Rethinking Technology in Education

Rethinking Technology in Education

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Over the past decade, many billions of dollars have been invested in computer hardware, software, and network access for our nation's schools. This unprecedented support for school technology has come about as a result of the confluence of a number influences. The historical foundations of public education in America; the introduction of the personal computer; and a cultural history that seems to make Americans particularly susceptible (though perhaps not uniquely so) to the idea that "technology is good, that it is value-free, that it should find application in many fields, disciplines, and aspects of our lives." (Kerr 1996) have come together at a time, and in a way, that has caused society to view computers in schools in a uniformly positive way. The paradigm embracing computers in schools has to this point, become so reified that teachers, administrators, and community leaders have seemingly come to view the acquisition of hardware, software, and access capabilities as an end unto itself. This paper examines technology in education by looking historically at the implementation of educational technology before the computer; looking at the implementation of computers in a social context, by arguing for the need to broaden the current discourse about computers in education, and by suggesting a framework around which this broadened discourse may be shaped.

In spite of many predictions that teachers, schools, and textbooks would see their demise at the hands of new technologies of teaching and learning, schools seem to have grown increasingly rooted over the years and seem to have tendencies to remain highly traditional institutions. Computers and computing networks are the most recent in a long line of educational technologies that were looked at as the catalysts for transformative change with the power to revolutionize the way that schools taught and the way that students learned. In order to understand the context of how computers and computing networks have come to be viewed and understood in the education field, it is helpful to first examine how technology has typically been both viewed and implemented for use in schools by teachers, students, and school administrators.

Despite its centuries-old status, the moveable type printing press appears to be the gold standard, against which all other technological innovations in education are now measured. The movable type printing press made possible, "new patterns of knowledge development, storage, and distribution," (Meyrowitz 1996) and thus, ultimately helped to shape the way that we, as a society, have come to view schools and learning.

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High expectations have surrounded the implementation of varied technologies. With astonishing regularity since the 1900s new technologies have been unveiled and presented to communities, schools, and educators. "Each deals with communication in one way or another, and each is supported by a cult of enthusiasts claiming that this particular machine is 'the most important development since moveable type.'" (Snider 1992)

As an example, the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904 was the first such event to provide a special building for exhibits of educational advances. During the fair, William Slocum who was president of Colorado College at the time spoke of the exhibit as a display of the "methods of university of the future, which is to exchange pictures and living objects for textbooks, and to make these, with the aid of laboratory work, the means whereby instruction is given and individual development is obtained." (Quoted by Snider 1992) As a direct result of the fair, the schools of St. Louis began to use visual aid material as part of its instructional methodology, but the introduction of visual aids failed, ultimately, to revolutionize education and to "Bring the world to the child." as had been hoped. (Snider 1992)

Similarly, proponents hoped that the technology of films was to revolutionize teaching and learning in the 1920s, and that radio broadcasting would bring the world to classrooms across the nation during the 1930s. The decades between the 1950s and the 1990s saw the introduction of super-8 film loop cartridges, 35mm instructional films, language masters, audio cassettes, television, video, and dial up audio and video. While the number technological failures-unused devices decaying in closets and storage rooms of schools across America, greatly outnumber technological successes, a few of the introduced technologies such as films, the overhead projector, and the VCR have been widely accepted and embraced by the larger educational establishment. In spite of the overhead projector and VCR's success, however, it would be very difficult to argue that the implementation of any of these technologies has revolutionized the institution of school to the degree that their proponents had originally hoped. (Kerr 1996)

Kerr (1996) argues that, historically, "a large part of the problem with technology seems to be related to our stance toward it, our impressions of what it is, what it is good for, and how we should think about it." It may be argued that these introduced technologies either supported the educational status quo or they challenged the educational system in ways that were too extreme for educational institutions to accept and the result of either is that the technology failed to act as a catalyst for revolutionary change in education.

"Despite the challenge of talking books and VCRs, conventional textbooks continue as the basic instructional tool in schools" (Snider 1992) and "The task of universal, public education (particularly at the elementary level) is still usually being conducted by a woman alone in a little room presiding over a youthful distillate of a town or a city. (Kidder 1989)

The Introduction of Computers and Networks

Like its technological siblings that came before, the introduction of microcomputers to schools has been accompanied by an almost overwhelming sense of excitement and hope that at long last, "this is the technology that will revolutionize teaching and learning in America's schools." Alfred Bork, a Professor of Information and Computer Science at the Educational Technology Center within the University of California at Irvine, in a 1978 Milken Lecture to the American Association of Physics Teachers said, "We are at the onset of a major revolution in education, a revolution unparalleled since the invention of the printing press...the computer will be the instrument of this revolution." (Quoted by Snider 1992)

The presence and implementation of computers in America's classrooms has become increasingly reified over the last decade. Politicians' campaigns promise more computers for schools, parent/teacher/student associations hold cookie sales to fund the purchase of computers and installation of LANs, and editorials in newspapers encourage voters to fund bond issues that support computer technology in schools. The messages are pervasive; the messages are powerful; and the messages are convincing. Advertisements encourage parents to purchase computers for their children so that they can "Think Different" and imply that through interaction with their computers children will become the leaders of the world as "They invent..They imagine...They heal. They explore...They create...They inspire." (Apple Computer)

The messages that reify computers even come from companies that not so very long ago had not been thought of as "computer companies." In the end, they say, "'s not the technology that will change the world. It's what we do with it..." (MCI/WorldCom) but how, one wonders then, does one become part of the venerated "Generation D"--the purported future leaders of the world without access to the very tools that make the existence of a "Generation D" possible at all? Computers in schools, it would seem, are vital. Computers in schools, it would seem, are the answer.

Even the Federal Government has come out with reports that go beyond merely encouraging the implementation of technology in American schools. The character of the language used to frame the issues around technology and education in government agency reports, attaches a sense of urgency to problems in the schools and then offers technology as a significant player in the formation of solutions to the ills plaguing the nation's schools. Educating Americans for the Twenty-first Century and A Nation at Risk both call for the institution of a modern computing requirement at the high school level with a semester of work with computers. (Besser 1993) The political nature of the titles of the reports, along with the fact that more technology is portrayed to be at least part of the answer to America's troubled schools, lends yet more momentum to the reification of the computer in education.

Tremendous sums of money have been invested in computers and computer networks in schools over the past decade. In their study, Classrooms and Computers: The Status of Technology in U.S. Schools, the Educational Testing Service found that, "Ninety-eight percent of all schools now own computers; sixty-four percent of U.S. schools have access to the Internet, up from 35 percent in 1994 and 50 percent in 1995; and thirty-eight percent of our schools are using local area networks (LANs) for student instruction." (Educational Testing Service 1999, available from: These few statistics alone are enough to illustrate the significant investment being made to implement computer and network technologies into schools across the land.

If it is true that in fact, there has been a significant investment made toward computers and networks in schools, then where has this led U.S. Schools? Has the investment in the technology been transformative? Some estimate that U.S. Schools invested nearly $5.4 billion in the purchase and implementation of technology in 1999. (Milken Foundation 1999) available from However in their report, Transforming Learning Through Technology: A Policy Roadmap for the Nation's Governors, the Milken Foundation also finds that, "American education is at a crossroads. Schools have yet to harness the power of technology to better prepare students for today's economy. How teachers teach, how learners learn, and how schools function seem largely unaffected." (Milken Foundation 1999) The study found, among other things that "Schools are beginning to use learning technology, but most use it to automate learning rather than to bring students unique learning opportunities never before possible and that teachers are getting trained, but classes often do not relate to teaching and learning." (Milken Foundation 1999)

A 1999 report from the Benton Foundation, Technology Professional Development for Teachers: Overcoming a Pedagogical Digital Divide, estimated that the Federal E-rate program had to date, funded "more than 45,000 schools with over $2.5 billion in telecommunications subsidies in order to connect these institutions to the Internet." (Carvin 1999) Furthermore, "At the local level, grass-roots campaigns such as Net Day have mobilized volunteers to wire schools within their communities in order to take the first steps toward connectivity." (Carvin 1999) The same report found that, "It is easy to envision schools where educators transparently integrate new technologies into their teaching styles, but in truth schools are only beginning to address what needs to be done to prepare America's teachers to use technology successfully." (Carvin 1999) A 1999 report from the U.S. Department of Education noted, however, that only about 20% of teachers in America's schools feel comfortable integrating technology into their curriculums--a statistic that makes it difficult to imagine that simple physical access to the technology is serving to transform American schools.

Andrew Trotter, in Taking Technology's Measure (1997, available from discusses the fact that unprecedented support for school technology has spurred an investment of billions of dollars, "Yet most in education's own ranks are still more comfortable with chalkboards than with a computer mouse. Only one out of five teachers uses a computer regularly for teaching, according to the National Center for Education Statistics."

In the related piece, A Question of Effectiveness (1998, available from, Trotter deals with the inevitable question relating to the nation's massive investment in technology when he asks, "Is it effective?" He goes on to point out that, "No one knows if, or when, the debate over technology's effectiveness would force policymakers to scale back funding. But make no mistake, society eventually draws up a balance sheet on its major investments, as it has with spending on defense, health care, and welfare. And school technology is no exception." (Trotter 1998) The question, it would seem, is not as simple as it first appears. The the main challenge seems to center around the fact that it is very difficult to determine the effectiveness of technology in education because there is so little consensus about its purpose. Some see technology mainly as a tool to prepare students for the workplace; others argue for technology with hopes that its implementation will help to raise standardized test scores; while still others see technology as a way to improve school climate by involving parents, motivating students, and making schools run more efficiently. (Trotter 1998)

In his piece, Education As Marketplace (1993), Besser also examines the nation's investment in technology, but he brings a more historically oriented analysis to the discussion. Besser theorizes that the prominent place that computer technology has enjoyed in the nation's educational agenda is directly related to the historical roots of public education and the perceived need for a skilled workforce to support the American economy in a "postindustrial age." Historically, Besser contends, formal education was one of the key tools in socializing masses of people from being highly individually oriented toward being more group oriented. He goes on to state that, "The development of the first public schools in the 19th and early 20th century attempted to answer two basic primary needs: to habituate children to the way of life they would face in the workplace and to give them the skills they would need in order to be more productive workers." Besser develops the argument that pressure for computer instruction and computer literacy in the school curriculum also has, at its core, those same two primary goals. He goes on to illustrate how the computers in schools movement was also spurred on by the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik in 1957 and with the introduction of the PC in the 1980s among other things. (Besser 1993)

When Our Stance Is Our Problem

Kerr's idea that "a large part of the problem with technology seems to be related to our stance toward it, our impressions of what it is, what it is good for, and how we should think about it." offers a sensible place to begin looking at why it is that so much investment in technology has resulted in such a small change in the way that schools teach and the way that learners are learning.

Some, such as the Alliance for Childhood, in their report Fool's Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood, might argue that there is very little place for computers in schools (particularly at the elementary level) and that an "immediate moratorium" on the further introduction of computers in schools be enacted. (Alliance for Childhood 2000, available from To the degree that the computers in education paradigm has gained acceptance and been reified in American society today, however, I do not see this as a pragmatically viable alternative paradigm.

Kerr explains that, "Technology does not succeed in classrooms the way we dream it might because of other expectations we have of schools. We have pervasive, powerful, and usually tacit images of how schools should work...Such images are slow to change because they are powerful: they are widely circulated and broadly accepted in society. They are also shared by many people from many different groups: educators, parents, politicians, business leaders, intellectuals. Because these images are so widely and deeply held, they are not easily changed, making it difficult to bring about change in schools." (Kerr 1996) He goes on to capture well, the essence of what one might call the computers in education dilemma. "Education is characterized today by countervailing forces. Some interpret technology as merely a tool for improving the ways we do things now, a set of devices and procedures that allow us to extend the efficiency and the effectiveness of schooling without altering underlying assumptions about the roles and relationships of the students, teachers, parents, and administrators involved. The possibility of seeing the technology as a very different kind of tool--one oriented toward the development of individual capacities in a social context and toward restructuring the work of schools--is more rarely suggested. Yet it is this set of properties of technology that may ultimately win it a more permanent place in education than it has found to date." (Kerr 1996)

Toward the Development of a New Paradigm of Technology in Education

If the computer is ever to have a transformative influence on education, a new stance toward the technology will have to emerge that can help large communities of people come to understand the computer and its related network technologies as "a very different kind of tool" (Kerr 1996) In his piece Taking McLuhan and "Medium Theory" Seriously: Technological Change and the Evolution of Education, Joshua Meyrowitz offers up what I see potentially to be the beginning of a very interesting framework and a new way to think about computers in schools.

Meyrowitz begins by characterizing the 1950s and the early 1960s as a time when, " could still believe in the generally linear progress of the U.S. school system." (Meyrowitz 1995) Beginning in the early 1960s, however, was a growing movement that began to question the idea of linear progress. According to Meyrowitz, "In his two most widely known books, The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) and Understanding Media (1964), Marshall McLuhan suggested that the modes of thinking, behavior, and social organization spawned by literacy and printing were not natural or everlasting and that their five-hundred years of increasing influence was coming to an end. Linear progress was a myth. Just as literate modes of thought had come to override oral modes of thinking, wrote McLuhan, electronic modes of thought and experience were about to override literate ones." (Meyrowitz 1995) It is not difficult to grasp, how threatening McLuhan's ideas are to the education establishment, but Meyrowitz characterizes McLuhan's work as "not necessarily applauding or advocating all the changes he foresaw, only attempting to describe and predict them." (Meyrowitz 1995)

Meyrowitz (1995) hypothesizes that perhaps the best indication of the degree to which the education field was threatened by McLuhan's theories is not so much that there has historically been an overwhelmingly hostile reaction to McLuhan's work, so much as that his work as been nearly completely ignored in the field. According to Meyrowitz, "The Sociofile index for articles appearing from January 1974 through August 1994, for example, lists 26,316 citations linked to "Education." But only four of these make reference to Marshall McLuhan, and one is an article written by McLuhan himself. The proportion of references to McLuhan is even smaller in ERIC. Of 300,986 citations linked to "Education" from 1982 to September 1994, only nine are linked to "McLuhan." (Meyrowitz 1995) Personal experience in the education field seems to validate Meyrowitz's hypothesis as McLuhan's work and ideas had neither been raised or introduced in the time that I spent working toward both a BEd and an MEd, nor in my twelve years as a classroom teacher.

In using McLuhan's theories to frame a discussion of computers in education, Meyrowitz builds on the idea of "medium theory." Medium theory examines, "variables as: which and how many senses are required to attend to the medium; whether the communication is bi-directional or unidirectional; how quickly messages can be disseminated; the relative degree of "definition," "resolution," or "fidelity" involved; how much training is needed to encode or decode in the medium and how many "levels of skill" are involved; how many people can attend to the same message at the same moment; and so forth. Medium theorists argue that such variables influence the medium's use and its social, political, and psychological impact." (Meyrowitz 1995)

Perhaps the most powerful aspects of the theories as they apply to technology in schools can be found in what Meyrowitz calls "The Role Triad." In the looking at role triad, we come to understand that computers, as a communication media, have a potential effect on all social roles. In order to facilitate discussion, these roles can be divided into three categories: socialization, group identity, and hierarchy. Each role is based on a particular pattern of access to information and "is therefore susceptible to change when a new medium of communication is widely adopted." (Meyrowitz 1995) According to Meyrowitz (1995), "Socialization is achieved through staggered access to situations and information of a new role or destination group...Group identity depends upon shared, but secret information...Hierarchy rests upon nonreciprocal access to information."

In the development of a more ultimately useful framework for understanding technology in education, medium theory suggests that in order to understand technology within schools, one must first concentrate on the technological change that occurs in the larger society and thus, technology's influence upon schools. In his vision of effective schools in the context of a technologically influenced society, McLuhan "saw a limited role for programmed instruction...he was suspicious of methods that encouraged "leading standard perceptions and approved solutions." (Meyrowitz 1995) In these schools "technology would be blended with human interaction and child-created spatial environments to enrich experience and educate all the senses, not simply "stuff brains." (Meyrowitz 1995)

In his final analysis, Meyrowitz concludes that in the long run, whether they have realized it or not, that educational theorists and practitioners in the last two decades have been wrestling with McLuhan's theories. As such, it seems that a more conscious and explicit discussion and consideration of media theory would be of significant benefit to the technology in education discourse--an idea that is supported by findings such as that of Professor Hank Becker in a 1999 study at the University of California Irvine. Becker found that "an individual teacher's general attitudes toward student learning may directly affect how that teacher utilizes the Internet in his or her classroom...simply put, the educational theory of constructivism suggests that students learn best when they are engaged in the learning process, actively constructing their own knowledge through collaboration, critical thinking and inquiry...According to Becker, the majority of those teachers who used their Internet computers regularly considered themselves constructivist, with a heavy focus on students centered learning." (Carvin 1999, available from I would contend that the "constructivist paradigm" folds nicely into McLuhan's ideas offering communities a thoughtful framework for understanding computer technology in education.


Looking at the historical successes and failures in the implementation of earlier educational technology offers one a foundation for understanding what is happening with the the current trend toward the support of increased use of technology in schools. The reification of the computer paradigm in schools has been driven primarily by concerns of an economic nature--the need for skilled workers in a postindustrial information age, the need to create markets for manufacturers of computers and content providers, and hope that technology could make schools run more efficiently. It is becoming increasingly clear that in order for technology to have a positive and lasting impact on our nation's schools, that it is imperative that the discourse on technology in schools be broaded beyond the narrow scope it endures today. In expanding and shaping the future discourse on technology in education, the ideas that undergird Marshall McLuhan's media theory may provide a useful framework.


Alliance for Childhood. Fool's Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood. [Webpage Online] (Alliance for Childhood, 2000, accessed 18 March 2001) available from ; Internet.

Besser, Howard. "Education as Marketplace." In Computers in Education: Social, Political, and Historical Perspectives, edited by Robert Muffoletto and Nancy Nelson Knupfer, 37-69. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 1993.

Carvin, Andy. Technology Professional Development for Teachers: Overcoming a Pedagogical Digital Divide. [Article Online] (Benton Foundation, 1999, accessed 18 March 2001) available from ; Internet.

Educational Testing Service. Computers and Classrooms: The Status of Technology in U.S. Schools. [Webpage Online] (Educational Testing Service, 1999, accessed 18 March 2001) ; available from ; Internet.

Kerr, Stephen T. "Visions of Sugarplums: The Future of Technology, Education, and the Schools. In Technology and the Future of Schooling edited by Stephen T. Kerr, 1- 27. Chicago, Ill.: The National Society for the Study of Education, 1996.

Kidder, Tracy. Among Schoolchildren. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989.

Meyrowitz, Joshua. "Taking McLuhan and "Medium Theory" Seriously: Technological Change and the Evolution of Education." InTechnology and the Future of Schooling edited by Stephen T. Kerr, 73-110. Chicago, Ill.: The National Society for the Study of Education, 1996 (Content Copyright held by Joshua Meyrowitz, 1995).

Milken Exchange On Education Technology and Peter D. Hart Research Associates. Transforming Learning Through Technology: A Policy Roadmap for the Nation's Governors. [Report Online] (Milken Family Foundation, 1999, accessed 18 March 2001) ; available from ; Internet.

Snider, Robert C. "The Machine in the Classroom." Phi Delta Kappan 74 (December 1992) : 316-323.

Trotter, Andrew. A Question of Effectiveness. [Article Online] (Editorial Projects in Education, 1998, accessed 18 March 2001) available from ; Internet.

Trotter, Andrew. Taking Technology's Measure. [Article Online] (Editorial Projects in Education, 1997, accessed 18 March 2001) available from ; Internet.

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