What To Ask About Technology

(or...and now for something completely different)

Hank Bromley
State University of New York at Buffalo

Background and conceptual matters

My own efforts concerning technology in education center on the social and cultural issues connected to its development and use. Although I have a background in technical matters (MIT undergraduate degree in computer science and several years of work in academic and corporate AI research efforts before beginning grad school in "educational policy studies"), I focus primarily on the context of the technology presence in education.The social processes related to technological practice (both in and out of schools) are, I would suggest, a significant site--indeed, one of the most significant sites at present--for the playing out of perennial matters of power, privilege, social regulation, and (at least potentially) social change.

Accordingly, I (and a merry little band of like-minded colleagues--see Bromley & Shutkin, 1998, and Bromley & Apple, 1998, for recent compilations of such work) draw from discussions of technology in the broader field of "Science and Technology Studies," or STS. One might characterize STS as striving to understand technology (and science, though that will concern us less here) as a social endeavor, emerging out of particular institutional settings, and mutually shaping and shaped by society. A rigid separation between "the technical" and "the social" is presumed by many educators. STS, on the other hand, insists that while technology may have certain distinctive characteristics, it may be studied and understood through the same means as other human activities.

In so doing, STS counters two common myths in discourse about technology: technological determinism--the notion that technology is an autonomous, external force, inexorably driving society along some path we cannot alter, and technological neutralism--the notion that technology is a "neutral tool" that may be freely applied toward whatever ends we choose. Each of these myths presumes a one-way governing relationship between technology and society, in one direction or the other. And both myths are rampant (despite their incompatible implications) in discussion, both scholarly and popular, of educational technology.

STS offers instead a view of technology and society as mutually constituting. Portraying technology either as reflecting the social (technological neutralism) or as affecting the social (technological determinism) effectively prohibits public deliberation on what sort of technology is to exist and how it is to be deployed--because conscious social direction is unnecessary in one case, and impossible in the other. As an alternative, one can say that technology is social; if dividing the two leads to a forced choice between debilitatingly myopic one-way causal models, let us instead think of them as a complex unity, bound in a perpetual cycle of creating and re-creating themselves and each other. (See Bromley, 1997, for an effort to address the conceptual difficulties of sorting out this relationship in the particular case of educational technology.) At each moment, consequential choices are being made, conditioned, or partly constrained by what has already occurred, yet always with some range of possibilities still accessible; and each choice introduces new constraints and new possibilities for what is to follow. Every ostensibly "technical" decision about the design or deployment of an artifact is at the very same time a social decision, informed by the current social context and simultaneously altering that context; every such decision, whether made by developer or user, implicitly enacts a new social contract superseding its predecessors.

We tend, however, to wander through those decision points unawares. Langdon Winner notes that popular commentary on technology is often deterministic, framing social change as the inevitable consequence of relentless and autonomous technological development, despite the fact that choices do exist, decisions are made. Consequently we proceed trancelike, oblivious to the new social contracts we ourselves implicitly enact by adopting a given technology (Winner, 1986, pp. 5-10). Winner applies the term "technological somnambulism" to this practice of "willingly sleepwalk[ing] through the process of reconstituting the conditions of human existence" (p. 10).

So how might we, as educators and as members of the multiple communities we all belong to, intervene? How can we interrupt our own and others' sleepwalking? Following are a set of questions that may help (adapted from Bromley, 1998).

Technology-driven or curriculum-driven?

Rather than starting with a determination of what we want schooling to accomplish, an educational vision, and then examining how technology might be used to achieve those goals, computing initiatives are unfortunately most often based on the attitude "this technology exists, we've got to have it." The first of my recommended questions, then, is:

1. Why is this initiative even occurring? In particular, is it technology-driven (based on a perceived need to have the latest technology) or curriculum-driven (based on a careful discussion of educational goals, and of what means are lacking in order to reach those goals)?

As a result of being a technology-driven initiative, putting computers in public schools has all too often meant getting more of the same, only automated: electronic workbooks, computerized tracking of student "progress," etc.

The prospect of "more technology for schools" is self-evidently desirable, and efforts to raise questions--even merely saying "use the same judgment here you would in any other situation"--are perceived as anti-technology statements. Because of the a priori presumption that the addition of new technologies brings automatic benefits, skepticism appears simply irrational and is therefore dismissed without consideration.

In such a context, a serious examination of what social visions are built into--and in turn enacted by--a given technology is hardly likely.

Technology as carrier of social relations

But such an examination, in both the context of a technology's development and the context of its use, is exactly what is needed.

Consider the distance learning classrooms being built at many colleges and universities. The need to capture the sights and sounds of the classroom with camera and microphone is sometimes met through constraining the location and movement of classroom participants and furniture, thereby limiting the form of pedagogy to a very traditional delivery of information, conveyed from an authority-invested instructor positioned at the front of the room to rows of passively absorbent students (Waltz, 1998). This is a fine example of the non-neutrality of technology: such classrooms impose a particular conception of learning and form of pedagogy. (See Hodas, 1993, for a parallel argument regarding Integrated Learning Systems.)

The question raised by this example is what sort of "baggage" comes along with a given technology:

2. What social visions are built into--and in turn enacted by--a given technology? Does it enforce particular forms of pedagogy, or of classroom organization? Does it impose a certain conception of knowledge or of the learning process? Is it compatible only with particular views of what education is for?

As David Noble has put it, technology is "hardened history, frozen fragments of human and social endeavor" (Noble, 1984, p. xi). The work done by its developers in fashioning a technology--based on whatever they conceive to be "natural" and "appropriate"--is given durable form in the technology itself. What social relations they took for granted will tend to persist wherever the technology propagates. Such tendencies can, of course, be overridden by those who use the technology, but it may not be easy.

Consider the popular "Instructional Management System" marketed by Abacus Educational Systems. This performance-monitoring and report-generating software package is intended to assist with curriculum design, lesson planning, test generation and scoring, classroom-level record-keeping, and building and districtwide performance evaluation. It integrates all these tasks via basing instruction on lengthy lists of simple, specific objectives. Student progress is continually monitored on a check-off basis, "yes" or "no" on each objective, and these results are readily aggregated to any level of interest, at any time. But if adopted, the Abacus package does far more than "assist" with these pedagogical and administrative tasks; it will in fact determine important aspects of the educational process by constraining the form of instructional objectives. The content of the objectives may be freely specified by each district--so long as the objectives are uniform across the entire district, and student mastery of each objective can be expressed as a simple "yes" or "no," as determined by computer-scored, multiple-choice tests.

The adoption of such a system clearly creates enormous pressure for adhering to certain educational philosophies rather than others. What if, for instance, a teacher felt (as I do regarding my own university teaching) the most important thing for students to learn was how to ask good questions? Where would that fit into this scheme?

The Abacus system is understandably attractive to many upper-level administrators, because it addresses pressures they face to provide "accountability" for district performance, in a seemingly precise fashion. But in turn, the operation of the system passes those same pressures along to subordinate administrators and classroom teachers. In other words, the Abacus system is a piece of technology which is shaped by particular social pressures, so as to embody particular views on how schooling ought be conducted, and then constrains users of the system to act in accordance with those views.

The context of use

Alongside the question of what assumptions are built into a given technology, what social relations it embodies, it is equally important to consider the context in which it is used. A full understanding of why a particular piece of technology is or is not used, or why it is used in particular ways or has a particular impact, is unlikely to be achieved without careful attention to that context, the subject of the next question:

3. How is the context of use likely to shape the way this technology is employed? Who is using it, why, toward what ends, under what conditions and pressures, with what supporting resources?

I am currently involved in a research project at a local school, where it has become apparent that such contextual factors as an unfavorable student-to-teacher ratio help determine the mode of classroom computer use. The staff at this particular school are committed to fully integrating the computer into the curriculum, rather than treating it as some sort of extraneous add-on. But given that there are too few adults in the classroom to meet the diverse needs of the students, teachers sometimes find they must resort to using the computer as a reward for good behavior, and withdrawing access as a punishment for non-cooperation. In the immediate situation, the teacher gets compliance and the student gets some experience with the technology. But ultimately, this practice interferes with integrating the computer into the curriculum, and students become habituated to a "carrot-and-stick" model of social interaction--even though no one involved seeks these outcomes.

What is the context of technology use in higher education? One central feature of the current setting is intense economic pressure. With the administrative response to this pressure now transforming nearly every aspect of university operations, we should expect it to influence the use of technology, as well. Administrators everywhere--with varying degrees of faculty resistance--rely increasingly on part-time faculty, outsourcing schemes, ancillary revenue sources, and a general embrace of business-oriented thinking.

In an environment where students are "customers," knowledge is a "product," faculty are "human resources" or "content providers," and administrators are pre-occupied with expanding their "market share," how is technology likely to be employed? Surely in efforts to enhance the revenue stream by increasing enrollment, packaging knowledge as a salable commodity, and limiting (and rendering more "flexible") the cost of personnel. (For a fuller examination of these trends and their meaning, see Winner, 1997, and Noble, 1998.) Broadcasting instruction via video while capturing it for later re-use (with or without the participation of the original faculty), or transferring it to the World Wide Web (facilitating not only re-use but the addition of paid advertising) fit this agenda admirably.

Of course, the existence of such an agenda by no means guarantees its fulfillment. Competing agendas--often promoted by faculty and students--can prevail, as demonstrated by last year's faculty strike at York University in Toronto (Noble, 1998). But regardless of the outcome, the point here is simply that if one wishes to understand technology in use, studying the context of that use--the complex web of relationships already inhabiting the site--is crucial.

From whose perspective?

Another consideration often overlooked is how people in different social positions can have very different experiences with the same technology. Rather than ask whether a particular use of technology is a good idea,we need to ask "good for whom?". Who benefits (and in what ways), and who doesn't?

In the case of K-12 instructional use of computers, broad statistical portraits consistently disclosed systematic inequities throughout the 1980s and early 90s (reviewed in Sutton, 1991). Although these inequities may have begun to diminish in recent years, that they persisted for so long--and in some respects, still do--indicates definite blind spots in our thinking. Throughout this period, measurements of computer use both in and out of school, at all ages, in several countries, found less access for girls, as well as for students of color, children from low-income families, and students labeled "low-ability." And the type of use varied along the same lines: even when students from these groups were provided access to computers, they were disproportionately engaged with drill-and-practice software, "mastery" learning of decontextualized basic skills, and vocational training in the use of specific software, while boys, white students, middle-class children, and students labeled "high-ability" were disproportionately involved with open-ended simulations, integrated applications, and programming. (For a current point of comparison, see Gartner, 1998, reporting that "Internet access initiatives...may actually increase the gulf between high- and low-achieving students, rather than act as an equalizer," even with equal access, because of differences in the kinds of activities engaged in.)

In effect, some students were learning how to direct the new technology while others were learning how to be directed by it. The already advantaged became more so, adding yet another domain to their list of advantages. The computer, introduced partly in hopes of creating new opportunities for all children, by and large made things worse, even when everyone got to use it.

The final question, then, is:

4. Disaggregate the impact; do not limit your view to the effects on the most visible or most powerful persons. How are groups of people in different structural locations likely to be affected differently by this initiative? Who will be helped, and how; who will be harmed, and how?

The Abacus system discussed earlier provides another example of a single technology having notably different effects on different people, according to their structural location. In this case, a tool that can ease the burden on some administrators can simultaneously hinder the work of other administrators and of teachers. The changes transforming higher education obviously entail similarly uneven consequences.

Regardless of how the lines are drawn, there are always varying needs and interests; it is therefore always necessary to "disaggregate" the question of a given technology's impact.


The answers to questions such as the four discussed here--if asked--would underscore, despite our culture's disinclination, the fundamentally social nature of the technology at issue, a prerequisite to any meaningful effort to determine its role in our lives.


Bromley, H. (1997). The social chicken and the technological egg: Educational computing and the technology/society divide. Educational Theory, 47(1), 51-65.

Bromley, H. (1998). What awakens a sleepwalker?: Advice I'd like from Langdon Winner. Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, 18(5), 374-79.

Bromley, H., & Apple, M.W. (Eds.). (1998). Education/technology/power: Educational computing as a social practice. Albany: SUNY Press.

Bromley, H., and Shutkin, D.S. (Eds.). (1998). Special issue of Educational Policy on Social Power, Science & Technology, and Education, 12(5).

Gartner, J. (1998). Net access may increase inequalities. TechWeb, May 11 (no page numbers). Available at http://www.techweb.com/news/story/TWB19980511S0017/.

Hodas, S. (1993). Technology refusal and the organizational culture of schools. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 1(10) (no page numbers). Available at http://olam.ed.asu.edu/epaa/v1n10.html.

Noble, D.F. (1984). Forces of production: A social history of industrial automation. New York: Knopf.

Noble, D.F. (1998). Digital diploma mills: The automation of higher education. First Monday, 3(1) (no page numbers). Available at http://www.firstmonday.dk/issues/issue3_1/noble/index.html.

Sutton, R.E. (1991). Equity and computers in the schools: A decade of research. Review of Educational Research, 61(4), 475-503.

Waltz, S.B. (1998). Distance learning classrooms: A critique. Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, 18(3), 208-216.

Winner, L. (1986). The whale and the reactor: A search for limits in an age of high technology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Winner, L. (1997). The handwriting on the wall: Resisting technoglobalism's assault on education. In Marita Moll (ed.), Tech high: Globalization and the future of Canadian education. Ottawa: Fernwood. Also available at http://www.rpi.edu/~winner/queens2.html.

Hank Bromley
State University of New York at Buffalo

E-mail: hbromley@acsu.buffalo.edu

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