Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Education, Technology and Myth

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Aug 17, 2006

Responding to Norm Friesen, E-Learning Myth #2: Technology Drives Educational Change

In this post, various propositions have been collected under a single heading. Some of them I think are obviously false, some of them are obviously true, and some of them are not believed by anybody. So I need to look for precision in order to draw out the fallacy.

From the text:

It is often said or implied that technology or technological change impact education. They are seen as acting as a kind of "disruptive force," requiring the adaptation, transformation or sometimes even the elimination of educators and educational institutions alike. The assumptions behind such understandings are that technology drives educational change, and that there is generally a direct and one-way relationship between technical innovation and educational transition. In its most extreme form, this myth is encapsulated in so-called "laws" of progress and change: Moore's law (the annual doubling of computer processor speeds), Kurzweil's "law of accelerating returns," or Gladwell's epidemiologically-derived "tipping point." Although none of these are laws in the strict scientific or physical sense, their consequences for education, schools, the university, etc. are often seen as having the self-evident truth and certainty of natural edicts. "I don't question if e-learning will reach a tipping point," one author confesses, "but what I [find] myself pondering is when e-learning will reach a tipping point and become a social epidemic." (Neal e-learn 2004, emphases added; see also Bull, Bull, Garofalo & Harris, 2002; Gandel, Katz, & Metros, 2004; Educause, 2002). Here, the effects of technical change are inevitable and are not questioned; only the precise time of its full impact on education is open to debate.

I derive the following statements:
  • technology or technological change impact education
  • technology requires the adaptation, transformation or sometimes even the elimination of educators and educational institutions alike
  • technology drives educational change
  • there is generally a direct and one-way relationship between technical innovation and educational transition
  • "laws" of progress and change are often seen as having the self-evident truth and certainty of natural edicts
  • the effects of technical change are inevitable and are not questioned
From the text:
A similarly unquestioning but less explicit understanding of technology as a kind of "unmoved mover," decisively influencing education from the outside, is expressed in a range of research into the impact of technology in education. One example is research which understands technological innovations as being "disseminated" throughout a population (often the faculty at a university, as it happens; e.g. Mahony & Wozniak, 2005; Bull et al, 2002; Garofoli & Woodell, 2003; PT3 2002). This way of framing the research question has the effect of casting a technology as an externally determined "artifact," being absorbed by a passive population. This allows only for responses of "adoption" or "resistance" of varying intensity, and it has the further effect of labeling parts of the population according to their imputed willingness to adopt -as "early adopters" "mainstream" or (rather tendentiously or controversially) as "laggards."
I derive the following statements:
  • technology is a kind of "unmoved mover," decisively influencing education from the outside
  • technological innovations are "disseminated" throughout a population... as an externally determined "artifact," being absorbed by a passive population
The first question we need to look at is whether technology changes education. This is a conflation of two questions, whether it will change education, and whether it has changed education. I argue that both statements are true.

Clearly, it has changed education. This is especially clear when we push the definition of 'education'. by 'education', do we mean only 'the classroom'? This seems to be the implication when it is argued that "the classroom as a site of educational practice has not changed much over the past couple of hundred years." But it has changed, and it has changed in both ways implied by this equivocal statement:
  • the classroom of today is different from the classroom of the past, incorporating as it does a wide array of technology, including overhead or video displays, intercoms or other communications features, electricity for lighting and equipment... and so on.
  • the classroom of today is no longer the sole, or even primary site of educational practice, if 'educational practice' is intended to mean 'learning'; the rise of what we today call 'informal learning' is well documented, and may span the gamut from radio or telephone assisted distance learning, computer aided instruction, communities of practice, and more
(One frustration I have with the writing in this field today is the lack of precision. Almost every statement in this paragraph can be read several ways. This is typical, especially of academic writing, in the discipline of education.)

As to the question of whether it will change education, the question may be put by asking whether the two trends noted in the past are likely to continue, that is, is it likely that the classroom envioronment will continue to change, and is it likely that learning will happen in more, and more varied, places. Asked this way, continued change seems to be likely.
  • even today, new technologies, such as blogging, wikis, mobile phones and PDAs, social networks, tablet computers, educational games, and more, are changing the classroom environment both physically (for example, wireless signal availability) and pedagogically (for example, collaborative writing in a shared online environment)
  • the increased mobility of communications devices has suggested to many people the idea that learning will take place on an as needed basis, or will be available on demand, from any employment or life situation
In order to argue that technology does not change education, one has the unenviable task of showing that it both hasn't changed education, nor will it change education. From my perspective, to do so is to deny reality, to look at somethings and to say, "that's not there."

The more interesting position in this regard - but one that, I think, hasn't been argued here - is whether technology changes learning, that is, the process by which humans acquire (I don't mean 'acquire' literally; I use the word 'acquire' for lack of a clearer alternative) knowledge. Do the same processes create links between sets of human neural cells as caused these links, say, a century ago?

But even here, I would say that there is at least an argument that technology has produced change. If we agree that what we learn today is different from what we learned in the past, or if we allow that we have a different type (audio-visual, say, as opposed to textual) of learning from what we had in the past, then it is arguable that different types of neural connections would be created, which (presumably) means that different processes would cause those changes.

We could even ask, have the basic principles by which connections are created changed in the last century or so. This is almost like asking whether human chemistry and physiology have changed in that time, which seems unlikely, though with today's emergence of mood-altering drugs (both illegal and legal) I am less sure. It is also like asking whether basic 'logical' principles (I don't mean 'logical' literally; I use the word 'logical' for lack of a clearer alternative) have changed: does, say, hebbian associationism work the same today as a century ago? Are the mechanics of, and principles behind, Boltzman connectionism the same today as a century ago. Here I would say that they probably are (which explains, to me, why a philosopher such as Hume may remain relevant) though I would hasten to point out that their discovery per se is fairly recent.

I have not even addressed the manner in which non-educational technology has changed learning. How the car, for example, has led to the creation of the suburban megaschool. How printing has allowed us to de-emphasize memorization and rote. How the gun has required the presence of metal-detectors and armed guards in schools. How nuclear weapons created the need for 'duck and cover' exercises in the classroom. How affordable clothing has done away with the need for uniforms. How democracy created the need for civics classes. And so the list continues, perhaps without end...

So I conclude that technology changes education.

The second question is the question of how technology changes education. I have suggested numerous ways above, none of which are explicitly stated as a 'myth'. But examining the text, we see:
  • technology requires the adaptation, transformation or sometimes even the elimination of educators and educational institutions alike
  • "laws" of progress and change are often seen as having the self-evident truth and certainty of natural edicts
  • technological innovations are "disseminated" throughout a population... as an externally determined "artifact," being absorbed by a passive population
  • there is generally a direct and one-way relationship between technical innovation and educational transition
  • the effects of technical change are inevitable and are not questioned
In other words, the question of how technology changes education embraces two distinct questions:
  • what sorts of changes technology creates
  • what mechanism is followed by technology (or promoters of technology) in order to effect those changes
The statement of the myth suggests that:
  • educators must (should?) (will?) adapt
  • educators must be (should?) (will be?) transformed
  • educators must be (should?) (will be?) (may be?) eliminated
  • institutions must (should?) (will?) adapt
  • institutions must be (should?) (will be?) transformed
  • institutions must be (should?) (will be?) (may be?) eliminated
I have drawn this out in what may seem like an annoying fashion in order to emphasize that there are twenty distinct claims in this one sentence. This is important, because some of these statements are more obviously true than others. The statements break down into relatively straightforward classes: those that are descriptive (educators have adapted, educators may adapt), predictive (educators will adapt), and normative (educators should adapt, educators must adapt).

It seems clear both that educators have adapted and have been transformed. Consider, for example, just one dimension: qualifications. In 1850, teachers required little more than the ability to read and write (one of the things that struck me about Jane Eyre was the ease with with the protagonist became a tutor). Today they are expected to have a university education, including an education dedicated specifically to teaching, ion addition to certification by a professional body. Were these changes caused by technology? Arguably, for example by the proliferation of printed texts, improvements in classroom environments, discoveries in cognitive theory. Today's graduating teachers are now expected to be proficient in computer technology and versed in learning theory. A far cry from Jane Eyre, and in just a few generations!

Will teachers continue to adapt and be transformed, and should they? I will examine the question of whether the impact of technology is an improvement later, but for not, taking it as established that technology will change education, it seems reasonable that teachers will need to adapt and will be transformed by these changes. Again, we could look at qualifications (I like to use qualifications as an example, because it demonstrates how teachers adapt, but also, because they speak to the nature of the person doing the teaching, how they are transformed). We can not only reasonably predict that teachers will adapt and be transformed, we can make some reasonable projections as to what sort of changes will occur. Teachers will become more information-literate. They will be more versed in critical thinking and media literacy, they will become more specialized in learning how to learn. The practice of teaching will spread from dedicated professionals to an activity most people undertake as a part of their profession. 'Teachers' per se will become, as the old saying goes, 'guides by the side', becoming more like coaches and mentors than information delivery specialists. This will require more extensive qualification in psychology, and especially topics such as motivation and counselling.

Have teachers been eliminated, will they be, and should they be? This is, of course, a completely different set of questions. And it really depends on what is meant by the word 'eliminated'. Because (based on what was just written) it seems apparent that the number of people engaged in teaching will increase. However, this does not translate to an increase of teaching positions. Will positions need to be eliminated? This depends on whether society can continue to afford to maintain them, and whether there is a substantial demand for coaching and mentoring. Additionally, if technology enables more people to be able to continue learning longer, the size of the student population (properly so-called) may grow. However, as more and more students seek alternative forms of learning, the size of the student population may shrink.

From my perspective, it would be absurd to claim that teaching positions will be 'created' or 'eliminated' as a result of the impact of technology. It is a bit like asking whether positions of 'buggy driver' will be eliminated because of the car. Strictly speaking, the number of people employed in the field plummeted. But the number of people engaged in the analagous practice, 'driving', multiplied dramatically. Only a small percentage, however, continuned this practice professionally - bus drivers, truck drivers, taxi drivers, and the like. However, each individual tended to drive more people and product in a given period of time or on a per vehicle basis. And, probably, because vehicle transportation because relatively cheap, there were more people employed overall as 'drivers' than as 'buggy drivers'.

Considering the question of how technology effects these changes, I would suggest that this is an empirical question. Specifically, we need to ask, has technology moved through society gradually, or does it impact society all at once, or is some other method of propagation evident? Empirically, it appears that when a new technology is introduced, it diffuses, and that the nature of this diffusion is relatively predictable, at least, for those technologies that have become popular (obviously, technologies that have not become popular, such as the Betamax video format, do not diffuse through a population; moreover, there is a subclass of technologies, known as 'fads', that observe their own propagation pattern).

It is reasonable and rational to question the hypotheses that have been formed around observations of technology diffusion. For example, the theories that describe the 'innovators' and the 'early adopters' talk sometimes about a gap separating these early users and the mainstream user. Moreover, it is important to ask about the factors that may impact this rate of diffucion, such as social connectivity, or the cost of the technology, or the ease of use of the technology. But again, it is important to stress that these are empirical principles.

That said, it is my belief that the diffusion of technology can be likened by analogy to other sorts of diffusion, for example, of an idea through society (a 'meme'), or a disease through a population. This is the case if (as I suspect) diffusion depends not only on the technology itself but on communication between individuals who would adopt this technology. If so, then the mathematics describing the difficusion of technology will be the same as the mathematics underlying social network theory. Hence, it is possible not only to describe the rate at which a technology diffuses, it is possible to say why it diffuses at that rate, and it is possible to explain (and even predict) when a techn ology does not diffuse through society.

Given that we have established (or at least hypothesized) a pattern of technology adoption that has prevailed in the past, we next ask whether this pattern will continue in the future. This involves two specific predictions:
  • that technological innocations will continue to occur, and
  • that the same principles of diffusion will apply
Both of these predictions become more likely if it can be predicted that the same type of innovation will occur in the future as it has in the past. For example, if a power source was invented in the past, and diffused through society in a certian way, then new type of power source is more likely to diffuse in the same manner, the reasoning being that similar things will diffuse similarly (this, again, is a hypothesis that needs to be tested, but which seems evident to me, based on what I have seen).

Hence, we now encounter the question, head on, of whether "'laws' of progress and change are often seen as having the self-evident truth and certainty of natural edicts." It seems apparent that nobody considers, say, Moore's law to be as certain as, say, the second law of thermodynamics. Indeed, all people who have hypothesized about Moore's law have conjectured about a time when it will no longer apply, as genuine laws of physics will make further increments in processor speed and memory impossible.

The question, therefore, is whether the next increment of Moore's law, will occur as predicted. Can we continue to build faster processors and better memory for lower costs? Certainly, as time goes by, and as we approach the theoretical limits, the probability that another increment will be reached is reduced. That said, Moore's law is based on known physical properties of infornation storage devices, known engineering practices, and known principles of commodities and economics (for example, mass production is cheaper than the production of a single unit). Hence, it is the case that Moore's law is somewhat stronger than mere conjecture. It is more likely to be right than to be wrong.

Again, it is unlikely that anybody believes that Moore's law is a law of nature. That said, laws of nature lend support for the plausibility of Moore's law. hence, it is reasonable to assert - as most technologists do - that it is more likely to be true than false.

We are now also able to examine the question of whether "there is generally a direct and one-way relationship between technical innovation and educational transition." In other words, whether technology changes education, but education does not change technology. Is it true that education does not change technology? Is it true that people hold this to be true?

Education can change technology in two distinct ways (and here is that interminable vagueness again).
  • the consequence of education - that is, the specific things learned - can change how technology develops
  • educational theory, for example, pedagogical theory, can change educational technology
Again, these questions may be put in various modalities. Have these changes occured? Will these changes occur? Should these changes occur? These are very different questions.

It seems evident, for example, that education has changed technology, in both senses described above.

For example, as Homer Higgens describes in October Sky (originally titled Rocket Boys, I think), a change in the educational system, to emphasize science and technology, resulted in the later developments in the Apollo program. So the type of learning provided can (potentially) change subsequent technological developments (though that said, I would say that it is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition).

And certainly, educational theory has informed technology. Otherwise, we could not have a discipline or class of technology known as 'educational technology'. Murray Goldberg, for example, developed WebCT as a set of 'course tools', and this development was informed by his classroom practice. This resulted in a system that is very different from Moodle, which developed with constructivist theory specifically in mind, and even more from ELGG, which is probably the closest thing we have today to a connectivist application.

To look at the issue more generally, we need to ask whether technological development is infleunced b y external factors more generally, or whether technological development occurs without regard to external factors. Looked at in this way, the question (once again) resolves to several different issues:
  • do external developents stimulate the invention of new technologies
  • do external developments inform or constrain the design of these technologies
  • do external developments impact the diffusion of technologies through society
When each question is asked in this manner, it becomes evident that the answer to each question is 'yes'. Indeed, it now becomes a question only of to what degree these external factors inform the invention, design and diffusion, and therefore, to what degree education informs these three factors.

The invention of a new technology can be informed through external factors through several means. For example:
  • principles or hypotheses demonstrated in other fields
  • a need stimulated by a development in another field
The design of a new technology is informed through external factors as well. For example:
  • physiology informs the ergonomics of a technology
  • psychology and related disciplines inform the usability of a new technology
  • economics and marketing describes the marketability of a new technology
  • art describes the aesthetic appeal of a new technology
And the same is no doubt true of education. Insofar as a technology is intended to teach, to inform, to communicate, or to perform any other function demanded by educational theory, disciplines such as communications theory, design, pedagogy, and more, will inform the design of that technology. We know this because these factors have informed the design of the technology in the past, and are likely to continue to inform the dcesign in the future.

The diffusion of technology is described by network theory, and is impacted both by the nature of communications channels and those features of the technology that increase (or decrease) its liklihood of being communicated (or propagated) from one person to the next. Cost and aesthetics are obvious parameters impacting this latter set of factors, while the speed, cost and bandwidth of communications channels, along with the density or nature of the network of connections, impacts the former.

It is therefore clear, and I would argue, completely established, that the impact of technology is not one-way, that a myriad of non-technological factors have led to the development of specific technologies, and indeed, to technology in general. Why did we want a printing press, a Winchester rifle, an atomic bomb, a PDA for kids? The answers to these questions lie, not in the explanation, 'because we could build them', but rather, in a variety of personal, social, and environmental factors, including education.

Should this be the case? Should technological development be informed by other disciplines? Should technological development in general, and the development of educational technology in particular, be informed by education, and in particular educational theory? I believe that nobody would argue the contrary, at least, to the extent that educational theory is believed to be true or accurately descriptive or predictive. If, in other words, there is a reluctance to instantiate educational theory in technology, or to allow it to inform technology, it is because there is doubt in the veracity of a particular theory, or of the field as a whole. And I would not go so far as to say such a scepticism is completely unwarranted.

The third question, and probably the question lying at the heart of the idea of the myth, is whether technology is beneficial to education, that is, whether changing educational theory, practitioners, or institutions, inresponse to technological change, is a good thing.

As usual, this embodies a set of questions, only some of which are articulated. For example, the suggestion that "the effects of technical change are inevitable and are not questioned" are embodied in this question, since (of course) if technological change is inevitable,
then this would constitute an argument for adapting to it. The questions embodied include:
  • Does the use of technology improve edcucation (improve learning)
  • Are there other (economic, cultural) reasons to adapt to technology
  • Is it necessary to adapt to technology as a force majeur?
Again, when the questions are drawn out, it appears that the answers to all of them are unambiguously 'yes'.

It seems to me, for example, that technology unquestionably improves learning (if not 'education' per se, as practiced in schools). Again, there are many ways technology could improve education (not just test scores or outcomes-based improivements).
  • technology has the potential to increase access to learning. Even though there remains a digital divide, it is much more likely that people without access to learning can access learning with technological support than without
  • technology has the postential to increase the applicability of learning. because technology can enable the delivery of learning in situ, it can result in learning in a specific context, with the result that learners are more motivated, and can apply learning tro practical situations
  • technology has the potential to increase choice and therefore to match the type of learning needed with the tgype of learning desired
In each of the above, I have stated only that technology has the 'potential' to have these effects. However, I believe it is unarguable that technology has had these effects. Long distance communication, for example, has allowed children on Australian sheep stations to atten d the school of the air. PDAs strapped to aircraft employees' wrists allows them to learn of new procedures exactly when and where they are needed. And the proliferation of informal learning communities - such as the digital photography and video sites I have been reviewing recently - enable much greater choice.

It seems apparent as well that there are other reasons to adapt to technology. In the discussion of Myth #1 we considered the changing nature of students - and whether this change can be tracked as an age-based demographic, or whether this change is tracked as a set of factors, such as socio-cultural standing, it seems undeniable that as technological change diffuses through society, the nature of the learner changes as well.

Insofar as education is at all "customer-focused" or "learner-centered", then, if the learner has changed in relevant ways, then thedelivery of education to those learners will need to change. Some people no doubt argue that education should not be "customer-focused" or "learner-centered". There is room for this argument, however, my belief is that it will not be successful in the long term, as education is essentially a practice whereby a change is induced in a learner, and hence, must necessarily include the properties of the learner in the design of its application. Others will argue that the ways in which the learner has changed are not relevant to the application of education. This seems exceptionally unlikely, however, here too an argument could be allowed.

Additionally, many people (in cluding John Daniel, Tony Bates, and myself) have offered economical arguments for the employment of technology in education. Certainly, I would be the first to agree that these arguments have not borne fruit, especially in the traditional context. However, there are important dimensions of the economical argument:
  • from the social point of view
  • from the institutional point of view
  • from the personal (or learner) point of view
It seems clear that, from an institutional point of view, the economic gains are questionable. This has been (in my view) primarily the result of attempting to continue existing practise using new technology. At worst, this has resulted in what may be called 'twin tracking', where both the technological and non-technological approach is adopted - offering the same class both online and in person, for example. This approach results in a net increase of costs. Additionally, as I argued in Learning Objects, the employment of a teacher-as-lecturer based delivery mechanism is not made significantly cheaper through the use of technology, since the most expensive component of this delivery format is the teacher.

From the point of view of the student, however, the economic benefits can be significant. The need to travel is reduced. It is possible to study at any hour, meaning that employment can be continued. Materials may be online, emaning that the cost of delivery may be reduced. In some cases, the quality of the (free online) material may be sufficient so as to eliminate the need for an instructor. Hence the cost to learn, say, digital video, can be reduced from tens of thousands of dollars to only a few hundred. This is an almost incomprehensible change in the affrordability of learning, and it it would be absurd to discount this factor.

From the point of view of society, if the total cost of learning could be construed to be comprised of the total cost to fund institutions plus the total cost to fund individuals, then arguable, the total cost of learning is reduced if individuals save more than institutions spend. This calculation is what prompts calls for the elimination of institutions and of teaching positions. It is arguable that the existence of these institutions itself defers, and even eliminates, any potential benefit technology may bring to society as a whole. Certainly, the economic argument, from the point of view of the learner, is undeniable. Howevger, it remains an open question whether we can afford to maintain current expenditures on educational institutions and whether and how educational institutions should adapt to technology.

Finally, we reach the question of whether technological change is inevitable. And, strictly speaking, nothing is inevitable. Even the continued applicability of laws of nature or the existence of the universe could be questioned. On a more mundane basis, the Sun could explode, we could enter into nuclear war, or a virus might wipe out society.

So the question is not whether the impact of technology on education is inevitable, but rather, whether the impact of technology on education is likely. And this, in turn, resolves into two questions:
  • whether technological development will continue
  • whether these developments will impact education
It seems clear, from the discussion above, that it is likely that technological development will continue. So the question is whether these developments will impact education. This depends, in my view, on whether future developments will improve learning, and whether they will contribute to other factors. It seems evident that both are the case.

If technology becomes cheaper and more mobile, it is clear that access will be increased. It will allow learning to become more applicable, and it will allow learners more choice. It seems clear that technology will become cheaper and more mobile, hence, we can expect benefits to learning.

The impact of other factors - such as culture and economics - are more difficult to determine. However, it seems reasonable to argue that if new technologies are developed, there will be economical and cultural changes. This, of course, is not inevitable. However, if there are not sufficient grounds for adoption (that is, if there are no economic or cultural advantages) then it is much less likely that a technology will diffuse through society. This is because a person's propensity to adopt a new technology is reduced if thedre is no advantage to adopting the technology.

Hence, it is more likely than not that technological development will remain a force majeur in society, at least for the immediate future (until the limits in Moore's law kick in). Consequently, as technology is likely to change, being prepared to use and adapt to new technology is reasonable.

So we return to the question, posited at the beginning of this discussion: what is the myth?

Is it that technology has no impact on education? Such a position is unreasonable, and therefore, saying that technology changes learning is not a myth.

Is it that technolgy determines educational change? This is true only if technology is self-determined, that is, if education has no influence on technology. However, technological development is influenced by a number of factors, and education is among those factors. This, I believe, is widely recognized (there is certainly no shortage of examples). So I would argue that people are not in fact arguing that technology determines educational change. And if nobody supports this view, then it is not a myth.

Is it that technological change is inevitable? This appears to be true, at least for the forseeable future. hence, saying that technological change is inevitable (and therefore, that it will continue to impact education) is not a myth.

The only real myth I can find is the supposition that a certain type of technology is inevitable. No technological development is inevitable, of course. It depends on the mathematics of its diffusion through society, which in turn depend on a myriad of factors, including connectivity, utility, cost and usability. But that said, it seems that very few people (other than their vendors) say that certain technologies are inevitable. Rather, the best we can point to are trends - such as smaller, cheaper, and faster - and hyopthesize based on those trends.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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Last Updated: Jul 22, 2024 10:18 p.m.

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