devising a model for technology in education: my version of writer’s block



I believe the following principles to hold true:

  • Human goals are mediated by, and thenceforth only achieved through, the widespread adoption and use of new technologies.*
  • Human purposes for adopting and making use of new technologies are often highly individualized (though nearly always aligned with an affinity group, even if that group is not explicitly named and even if that group is not comprised of other members of the learning community).
  • While no educational researcher is qualified to articulate achievable goals for another human, the researcher is ethically obligated to support learners in articulating, and achieving, ethical educational goals.
  • The efficacy and success of new technologies can be measured through multiple lenses, among which only one is the achievement of mainstream educational goals as articulated and assessed through traditional, often standardized, measurement tools.

If you (a) know me, (b) follow me on Twitter or a similar social network, or (c) read my blog, you know that being at a loss for something to say just doesn’t happen to me. (On the one hand, this makes me perfectly suited to social media, blogging, and academia; on the other hand, it means I’ll mouth off about the social revolution in nearly any social situation.)

But for weeks now, I’ve been trying to devise a model to represent the role of computational technologies in education. And for weeks, I’ve been failing miserably. Here’s the closest I’ve come:

As you can see, this model is incomplete. I was in the middle of drawing an arrow from that word “technology” to something else when I realized that this model would never, ever do. So I tried to approach modelling from other perspectives. I tried backing my way in, by thinking of technologies metaphorically; I’ve tried presenting technology integration in the form of a decision tree. Which is fine, except that these don’t really work as models.

And I have to come up with a model. I do. Though I don’t often mention this, I’m not actually only a blogger. In real life, I’m a graduate student in Indiana University’s Learning Sciences Program. Because I believe in the value of public intellectual discourse, I’ve chosen to present as much of my coursework as possible on my blog or through other public, persistent and searchable communications platforms.

I will, at some future point, discuss the challenges and benefits of living up to this decision. For now, you guys, I just need to come up with a goddam model that I can live with.

I tried thinking of technologies as sleeping policemen; or, in other words, as objects that mediate our thoughts and actions and that have both intended and unintended consequences. This was a reaction to a set of readings including a chunk of Bonnie Nardi’s and Vicki O’Day’s 1999 book, Information Ecology: Using Technology with Heart; a Burbules & Callister piece from the same year, “The Risky Promises and Promising Risks of New Information Technologies for Education”; and Stahl & Hesse’s 2009 piece, “Practice perspectives in CSCL.” The theme of these writings was: We need to problematize dominant narratives about the role of technologies in education. Burbules & Callister categorize these narratives as follows:

  • computer as panacea (“New technologies will solve everything!”)
  • computer as [neutral] tool (“Technologies have no purpose built into them, and can be used for good or evil!”)
  • computer as [nonneutral] tool (the authors call this “(a) slightly more sophisticated variant” on the “computer as tool perspective”)
  • balanced approach to computer technologies (neither panacea nor tool, but resources with intended and unintended social consequences)

Nardi & O’Day, who basically agree with the categories identified above, argue for the more nuanced approach that they believe emerges when we think of technologies as ecologies, a term which they explain is

intended to evoke an image of biological ecologies with their complex dynamics and diverse species and opportunistic niches for growth. Our purpose in using the ecology metaphor is to foster thought and discussion, to stimulate conversations for action…. [T]he ecology metaphor provides a distinctive, powerful set of organizing properties around which to have conversations. The ecological metaphor suggests several key properties of many environments
in which technology is used.

Which is all fine and dandy, except the argument that precedes and follows the above quote is so tainted by mistrust and despair over the effects of new technologies that it’s hard to imagine that even Nardi and O’Day themselves can believe they’ve presented a balanced analysis. Reading their description of techno-ecologies is kind of like reading a book about prairie dog ecologies prefaced by a sentence like “Jesus Christ I hate those freaking prairie dogs.”

So the description of technologies as sleeping policemen was an effort to step back and describe, with as much detachment as possible for an admitted technorevolutionary like me, the role of technologies in mediating human activity.

But the metaphor doesn’t really have much by way of practical use. What am I going to do, take that model into the classroom and say, well, here’s why your kids aren’t using blogs–as you can see (::points to picture of speed bump::), kids are just driving around the speed bump instead of slowing down….?

This became clear as I jumped into a consideration of so-called “intelligent tutors,” which I described briefly in a previous post. Or, well, the speed bump metaphor might work, but only if we can come up with some agreed-upon end point and also set agreed-upon rules like speed limits and driving routes. But the problem is that even though we might think we all agree on the goals of education, there’s actually tons of discord, both spoken and unspoken. We can’t even all agree that what’s sitting in the middle of that road is actually a speedbump and not, for example, a stop sign. Or a launch ramp.

The Cognitive Tutors described by Kenneth Koedinger and Albert Corbett are a nice example of this. Researchers who embrace these types of learning too
ls see them as gateways to content mastery. But if you believe, as I do, that the content students are required to master is too often slanted in favor of members of dominant groups and against the typically underprivileged, underserved, and underheard members of our society, then Cognitive Tutors start to look less like gateways and more like gatekeepers. Even the tutoring tools that lead to demonstrable gains on standard assessments, well…ya gotta believe in the tests in order to believe in the gains, right?

So I’m back to this:

A “model,” explains Wikipedia,

is a simplified abstract view of the complex reality. A scientific model represents empirical objects, phenomena, and physical processes in a logical way. Attempts to formalize the principles of the empirical sciences, use an interpretation to model reality, in the same way logicians axiomatize the principles of logic. The aim of these attempts is to construct a formal system for which reality is the only interpretation. The world is an interpretation (or model) of these sciences, only insofar as these sciences are true….

Modelling refers to the process of generating a model as a conceptual representation of some phenomenon. Typically a model will refer only to some aspects of the phenomenon in question, and two models of the same phenomenon may be essentially different, that is in which the difference is more than just a simple renaming. This may be due to differing requirements of the model’s end users or to conceptual or aesthetic differences by the modellers and decisions made during the modelling process. Aesthetic considerations that may influence the structure of a model might be the modeller’s preference for a reduced ontology, preferences regarding probabilistic models vis-a-vis deterministic ones, discrete vs continuous time etc. For this reason users of a model need to understand the model’s original purpose and the assumptions of its validity.

I’m back at the original, simple, incomplete model because I’m not ready to stand in defense of any truth claims that a more complete model might make. Even this incomplete version, though, helps me to start articulating the characteristics of any model representing the role of computational technologies in education. I believe the following principles to hold true:

  • Human goals are mediated by, and thenceforth only achieved through, the widespread adoption and use of new technologies.
  • Human purposes for adopting and making use of new technologies are often highly individualized (though nearly always aligned with an affinity group, even if that group is not explicitly named and even if that group is not comprised of other members of the learning community).
  • While no educational researcher is qualified to articulate achievable goals for another human, the researcher is ethically obligated to support learners in articulating, and achieving, ethical educational goals.
  • The efficacy and success of new technologies can be measured through multiple lenses, among which only one is the achievement of mainstream educational goals as articulated and assessed through traditional, often standardized, measurement tools.

Ok, so what do you think?

*Note: I’m kinda rethinking this one. It reads a little too deterministic to me now, a mere hour or so after I wrote it.

Related posts:

  1. using educational technology in support of the status quo
  2. the sleeping alone review of books: Opening Up Education (Part 2)
  3. technologies as sleeping policemen: or, how I learned to stop worrying and…
  4. the sleeping alone review of books: Opening Up Education
  5. the harrison bergeron approach to education: how university rankings stunt the social revolution

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