Philosophies of Technology – Uses determinism

As part of my studies, I have been asked to identify my philosophies around teaching and technology, and reflect on the impact it has on my instructional design. We have been asked to read Kanuka (2008) as a source of information on various teaching and technology philosophies, and how they are often aligned.

I have to say upfront that I found this article incredibly difficult to read.  Kanuka’s writing style is very abstract and with absence of any concrete examples on which to relate to my own experiences.  Actually, there were a few analogies that were quoted from other authors.  This did help a little to understand the point she was trying to make.  So I have decided first to try and reflect on what I have read and see if I can explain in my own words, her definition of the 3 types technological philosophies relating to education:  uses determinism, social determinism, and technological determinism.

First cab off the rank is uses determinism.

Kanuka’s lead in sentence states:

In its simplest sense, this position [of uses determinism] emphasizes technological uses and focuses on the ways in which we use technologies within learning and teaching transactions.  In this approach, technologies are perceived as neutral tools and are simply devices that extend our capacities.

So the basis of uses determinism is that technology is nothing more than a tool that is used by learners to learn.  Kanuka goes on to say:  “As users, we determine the effects of technological artefacts.”

So my understanding is that uses determinism postulates that in designing technological artefacts for learning, the designer can create a learning environment with deterministic outcomes unaffected by the technology itself.

This view is elaborated through an analogy by Jonassen where she quotes from a paper written in 1996:  “‘carpenters use their tools to build things; the tools do not control the carpenter.  Similarly, computers should be used as tools for helping learners build knowledge; they should not control the leaner’ (p.4).”  Kanuka introduces another analogy by Clark with “In his writings, Clark claims, in part, that technologies are ‘mere vehicles that deliver instruction but do not influence student achievement any more than the truck that delivers our groceries causes changes in our nutrition’ (1983, p.445).”

To me, these views/ideas seem quite bold, something Kanuka addresses later in the article where she states:

In particular, viewing e-learning technology as a neutral tool assumes that there is a technological fix for an educational problem.  This instrumentalist line of thinking assumes that technologies exist without social or political origins, and that uses and users are the casual agents in the production of social action (Lacroix & Tremblay, 1997) – often celebrating unconstrained consumer sovereignty, and resulting in instrumentalism and/or structuralism (Golding & Murdock, 2000).  The problem with instrumentalism is that there is an inclination to place emphasis upon the intentionality of agents, with an unbalanced focus on the interactions between the actors and the technologies.  As a result, educators tend to narrowly focus on the role of the agents and disregard the broader social structures and/or technological artefacts’ effects on the learning outcomes, leading to explanations that overemphasize the power and autonomy of actors.

Wow, this was quite a morsel to digest. 🙂  My interpretation is that the idea of uses determinism takes a simplistic view of technology as a tool and does not match real world complexity, especially in the years that have past since the ideas of Clark and Jonassen were published.  Especially today where such technology provides such a wealth of information and opportunities to share and collaborate with others.  There are so many aspects of modern day technology that is beyond the control of any one entity.  How do you control the actions of others using the same technology for example?  Equating modern day technology to a hammer is a gross oversimplification.

Kanuka concludes her discussion of uses determinism by saying that:  “The belief that individual actors have complete control over the effects of a technological artefact is a misguided and naive assumption.”  I would have to concur with that conclusion.  Uses determinism would not be my technology philosophy for learning.

The next instalment is discussion on social determinism.

KANUKA, H. (2008) Understanding eLearning Technologies-in-Practice Throgh Philosophies-in-Practice. IN ANDERSON, T. (Ed.) The Theory and Practice of Online Learning. 2nd ed. Edmonton, AU Press.

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