Philosophies of Technology – Technological determinism

This post forms part of a series, where I am attempting to identify my philosophies around teaching and technology, and reflect on the impact it has on my instructional design, as detailed in my initial post.

This third part of the series is focused on the philosophy of technological determinism.

Kanuka’s (2008) summary for a definition of technological determinism is explained as:  “Within this orientation [of technological determinism], technologies are viewed as causal agents determining our uses and having a pivotal role in social change.”  So to me, this implies that the technology itself is the focal point of the learner’s education.  Kanuka then goes on to explain that technological determinism is typically aligned with negative views of technology in education, to the extent that it actually harms the learning process, rather than supports.  Views on this point by Noble, et. al. (1998)  have been discussed by Kanuka where she says:

Noble and colleagues (Noble, 1991; Noble, Shneiderman, Herman, Agre, & Denning, 1998) have written extensively on the relationships between distance-delivered e-learning and de-professionalization of the academy.  These scholars are concerned about the erosion of academic freedom, and thus they are aggressive critics arguing that the expansion of distance-delivered e-learning as a leading-edge movement to commercialize education will work to de-professionalize faculty members and erode academic freedom (e.g., Noble, 1998).

Another view from a range of scholars as described by Kanuka question:

modern technologies and many condemn technology for disseminating an onslaught of incoherent and fragmented trivialities to the world at the expense of engagement, reflectivity, and depth.  They also argue that modern technologies and growing neoliberalism are creating a rising capitalistic climate that includes political-economic interests such as comodification, commercialization, and corporatization of education.

Ouch.  I wonder what they would make of my ranting here on my blog about their ideas – fragmented trivialities? 🙂  So from what I understand, those who are technological determinists are generally considered to be the ‘negative nellys’  – those who believe technology is the root cause of de-professionalism, erosion of academic freedom, and the proliferation of surface rather than deep learning.

Well this is certainly not me.  Thankfully, Kanuka continues:

The assumption underpinning these views is that technology determines our uses and impacts society – in a negative way.  Although not often given the label of technological determinist, scholars who view technology as influencing our education systems in positive ways also hold the same assumption that technology determines our uses and impacts society, but in a beneficial way.  In the area of e-learning, for example, Garrison and Anderson (2003) assert that educational technologies can transform the learning experiences in positive ways, resulting in increasing the quality of learning experiences.

So, while not typically identified as technological determinists, there are groups that share the view that technology determines our uses and impacts society, but instead in positive rather than negative ways.  Don’t you just love how people like to work in black and white, right and wrong.  Perhaps, just perhaps technology can be a negative or positive influence or even both, depending on the context.

Kanuka through her literature survey identifies a few examples of where technology as a causal agent has had a positive influence over education.  One in particular:

For example, Lapadat (2002) argues that with asynchronous text-based Internet technology, learners have the means to compose their ideas and thoughts into a written form of communication.  This, according to Garrison and Anderson, provides learners with the ability to critically reflect on their views, which is necessary for higher-ordered learning.

I wonder how using asynchronous text-based Internet technology for composing ideas and thoughts into a written form of communication is any different or any better to writing on a piece of paper?  Surely a learner can reflect just as well with pen and paper as they can with Internet technology?  Of course, using Internet technology can offers a significant sized audience and may cause one to think carefully about what they choose to write.  You would think this would apply to me. 😀  Then there is the following point where Kanuka adds:

As these examples illustrate, both advocates and opponents of e-learning believe that e-learning technologies determine the uses and the agents.  In less bi-polar positions, this orientation also asserts that the effects of new media (e.g., social software) has influenced post-modern ideas.  Poster (1997), for example, puts forth the notion that the Internet has instantiated new forms of interaction and power relations between users, resulting in significant social impacts.  Nguyen and Alexander (1996) assert further that the Internet has produced new realities in our everyday lives.

It is the social aspects of Internet technology that is really making a positive contribution to education.

Kanuka concludes with the following which highlights the shortcomings of technological determinism as:

This one-dimensional view of technology suffers similar logistical problems with the uses- and social-determinist orientations.  Educators positioning themselves from a one-dimensional view of the impact of technology perceive the properties of a particular technology as having the ability to predetermine educcational outcomes.  Little, if any, attention is given to the effects of educational, social, and historical forces that have shaped both educational systems and educational technologies.

I this Kanuka makes a very good point here in that all these philosophies are very much one-dimensional, narrowly focused and oversimplified.  There are so many factors at play in education.  I can’t say that I subscribe to any one of these philosophies as an educator, although I will need to reflect on this further.  Something else that strikes me is that discussion around the positive or negative aspects of technology is focused on distance education and e-learning. It is as though technology and distance education are exclusively intertwined and not relevant for other modes of study such as face-to-face.

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.