Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Nine Rules for Good Technology

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Mar 06, 2000

This Journal Article published as Nine Rules for Good Technology in The Technology Source July/August 2000 online Jul 01, 2000. [Link] [Info] [List all Publications]
This Magazine Article published as Mmm, Good technology in University Business Sept 01, 2000. [Info] [List all Publications]
This Magazine Article published as Nine Rules for Good Technology in Robin Good online Apr 04, 2004. [Link] [Info] [List all Publications]
This Book Chapter published as Nine Rules for Good Technology in The CyberUnion Handbook: Transforming Labor through Computer Technology, by Arthur B. Shostak, et al., M.E. Sharpe Jul 01, 2000. [Link] [Info] [List all Publications]

Posted to DEOS-L 07 March 2000

Farhad Saba raises some interesting points: I responded to this thread several days ago, and am not still convinced why teachers need to be technology literate, and why do we need technology in schools.

The first and intuitive reaction - and I have seen some posts to this effect already - is to deny the conclusion, to point to the obvious benefits of using technology to support learning, and to question the author's credentials. But let's look at this a little more closely.

Saba can be seen as making two assertions:

  • teachers don't need to be technology literate
  • we don't need technology in schools

Looking at the first, we leap immediately to the counter-arguments. In order to use technology in the classroom, most such arguments run, teachers need to be trained in the use of technology, at least to the degree of literacy. And teachers should use technology in the classroom. Ergo...

Today's educational technology is like a Rube Goldberg contraption. Enter any technology-enabled classroom or facility and you will see a mish-mash of computers with associated wires, video displays, modems, ITV, CD-ROM libraries, tapes, and more. To use such technology effectively, and to avoid being distracted by the usual malfunctions and opaque manuals, teachers must spend a lot of time in the classroom themselves.

It doesn't have to be that way. As technologies mature they tend to become easier to use, even intuitive. Take the elevator, for example. Once so finicky it needed operators to take you from floor to floor, today's elevators function flawlessly with little intervention on the part of the user. People no longer need to take classes in elevator operations.

Another good example is the radio. When first developed, this tool was the domain of specialists, requiring expertise and patience to operate. Today's radio is a model of usability, requiring no special training in order to obtain today's Power Top Ten. Teens use radio constantly without ever having had to obtain a certificate.

Now it is true that not all technologies are easy to use. One would expect, for example, someone operating a nuclear reactor to have some expertise in the subject matter. But such systems are rare, overwhelmed by an array of easy to use innovations. And, crucially, if a technology is to become widespread, it must be easy to use, so easy, in fact, that an operating manual is not needed.

Returning then to teachers: the technology they would employ in the classroom must be of the latter, widespread and easy to use, variety. A learning simulation, a conferencing tool, a student record keeper - these tools ought all to be as easy to use as a television, a telephone and a notebook.

Moreover, I believe that we are in a transition phase now, and that we are moving toward such easy technologies. And we must question whether our time and money teaching teachers to operate today's clumsy technology is time and money well spent. At best, we must view this as a temporary situation, where training is necessary to get us through this transitional period. But we must not take our eyes off the long term goal.

This may not be what Saba meant when questioning whether teachers should be technology literate. But rephrased to, say, "should teachers be telephone (or telvision, or elevator)-literate?" we see we have two questions: should teachers be able to use telephones? Of course. Should teachers be able to install a telephone system or reassemble a headset? That would be absurd. We have specialists for that; and we let the teachers teach.

The second point is a little more troubling: Saba seems to be asserting that we don't need technology in schools. Let me be the first to decry that proposition. We need schools with electric lights because of darkness. In Canada, at least, we need schools with central heating. Plumbing, intercom systems, telephones, fire alarms: all these are examples of technology we need in schools.

Saba can only mean: we do not need stupid technologies in schools. But of course this begs the question: what constitutes a stupid technology? Probably - almost certainly - the Rube Goldberg assemblage of gadgets described above. Technology which causes more frustration than relief for the teacher. Technology which - like the school projectors of yore - takes three teachers and a technician to operate. Technology which distracts from learning and adds to student's time spent staring at the ceiling.

And Saba is saying: the answer to such technology is neither (a) more training, or (b) more of the same. I don't think Saba proposes an answer, but the answer is obvious: better technology. Technology which works mostly by itself, which does not require a Master's degree to operate, and which does not distract from teaching and learning.

What, then, distinguishes a good technology from a stupid technology? I would argue that there are some easily identifiable features which separate the good from the bad. Here then are my Nine Rules for Good Technology:

  1. Good technology is always available. This distinction is what makes buses, in spite of all their other advantages, bad technology. You can't always count on the bus being there. That's why people prefer cars. In the educational field, the technological equivalent of the bus is the equipment trolley, necessary because only one projector (or workstation, or overhead projector) is available to serve five classrooms. Good technology does not require scheduling, relocation, or set-up. Imagine what life would be like if we had to schedule our use of the elevator. Or to make reservations to use the telephone.

    The availability requirement raises cost considerations. Equipment which costs less is more likely to be available. But cost is not the sole, or even the primary determinant. If some technology meets the other criteria as described below, it will be made widely available, despite the cost. Think of elevators again, bank machines (ATMs to you Americans), electrical lights and highways.

  2. Good technology is always on. Or if not always on, can be turned on with a single one-stroke command, or better yet, start automatically when the need arises. One thing which makes the telephone useful is that we do not need to boot up the operating system before we make a call. Electrical lights are a significant improvement over systems which required individual ignition with a match or candle. Streetlights are practical because they turn on when it gets dark outside. A weakness of motor vehicles is that they are *not* always on - causing endless frustration for users needing transportation on a cold winter's day.

    Much of today's educational technology requires long and sometimes cumbersome initialization procedures. After wheeling in the projector from the other room, for example, the three teachers and technician would spend some time plugging it in, turning it on, spooling the film, and positioning the screen.

    This requirement has significant energy consuption considerations. A portable device, for example, cannot always be on because it must carry its own power supply. Energy itself - especially in inefficient forms like gas and oil - is too expensive to be consumed merely for convenience. Devices with low energy consumption, even portable one, can always be on, however: think of watches, telephones, bank machines and elevators.

  3. Good technology is always connected. Fire alarms - especially institutional fire alarms - are useful in this way. Indeed, were the detector not connected to the warning system, the fire alarm would be useless. Telephones again are useful because no procedure is required to connect to the telephone system.

    As recently as last month, I spent about fifteen minutes in a room with a dozen or so highly paid professionals waiting for the ITV system to be connected to the remote location. I have spent much time listening to my modem dial up a local provider (and luxuriate today in the convenience of an always-on DSL connection).

  4. Good technology is standardized. One television will function much like another television (televisions became less good when brand-specific remotes were introduced). One telephone will connect to any other telephone in the world. One brand of gasoline will power your car as well as any other (which is why diesel cars represent stupid technology, despite their other advantages).

    Technology which requires that you own a MacIntosh computer to play the video, or that you purchase a copy of MS-Word in order to view the document, or that requires that you connect with AOL in order to send email, is stupid technology. I can't believe how much of this stupid technology we have purchased over the years, and conclude that it must be only because there is no alternative. But such stupid technologies will be replaced.

  5. Good technology is simple. 'Simplicity' is a slippery concept, but you will notice that the best technologies can be learned by looking at the input device, and not by studying a manual (OK, when you're a child, somebody will have to teach you how to operate input devices like knobs, switches and keypads).

    Here's how I distinguish between good computer programs and bad computer programs (computer programs are inherently bad technology for other reasons, but let's leave that aside): I try to install and run the program without the use of any manual. Installation is today much easier thanks to a good computer program called 'Setup'. Running the program is a different matter. When I have to stop and think (and read some very small print) about how to get rid of that paperclip icon so I can type a letter, I know I am dealing with bad technology. Good technology, by contrast, is intuitive: to use an elevator, I press the floor number. Simple. To make a phone call, I dial the number. Easy.

    Simplicity goes hand in hand with range of function. The problem with MS-Word and a host of other programs is that it tries to be all things for all people. Stupid. Compare that with GuruNet, which lets me look up any word on my computer screen by alt-clicking over the word. Simple. So when looking for good technology, look for technology which does exactly what you want: no more, no less.

  6. Good technology doesn't require parts. You don't need to replace anything in your telephone. My new vacuum cleaner (the much advertised Fantom Lightening) is good because it doesn't require bags (it's bad because it requires special filters). This is why cars are bad technology: they require a never-ending array of parts from gasoline to air filters to oil filters to oil.

    Sometimes it is not possible to do without parts - but this is a sign of a transitional technology. Perhaps even good technologies, such as ghetto-blasters, need parts, such as CD-ROMs. But a ghetto-blaster which did not need CD-ROMs (it would download MP-3s off the net) would be better.

    If looking at a technology which requires parts, follow this rule: the same rules apply for parts as apply for technologies. DVD-players, for example, are not good technologies until DVD disks become widely available. Electric lights are not good technology if they require non-standard light bulbs. Programs which require complicated start-up routines are not as good as those which start with a single command.

  7. Good technology is personalized. One of the things which makes a telephone useful is that you have your own telephone number. In a similar manner, email is useful because you have your own email address. Bank machines would not be at all useful unless they opened your bank account - and only your bank account.

    Some of the simplest technologies succeed because they are personalized. Clothing and hats are selected on the basis of size and personal preference: standardized clothing which adjusted itself to your size and personal preferences would be even better. Houses are good technology because they are a place you - and only you - can enter. Personalized housing is made possible with personalized keys, another good technology. Things like credit cards, smart cards, pagers, cell phones and eyeglasses are other examples.

    Bad technology forces you to fit its requirements. My copy of MS-Word - which really wants me to spell like an American - is an example of bad technology. Ticket or teller windows, customer service counters, or registration desks - devices which force you to go to them, stand uncomfortably in a lineup, and to interact in a standardized way (no papers? go to the end of the line) - are bad technology.

  8. Good technology is modular. By 'modular' I mean composed of distinct parts which may be arranged or rearranged into a desired configuration with a minimum of fuss and effort. To a degree, this requirement is a combination of the requirements that good technology be standardized and personalized, but modularity takes technology a step beyond either of those features.

    Bricks and wood are good technology, for example, because they interconnect neatly and can be assembled into custom configuartions. Legos are even better because they don't require parts like nails or cement (which is why Lego, and not Mecanno, is the construction toy of choice).

    The stereo systems we purchased in the Seventies were good examples of modular technology. Using the standardized RCA jack, we could assemble systems with or without pre-amps, tuners, equalizers, or even turntables (the diamond needles in turntables were bad technology).

    Today's Universal Serial Bus (USB) represents good technology because it will allow computer systems to be assembled like the stereos of old. telephone jacks - which made telephones portable - were a big improvement over the hard-wired systems. Books - and paper generally - is good because its modular (a person may assemble a book out of individual sheets of papers (hence binders are good technology) and a library out of a collection of books).

  9. Good technology does what you want it to do. And not something else. A good ship will take you across the Atlantic Ocean. A bad ship will collide with an iceberg and sink. A good airplane will fly from Mexico to San Francisco, coming to rest at the airline terminal. A bad airplane will experience control problems, coming to rest - in pieces - at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.

    The minor trials and tribulations posed by more mundane examples of bad technology may not be of such titanic proportions, but they differ only in scale, not quality. Software which crashes instead of running is bad technology, obviously. Telephone systems which connect you to India instead of Indiana are not useful.

    Doing 'what you want it to do' is a highly personal thing. Parents often criticize teens' clothes because they represent bad technology. If you want clothes to protect you from the cold, then your daughter's selection of light chiffon and an ultra-mini represents bad technology. But if you want clothes to accentuate your physical features, then the same clothes represent good technology.

    Technology should do exactly what you want it to do. Technology which does something else, either by design or by accident, is not good technology. Don't try to force bad technology in to the mold. As Farhab Saba argues, "Without belaboring the point; a locomotive is not going to fly, if you put jet engines on it, and train the engineers how to fly."

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

Copyright 2024
Last Updated: Jun 14, 2024 04:07 a.m.

Canadian Flag Creative Commons License.