Teaching IS Technology: A Little Philosophy of Technology & Media Theory

There often seems to be a tension between teachers and new technologies. It helps me to step back and think about technology more broadly. Almost 20 years ago I first ran across a book by Don Ihde, philosopher of technology, that still influences my views on the topic. In the book, Technics and Praxis, first published in 1979, Ihde noticed that technologies simultaneously amplify our capabilities (like a telescope extending how far we can see) and reduce our capabilities (a telescope also restricts the field of view). Ihde refers to this amplification/reduction structure as an invariant aspect of all human-technology experience.

So you can look at anything from the point of view of how is it constraining actions and capabilities, yet also amplifying them. That sounds a lot like what we do in education all the time. We are guiding students in ways that may subtly constrain their actions in some ways, yet expand their capabilities in others. Note this is different from a ‘transmission’ view of education, delivering ‘stuff’ (knowledge) to the students, who fill up with that knowledge. Instead, students evolve through education just like athletes get better through practice and training, or like how technologies evolve us as a society. The essential part of education isn’t the content, or stuff, being delivered. As Marshall McLuhan said, “Disregard the content and concentrate upon the effect.” “McLuhan describes the ‘content’ of a medium as a juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind. This means that people tend to focus on the obvious, which is the content, to provide us valuable information, but in the process, we largely miss the structural changes in our affairs [actions/capabilites] that are introduced subtly, or over long periods of time.”1 What Ihde and later researchers might add is that by “concentrate upon the effect,” we are talking about the effect on actions. This is the idea of embodiment: there is no such thing as “knowledge which cannot be represented by actions.” “The content is the audience” (McLuhan).

Teaching is considered many things: a craft, an art, a science, a form of design, etc. It does involve that essential aspect of amplifying and constraining students’ experiences and abilities. Teaching can be viewed as a technology. There are other technologies which aren’t devices and are also just human practices or inventions. Language is a human invention that amplified our capabilities yet also adds new constraints. So technology does not always have to involve a “device” or “computer.” It has to involve constraining and amplifying actions and capabilities. One may argue this weakens or makes too broad the definition of technology, but it’s just one view, and most every term in education has multiple, different viewpoints or definitions.

Perhaps this point of view of looking at teaching as a form of technology would amplify certain aspects of teaching and teachers that have been ignored:

  • It might focus people more on the original, complex and unique aspects of teaching that are not matched by computer technologies. The sensitivity to students’ non-verbal and emotional responses, for example, caring for students, etc. Computers are still so so far from ever replacing a real teacher, but that doesn’t mean they have no place in the classroom.
  • Computers can be seen as just another technology in an already technology-rich educational experience, a gradual evolution of existing educational practices and technologies: an extension of the teacher, for example, or a replacement for the textbook, not a threat to teachers or a stark change to schooling. Teaching evolves too, with or without the aid of devices and computers. But many of the most popular “new fangled” technologies are merely gradual evolutions of the technologies and practices that have long been a part of schooling: netbooks instead of textbooks, smartboards instead of white boards or chalk boards, virtual field trips instead of or in addition to real field trips, etc.
  • Ideally, teachers would be seen more as designers and engineers (as Dewey argued in 1922), and see themselves as engineers and designers (rather than victims of larger forces out of their control), and teachers would be respected more for the complexities and constraints they deal with everyday and the contributions to improving society they accomplish everyday, just like people in other fields. Teaching itself could also be viewed as something that is continually evolving and being refined:

    “Herein, I reflect on Dewey’s notion of “education as engineering”. Considering the importance of the use of tools in education, I claim that education could, in one sense, be seen as an engineering science. Engineers are trained in design, especially in artifact design, and in understanding and improving complex systems. They should be trained to understand that humans are also part of the systems that they work with. Thus, approaches and knowledge from the perspective of engineering science and the philosophy of technology can contribute to the understanding and development of education.” (Bernhard, 2009)

  • As Ihde argued, we tend to focus on how technologies amplify our capabilities, and ignore how they are simultaneously constraining them (although some look at only the constraints and not amplification). Focusing on both sides of the coin can give us a more balanced view of teaching and technology when considering the effects on students. Also, by focusing on the amplified/reduced actions and uses and effects of technologies rather than just the physical structure of technologies (devices or computers), we might discover better analogies and explanations for better understanding and using educational technologies. For example, Doug Johnson asked us to consider whether we’d make the same arguments for banning pencils from the classroom that we sometimes make for banning cell phones. See also the funny Adventures in Pencil Integration blog, with “one-to-one pencil to student units” and “slate-enhanced learning.”

Regardless, there is still much use and much room for evolving the discussion of our philosophies of teaching, technology, and learning in education. Philosophy of education, technology, and so forth aren’t a done deal that was settled decades or centuries ago. Theories, too, whether implicit or not, amplify certain aspects of how we view the world and constrain or hide other aspects, and they need to evolve as well.

Posted in computers, edtech, embodiment, learning sciences, teaching, technology, theory
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