Object Lessons: Towards an Educational Theory of Technology
First Monday

Object Lessons: Towards an Educational Theory of Technology by Suzanne de Castell, Mary Bryson, and Jennifer Jenson

This article offers a critical consideration of current initiatives, and concomitant discourses, exhorting educators to adopt and integrate digital tools on a large scale. Despite immense obstacles standing in the way of full-scale implementation, educational perspectives critical of the e-learning imperative are, for the most part, marginalized and/or ignored, as economic interests are prioritized over more specifically educational ones, and a new breed of entrepreneurial academics give intellectual legitimacy to commercial and corporate ideologies. New 'partnerships' of designers and developers committed to technology for its own sake now create products for the 'education marketplace,' with little or no experience of, or interest in, underlying educational goals, while explicitly educational theories are supplanted by a re-purposed economistic discourse. Two prominent examples of 'educational technology' are describe here: the "integrated learning system" and the "networked e-learning environment", and some contrasts are made to the authors' own, small-scale, school-based technology research and development efforts. This latter type of interventionist work, designed to challenge business-as-usual in the culture of public schooling, offers a critical perspective on the typically under-theorized and unproblematic uptake and mis/uses of new technologies in school-based settings. It is proposed that one way of re-thinking the purposes and uses of new technologies for education might be to re-position common theoretical questions, asking not how education might use these new tools, but instead asking what, educationally, they might offer; instead of theorizing educational technology, then, the focus becomes an educational theory of technology. Adopting this reflexive stance, which views intervention activities as object lessons, provides instructive opportunities to learn from our tools even as we endeavor to rethink, not just their uses, but more fundamentally the prospects of digital technologies for reconceiving the very idea of a truly public education.



"The rapidly evolving landscape of higher education has changed the way institutions of higher learning must think using computing technology. As creators of the course management system used by the largest, most advanced, and most diverse base of institutions and students today, WebCT is uniquely positioned to develop and deliver technology that helps institutions achieve these goals WebCT Cobalt, our next generation e-learning platform, will be the first educational solution to combine course management with state-of-the art application architecture and customer relationship management technology, and the first such system, to deliver significant benefits to students, instructors, administrators, and CIO's" [1].
"Universities are not simply undergoing a technological transformation. Beneath that change and camouflaged by it, lies another: the commercialization of higher education. For here as elsewhere technology is but a vehicle and a disarming disguise" [2].

The stage upon which are enacted contemporary debates concerning the significance and proper deployment of educational technologies is populated with a familiar set of characters - the concerned parent, the enthusiastic child, the harried teacher, the bewildered administrator, and the miracle worker. Within the high-stakes context of the current imperative to "Get Connected, and Share in the Dream", the implementation of new information technologies, miracle workers occupy an apparently facilitative and enabling role as expert cultural interpreters of what Mark Poster has dubbed, the "Second Media Age".

In the early days of educational computing, the miracle workers' yellow brick road was paved by techno-gurus like Seymour Papert (the classic text is Mindstorms, Papert, 1980) around whom, like a campfire, members of a fervent group of users sang the praises of LOGO, Papert's digital artifact, which broke fertile ground for today's dot-com challenge to education- the integration of digital tools into the resiliently analogue environment of the typical public school. In the current climate, miracle workers, conversant in a digital Newspeak (Orwell, 1987), peddle a discourse peppered with buzzwords, such as: 'E-solutions', 'information societies', 'personalization', 'pipelines', 'connectivity', and 'learnware'. Latter day miracle workers entice 'early adopters' and their newly converted followers, with promises of 'just-in-time assistance' to manage the frenzy that so often follows mass-scale imposition of technological change. Miracle workers are often located in universities, and take the form of 'high-flyer' academics with branded and quasi entrepreneurial mega-projects and high-profile revenue-generating products (e.g., Canada's TeleLearning Network of Centres of Excellence), whose impressive resources open doors to schools and/or communities caught up in the frenzy to "Leverage technology to transform the educational experience " (WebCT, 2001).

Alarmist rhetoric, reminiscent of earlier debates about the so-called "literacy crisis" (see Graff, 1988), survives today in a wide range of educational policy documents (see, for example, WebCT, 2001) and promotional materials that urge educators to grapple with the implications of an "explosion in knowledge, coupled with powerful new communication and information processing technologies" and, thereby, to promote widespread "technological literacy". Arguments that enthusiastically promote the widespread implementation of educational computing typically predict that these technologies will (a) facilitate and transform teaching processes, and (b) promote significant gains, both academic and vocational, for students.

The obstacles standing in the way of integration efforts are immense (Cuban, 2001). And so, there is a frenzy of activity at present dedicated to creating success stories with digital technologies (e.g., "California Schools Get Hooked").

Consider the following headline from Wired News (Dean, 2001):

Bringing the Information Super Highway to the Dirt Road

Surfing the Net is second nature to most American schoolchildren these days. But not on the Pala Indian reservation in Southern California. That's about to change, thanks to a partnership between Native Americans Indians and researchers at the University of California at San Diego.

The High Performance Wireless Research and Education Network (HPWREN) team is creating, demonstrating, and evaluating a high-performance, wide-area, wireless network in a number of "hard to reach" areas in San Diego county. Located at the foot of Palomar Mountain in east San Diego county, the Pala Indian reservation is home to 600 tribal members including more than 150 children who attend elementary school on the reservation. Until last month, the tribe could only dream of access to high-speed Internet connectivity ... ."

Success stories like the one above equate integration with materiality, that is with the acquisition of hardware and software (i.e. "connectivity"). Often times, it is only discursively that integration is accomplished. Consider, for example, from a province-wide project looking at teachers' uses of new technologies [3], these two rather divergent views of what it means to bring digital technologies into a school:

"The most significant impact of technology on education will come from an extensive transformation of the curriculum and instructional practices ... . Technology-based education makes learning more active and interactive for each student. Technology brings resources to the classroom that motivate, stimulate, and encourage students. Computers are an integral part of many of today's jobs, and computer literacy will be even more essential in the future. Our job is to help learners today to prepare for the challenges of tomorrow." - New Technologies and the Primary Program Project, School District Technology Policy
"It's just simple things that drive me crazy. Like, we have this lab of new computers and this great paint program, and no mice. Can you believe it? It's been three months since they delivered those machines, and no one knows who is responsible for getting the mice. So they sit there." - New Technologies and the Primary Program Project, Primary Teacher

We know, from our own small-scale educational technology research, as well as from large-scale studies carried out in public schools of the actual uses made by teachers of new information technologies, that the implementation of these new tools has not come close to matching their apparent promise.

In the U.S., Henry Becker and colleagues recently completed an important national study of teachers and computer use [4]. The authors report that whereas, previously, teachers' computer use has been limited by high student/computer ratios, by 1998 the typical school had one computer for every six students enrolled, or about four computers per classroom if they were actually divided equally among all instructional rooms.

Becker's analysis of the survey data suggests that at the high school level, the majority of intensive experiences students have with computers are in courses outside of the academic core, and often in computer studies and business education classes. Becker's results indicate that a majority of teachers across grades 4 to 12 either do not use computers at all with their students or do so only occasionally; the "typical" teacher provides students with fewer than ten opportunities to use computers during a school year.

This apparent and longstanding lack of success in reaching implementation goals with respect to uses of digital tools in schools has created a specific niche for the working of miracles - the provision of digitally-mediated environments within which to re-mediate the production of knowledge in educational contexts. Today's education workers are accorded a managerial role in the "knowledge society" - that catch phrase driving a significant segment of activity in the implementation field - the educator as broker, not of knowledge, but of information.

Within such a context, the miracle worker's effectiveness is measured by their capacity to spin narratives of success against all odds by providing tools, but more often discourses, that appear to transform students' engagements with information. Redesignating the banal reproduction and passive consumption of existing forms, as the "productive and dynamic apprenticeship in a constructivist community of practice," these romantic narratives about the significant changes that invariably ensue when a school adopts the miracle worker's platform are the stock in trade.

It could be argued at this point that we lack an educational theory of technology (which is not the same thing as a theory of educational technology, of which we have of course a number). The difference between these is that whereas theories of educational technology take for granted, whether as good or as harmful, the integration of education and technology; an educational theory of technology, by contrast, would investigate technology from the standpoint of educational values and purposes, and with reference to what can be discerned from a study of 'educational technology' as a socially-situated artifact. Such a theory of technology would offer material grounding to a rethinking of educational epistemology. Accordingly, an educational theory of technology would seek to articulate particular machine capabilities with specific epistemic purposes. In order to learn from our tools, we have also to take seriously the study of them, in the multiple and variable contexts of their intended and actual use.

Tracing the break between educational theorizing about technology and economistic theorizing about technology’s uses for schooling is a task of socio-historical reconstruction which deserves fuller treatment than can be given here. Still it should be noted, however briefly, that cultural shifts in communicational forms and, correlatively, in educational media have given rise to successive educational ‘paradigms’ since the earliest days of public schooling, but whether classical, progressive, technocratic or post-literate technologies are their formal basis, each paradigm has engaged with substantive educational questions about theories of learning and theories of the ‘learner’, about what ‘pedagogy’ involves, about the purposes, both socio-cultural and individual, of public education, about what knowledge is of most worth, and why, and what constitutes its best expression (de Castell & Luke, 1986). These essential elements of any educational theory---rooted as they must be in epistemology, ethics, social and psychological theories of mind, culture and politics-- have been largely supplanted by what are fundamentally economistic questions about supply and demand, knowledge economies, partnerships and collaborations, diffusion of innovation, efficiencies, deliverables, and how ‘value’ can be ‘added’ to teacher and student outputs. The challenge is to reconstruct the history of educational technology so as to make visible the short-circuiting of early pioneers’ attempts to take seriously educational questions about technology’s uses for teaching and learning: the re-formation of educational discourses around market-based values and practices, the commercialization of public education, the corporatisation of the university, and the establishment of a new elite within that transformed institution whose work is bought and paid for by business “partnerships” are likely key elements in explaining what happened to these educational-theoretical potentials.

We take seriously Ursula Franklin's (1990) insistence that technology is not only an artifact but also a system of social practices, but this is not to say that technology has no relevant artifactual status at all. So while an educational theory of technology need not be technologically determinist, reading off what can and should be done in education from purported structural and material features of the machine, neither can it sensibly be technologically indeterminist, as if artifactual capacities and limitations were not any kind of consideration at all.

A potent irony is that, confronting a range of enormously powerful, radically transformative digital tools, educators have sought to render their and their students' encounters with and uses of these transformative tools (a) familiar and (b) comfortable. Take a look, for example, at an online educational environment, "HomeRoom", which claims to house "over 100,000 math and reading questions aligned to all state standards, major classroom textbooks, and specific state and multi-state standardized tests" and which encourages teachers to: "Create customized, skill-specific tests for your students, aligned to state standards or a specific state test" [5]. Rather than re/mediating educators' assessment practices, HomeRoom encourages teachers to recapitulate existing, sedimented practices, such as the 'standardized test', by the use of new tools. Like an endlessly rehearsed mantra, we hear that what is essential for the implementation and integration of technology in the classroom is that teachers should become 'comfortable' using it.

We might well stop a moment and consider the absurdity of such a demand. We have developed a powerful means for reshaping human knowledge, communications, educational structures and relations, epistemic concepts and practices. We have incalculably increased the amount and kind of information available to ordinary people worldwide. We have a master code capable of utilizing in one platform what have for the entire history of our species thus far been irreducibly different kinds of things - writing and speech, images and sound. Every conceivable form of information can now be combined with every other kind to create a different form of communication. And what we seek is comfort and familiarity?

What about novelty, unprecedented innovation, intellectual challenge, ideological dissent? Why are these sidelined by familiarity and comfort? How is it even conceivable that the latter can stand in for the former? Nevertheless this has been education's typical response to digital tools. And to that end, lesson plans and tests are devised and promoted through education 'portals' or templates or programs and environments are designed by educational technology experts that as nearly as possible replicate the traditional school-like questions, tasks and activities that this new technology threatens to replace. Beyond being the means of its own production, how is this use of technology better than a textbook? How do online environments like these leverage the seemingly transformative potential of digital tools at all?

Typically, therefore, it is remarkably traditional content that we deliver by computer, on CD-ROM or via the Web, using few of the tools of the computer or the Web beyond their capacities for display and distribution. This is equivalent to using a high end, multicapacity, powerful server for typing practice - another not unfamiliar school-based practice we would never find in any other context. We have to begin to see this as no less ridiculous as using a jackhammer to insert a picture hanger into drywall. From this standpoint we might reconceive teachers who resist technology less as uninformed Luddites and more as the only folks capable of seeing the nakedness of the emperor, and honest enough to say so [6].

In trying to develop an understanding of what technology can do for education, it is important to look at particularly well-regarded instructional uses of technology in education, the innovations spotlighted in media celebrations of "technology in the classroom". Consider here just two genres of prominent and "successful" computer-supported learning environments: the programmed instruction package or "integrated learning system" [7] and the networked E-Learning environment [8], where a range of online tools are provided to support both teachers and learners in a form of activity typically characterized as "collaborative knowledge-building."

There are a number of "integrated learning system" software packages available for sale in schools today. Each utilizes an extensive and sophisticated database to deliver multi-level use drill and practice software to individual students. The software also provides individualized error analysis profiles, specifying areas for remediation and providing instructional tasks that promise to bring the learner up to the prescribed standards for their grade level in each subject area. Here is the all-purpose individualized curriculum delivery tool.

These curriculum delivery tools, however, provide no room for invention and no room for production. They are systems built for compliance and as such embody no educational theory: education is reduced to instruction, and the extent of its theorization consists in these imperatives:

  • Deliver set curriculum;
  • Meet set standards;
  • Evaluate outcomes based on these pre-established criteria;
  • Administer remedial practice where students' work fails to meet these criteria, and above all;
  • Track, record, document.

Online E-learning environments, like WebCT emphasize networked communication and integrated course delivery and management tools, and are represented as a very different kind of technology: a toolkit for collaborative knowledge-building that explicitly encourages active involvement in its production on the part both of instructors and students. This technology, its proponents would argue, DOES embody an educational theory, and it goes something like this: the systematic development of both knowledge and communicative skills which are constitutive of learner-effectiveness and engagement and, therefore, directly facilitative of students' educational success. However, a closer look at WebCT, which is now in use at over 2,300 universities and colleges, reveals that its WYSIWYG interface is intended to make it easy for instructors to put course content online, which then makes it possible for educational administrators to reduce face-to-face instructional time and replace expensive faculty teaching time with 'plug-and-play' content modules, sessional instructors, and a heavy reliance on machine-scorable multiple-choice assessment protocols. One of the more recent additions to the WebCT toolkit - the E-Pack - signals the trajectory that this form of educational technology is traversing through the rough ground of implementation. WebCT has partnered with major textbook publishers to create online versions of high-use texts, eliminating in one easy and seductive step the need for any faculty involvement in designing university-based courses.

"e-Packs make it easy for instructors to start teaching online without having to create a course from scratch. e-Packs provide instructors with fully customizable course materials around which to build their courses, including video animations, sample syllabi, lecture notes, quiz and test banks, and glossaries are combined with the functionality of WebCT's course management software" [9].

Looking more closely, we see a difference more of degree than of kind between an integrated learning system's use of large, elaborate databases to provide step-by-step programmed instruction and up-to-date, "on-demand" individual assessment, and an online E-learning environment that provides instructors with powerful and integrated 'learning and content management' tools designed in order to engender mindful collaborative learners. While the former is more obviously a totally routinized, content-corrupt, pedagogy-corrupt system to promote and enforce learner compliance to a fully preprogrammed curricular delivery system, the latter's fundamental structures are themselves built entirely from traditional school-knowledge resources, such as textbook knowledge and related 'machine-scorable quiz databanks' and their activity-systems are no less categorically pre-scripted.

Another respect in which these celebrated educational technologies are similar is their high cost and re-location from the sphere of educational research and development to the high-stakes corporate environment of e-business.

A question arises for us at this juncture - can a different kind of work be done that involves immersion in an educational culture of digital technologies? Will it take into serious account the threat of cultural colonization inherent in this brave new world, even as it produces engagements with these tools? And is it possible to do this work in a guise distinct from that of the newly hybridized miracle-worker-entrepreneur?

The advent of post-structural epistemologies and research traditions has provided a new field for research endeavors. Its aim is no longer to reduce complexity by the disciplined reinvention of the familiar in a play of simulations, but rather, to cultivate novelty, to nurture difference, and to inject complexity into its questions in ways that prohibit easy readings or unproblematic interpretation.

Like many who work with new information technologies and educational settings, our program of research has been inspired by Donna Haraway's (1991) exhortation, best elucidated in the 'Cyborg Manifesto', that minorities involve themselves with digital tools and delve deeply into the possibilities for creating new and potent forms of subjectivity in their engagements with the cyber-mediated world of zeros and ones.

Most educational technology design and development, we argue, has been predicated on the uncritical simulation of culturally valued knowledge, roles and practices. These traditionally imitative practices - thinly veiled be-like-me injunctions to mimic the cognitive styles and work practices of recognized 'experts', whether in science or research or programming or literary production, insofar as their modus operandi is simulation - do not allow for the kinds of parody, irony, or other intentionally transgressive disruptions, that the evil twin sister of simulation, diss/simulation, or parodic imitation, does.

And so we have found it interesting to think about the scope of a technology-intensive, educationally oriented invitation to play, to produce, and to diss-simulate expertise - in short, a program for the deployment of digital tools used not for replication and reproduction, but for creation, for authentic, that is, agentive production, for hacking into the codes of conventional schooling, and introducing viruses into its well-ordered set of assumptions and structures - or, as some would put it, to deploy digital tools in order to engage in "culture-jamming". Culture Jamming (see Lasn, 1999) provides an interesting example of a politically articulate intervention and strategy of representation where agency is evident in the active contestation of oppressive regimes of truth - and that could as easily be a description of the research mandate of the first of three projects we will briefly describe next - to interfere with the construction of and silences about "the normal" in and out of school.

For the past eight years, we have been working collaboratively with a group of women in a research collective called GenTech (at http://www.shecan.com). Our focus has been a phenomenon that has received much media attention of late - it has become commonplace in social science communities in North America to represent as "problematic" that many girls and women are neither full, nor even interested, participants in the digital world of the twenty-first century [10]. Whereas female students have made impressive gains in some areas like math and science, girls and women are staying away in droves from computer-intensive areas of the curriculum.

"Culture Jamming" seemed to us to point to one way out of the paralysis that postmodern theories engender in their ambivalence toward intervention or agency in research where marginality is the dominant narrative. In the GenTech project, we deliberately interfered with the gender order of the masculinist culture of computing, looking critically at how to overturn the established order governing relations among girls, tools, and schools.

Axiomatic to GenTech's school-based intervention work [11] were the presumptions that:

  • Kinds of tool-use, a particular stance in the face of power tools, and restrictions on access to new tools are easily identifiable as vital cultural locations where the performances of gender take specific shapes;
  • Heteronormative gender performances are overwhelmingly hegemonic for many women;
  • Therefore, to invert these hegemonic gender performances it is essential to interfere with the representation of, as well as actual access to and uses of technology by girls and women.

In the "Einstein's Sisters" project, we worked on computer-based projects with small groups of girls, who worked in turn with peers and younger girls, who then trained boys, thereby inverting the usual power structure of the culture of school-based computing, in which girls are absent and silent, and their absence and silence are typically invisible to their teachers. We made further efforts to expand and enrich the community of female experts by inviting mothers to the school to see, and hopefully to encourage and be encouraged by, what their daughters were learning. We worked as well with their teachers, who responded to learning new technologies predictably: they were apprehensive, already had labeled themselves as incompetent - "dumb people click here" - and at the same time were visibly excited by and absorbed in the learning, even as they remained highly skeptical about computers in general [12].

The instruction we provided to teachers and students was both extremely simple and extremely time and labour-intensive. We worked intensively with a group of five female teachers, once a week for a full school year to help them learn basic skills to facilitate the integration of technology into their curriculum - something that none of them had done before. There are thousands upon thousands of schools, classrooms and teachers who are presently expected and increasingly required to use new technologies, but if teaching a single teacher requires at least half a person one day a week for a full year, then clearly that requirement will simply not be fulfilled, and indeed this is the case today: there are no resources available to teachers to do the kind of work we were doing in the Einstein's Sisters Project. In the hopes of providing some means of filling the "training gap" we were beginning to understand, we decided to create a digitally-mediated learning environment entitled, "Computers for Lunch" (see http://www.computersforlunch.com).

At the end of the school-based project, we didn't want to just pick up our tools and leave. We felt an obligation to the people who had worked so hard to make the project successful, and we well knew that we ourselves were at risk of playing miracle workers with this project [13].

We were very much aware that our intervention, which looked so good on the surface, was completely non-scalable and non-sustainable. So our challenge was to devise a way to provide instruction and support, not just for five teachers, but for an unlimited number of teachers at once, after the grant funding had run out and it was no longer possible for us to be physically present. We wanted Computers for Lunch to be free, accessible to anyone at anytime, directly relevant to teachers work with students, and very well scaffolded so as to preclude "failure" - an important requirement for novice users. We wanted to use what we had learned from our years of school-based fieldwork to design a learning tool that would be scalable and sustainable for this particular - but nevertheless highly generalizeable - community of elementary school teachers and learners.

This meant that we were adamantly committed to the use of appropriate technology. We wanted only to use software teachers would already find on their school computers, and the program had to be usable in low-tech, poor connectivity contexts, because that is the state of Internet access in most public schools. We wanted streamlined content that would strip away all the info-bloat instructional sites usually have, and, very important for a mostly female user-group, which would keep technical language to a minimum, and would be activity based.

Computers for Lunch consists of over 600 interlinked Web pages covering seven different kinds of activities. It is written in HTML, using Dreamweaver and Flash animation, and it is also available as a CD-ROM for schools with no or low connectivity.

The next step has been to put the tool to use in a range of other kinds of contexts and try to see how it works, to see, in particular, what kinds of support novice learners need to utilize online resources.

Since the educational problems of technology (and not, it must be stressed, the problems of educational technology) are global and mass-scale educational problems, we would argue strongly that any innovation represented as a solution to these educational problems must be scalable and accessible.

The consequences of educators' - and particularly educational theorists' - failures seriously to engage with educational questions about technology have had a devastating impact on both research and practice in this domain. It is neither correct nor right to distance oneself from the fray, and to assert that one doesn't use technology. We all use a range of technologies in our instructional practices. There is of course no obligation to use particular digital tools, but there is surely an obligation to have a thoughtful and informed understanding of how one's educational purposes are best served, and by means of what cultural tools. Why would educators who work, as we here do, under conditions where computers are ubiquitous, where they represent the fastest growing career opportunities for graduates, where they are the primary site of curriculum revision, pedagogical changes, policy formation and professional development, where computers are used in almost every cultural context, "just say no" to technology in our classrooms? Two reasons: time and resources. Ministries of education everywhere are urging teachers to "integrate technology into the curriculum" but are providing neither the time, nor the tools, to do so. What public educational funds as are being made available, are being disbursed either on hardware, like computers and scanners and high speed Internet access, or they are being disbursed for the purchase of rights to use educational software designed less for public education than for monetary gain, and then marketed to the educational system as 'educational technologies'.

We argue it is irresponsible for educational administrators in ministries of education, school districts and schools to utilize resources provided for integrating technologies into the curriculum to support what is now a burgeoning corporate involvement in educational software design and development. Better by far to reallocate time and resources to teachers and learners for harnessing, themselves, new forms of intelligence and new functional capabilities to participate directly in the world of digital technologies as purposeful and capable producers of artifacts, and not merely as consumers of the products of others. The public school today has become the charitable arm of technology industries, scaffolding and supporting their growth and development, rather than supporting the technological growth and development of teachers and learners themselves.

Speaking not specifically of educational technologies, but more broadly of cultural ones, Constance Penley and Andrew Ross (1991) observed in their introduction to Technoculture

"'we fully recognize that cultural technologies are far from neutral and that they are the result of social processes and power relations. Like all technologies, they are ultimately developed in the interests of industrial and corporate profits, and seldom in the name of greater community participation or creative autonomy" [14].

In educational terms, we know that the odds are firmly stacked against educationally productive uses of technology, and that so called educational technologies will seldom be developed which actually serve the aims of developing and supporting a critical, informed and responsible global citizenry. We know that, as Penley and Ross go on to note, "in many cases, the inbuilt principles of these technologies [both educational and cultural] are precisely aimed at de-skilling, information gathering, surveillance and the social management of large populations." However there are possibilities within this environment for knowledge creation and communication that explicitly seek to promote public educational goals. Because there are also in these unregulated spaces quite remarkable and historically unprecedented opportunities for educators and for educational institutions, to reconsider"business as usual" and to make of public education a better place, to better ends than its traditional form has nowadays become. For probably a very short time, digital tools have given the public, a global public, the possibility of unregulated knowledge-transfer and infinite interpersonal relationship capabilities. Because of the interpenetration of the market with these technologies - technology as the proverbial Trojan horse - there exists tremendous pressure on public education to reorganize itself along business lines. This has wrought, for the integration of technology into education, a frenzy of simulation, of which this is only one example:

"As photo opportunities go, this one was perfect. Except it was mostly a sham. While their husbands talked affairs of state in the Oval Office, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Aline Chretien ventured into a poor, black neighborhood [Burrville] where, through the wonders of technology, they watched the students of twinned schools in Washington and Ottawa share their hopes on a live, audio-visual Internet hookup. But soon the screens would go blank and be carted away, leaving Burrville's students taking turns on their single slow computer before the Chretiens finish[ed] their state visit today." [15].

Educational research thus far may not have told us much of use, but it has surely made apparent to anyone with eyes to see, the very partial success of the project of building an educated public. It is of importance to us in thinking through these ideas to look at how new technologies - the first in human history capable of addressing a geographically unlimited public sphere - might yet be deployed in the service of creating a different and better incarnation of public education.

In our own work, and in similar small-scale, situated interventions by countless anonymous others working with a diverse array of teachers, learners, technologies and local knowledges we endeavor to see the actualities which technicist discourses studiously ignore. It is in these school-based projects, where time is given and taken for users to play, to explore, to learn for themselves what is possible and not just to execute ever more simplified sets of instructions for operating systems whose workings remain, by design, a mystery, that we can see most clearly how engagement with the lived, material conditions, contexts and practices of teacher and students contributes essential practices and viewpoints to educational users of new technologies.

All too often, we have accepted, repeated and re-purposed an 'educational' discourse so pervasively contaminated by marketplace interests and desires as to be fundamentally disconnected from the everyday realities of schooling for teachers and students. In a culture readily persuaded that anything worth having can be bought, a burgeoning educational ‘marketplace’ offers miraculous ‘solutions’ to the ‘problems’ of educational technology, as what are essentially template-based systems of cognitive compliance are passed off as convenient ‘plug-ins’ to upgrade teachers’ and students’ skill-sets. But knowledge and understanding come at a price we have this far been unwilling to pay: and what must be paid is our studious attention to these remarkable new tools and how we ourselves might invent, discover and devise their uses, even as we in so doing discover new purposes, new practices, new knowledges, new forms and conceptions of education. This first hand, situated, embodied knowledge and understanding is not something that can be acquired with ever-more money for ‘strategic’ research initiatives and the for-profit design and development of purpose-built knowledge-delivery systems seen by educational ‘entrepreneurs’ as just another and better commodity. Rather, we argue, it is in our attempts to look closely at our tools - their contexts, uses and no less their misuses - that we might more clearly begin to understand what appropriate educational implementation of these new tools might be and, more importantly, that we might begin to take seriously what it could mean to see and better imagine the ways in which new technologies have already altered, and will continue to alter, what it is we know and how we know it.

To see what these ways might be, we need to look to our tools.End of article


About the Authors

Suzanne de Castell is Professor at Simon Fraser University and senior editor of Literacy, Society, and Schooling and Language, Authority, and Criticism. Relations between media and epistemology, problems of knowledge formation and curriculum design are central interests, and her current focus is on educational applications of computer gaming technologies.
E-mail: decaste@sfu.ca

Mary Bryson is Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at University of British Columbia and co-editor of Radical In<ter>ventions, (1998) Mary's current research, the Digital Studio Project, focuses on the development of environments conducive to playful engagements with digital tools.
E-mail: mary.bryson@ubc.ca

Jennifer Jenson is Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Education at York University. Her current research involves technology pedagogy, technology implementation/integration, and the design and development of educational computer gaming application/s.
E-mail: jjenson@edu.yorku.ca



An earlier version of this article was presented at a meeting of the American Educational Studies Association (2000, Vancouver).



1. WebCT, Leveraging Technology to Transform the Educational Experience (June, 2001).

2. David Noble, 1998. "Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education," First Monday, volume 3, number 1 (January), at http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue3_1/noble/, accessed 7 January 2002.

3. Cited in Bryson and de Castell, 1998, pp. 542-543, at http://www.shecan.com.

4. "Teaching, Learning, and Computing," at http://www.crito.uci.edu/tlc/html/tlc_home.html.

5. http://www.homeroom.com/educators/scr_assign.asp.

6. An argument that is fully developed in Bryson and de Castell, 1998.

7. Such as SuccessMaker, http://www.successmaker.com/.

8. Such as WebCT, http://www.webct.com.

9. http://www.webct.com/content/.

10. Find a description of this project at the GenTech site (http://www.shecan.com/).

11. http://www.educ.ubc.ca/faculty/bryson/gentech/sshrcreport2.html.

12. And for good reasons that we won't go into here but we describe in detail in a paper on the GenTech Web site called "Imagining Teachers as Luddites In/Deed".

13. Indeed, and ironically enough, we were positioned in 2000 as 'miracle workers' with a "Pioneer in New Media" award for the GenTech project from a national women in technology organization!

14. Penley and Ross, 1991, p. xii.

15. "Leaders' wives get small picture," The Globe and Mail (9 April 1997), p. 1.



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Editorial history

Paper received 29 November 2001; accepted 27 December 2001.

Copyright ©2002, First Monday

Object Lessons: Towards an Educational Theory of Technology by Suzanne de Castell, Mary Bryson, and Jennifer Jenson
First Monday, Volume 7 Number 1 - 7 January 2002

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

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