currently afford."

I guess what I'm saying is, the question of what we MEAN by "technology" is a political one, that perhaps anteceeds questions about the use of any particular technologies in any particular situation.

Okay, I will come back later to continue.....

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