10 July 2000


It’s not just the tool, but the educational rationale that counts

Invited keynote address at the 2000 Ed-Media Meeting

Montreal, June 28, 2000

Gavriel Salomon

University of Haifa

Technology – the promise

The Internet, email, CMS, asinchronic learning networks and multimedia as well as all other new applications of information technology loom so large in prevailing visions of education that the role of education itself as the force that is supposed to drive their design and utilization becomes somewhat lost. My talk is an attempt to balance the picture. There is the danger that my arguments might sound trivial and self-evident, but I hope that they will help stabilize us while we walk the tight rope between technocentrism and pedagogy, between the science of what can be done and the vision of what should be done.

Education is considered to be a medium for cultural transmission, for the acquisition of desired knowledge, and for the cultivation of needed skills. Indeed, a medium it is. And since it is medium, it cannot possibly be well done. Hence the constant, and often justified complaint about the sad state of education and the need to improve it, renovate it, and overhaul it. Such complaints are accompanied by a dedicated search for rapid solutions, magic wands, and wonder tools. First educational radio, then film, then the teaching machine followed by instructional television, were all supposed to be remedies for all educational malaise.

And then, all of a sudden, a new gizmo arrived on the horizon, The computer, promising to revitalize, even redo education. The moment the personal computer ran off the assembly line, it commanded full attention. How interesting: One of the first brands of the PC, as we all may remember, was the Apple. This was a most suitable name for the computer, for like its Biblical predecessor, it immediately became an irresistible, a most tempting fruit, the ultimate solution for all educational malaise. And this, to an important extent, continues to be its fate today: The computer, with the Internet and multimedia, with its model-building and simulation capacities, with its email, hypertext, CMC and other unfathomable possibilities, seduces us to believe that it can do miracles; Its introduction for learning purposes into classrooms, colleges, homes and even work places, is supposed to cause a major shift in education.

Scholars have spoken of the computer as a subversive tool, a Trojan Horse, the belly of which is filled with a new educational philosophy and pedagogy which will unfold more or less all on its own the moment you bring computers into real or virtual classrooms. Being impressed by other areas of society where the impact of computing, and more recently – that of the Internet is most notable, technological determinism was allowed to gain supremacy. What impacts is it likely to have on education?

Technology – long- and short-range impacts

There are at least two kinds of impact that any technology has - a gradually accumulating but eventually profound impact on society, and a quicker, more immediate, and hence more visible impact on particular practices. The former usually constitutes an unforeseen and slowly building up impact, I'd call it the drip effect of technology, the nature of which becomes clear only after a while, usually a very long while. Examples are the development of suburbia and the revolution in sexual mores as a result of the automobile, or the changes in patterns of interpersonal communication as a consequence of email. Nobody intended these effects, nor did anybody think them out; they happened more or less all on their own, driven mainly by economic and efficiency considerations that capitalize on the new opportunities afforded by technology. What is technologically possible becomes implemented and thus it becomes desirable.

On the other hand, there are the more immediate, focussed and usually intended impacts on such practices as science, architecture, medicine, commerce, banking, etc. Could you imagine today the stock market without computing, book sales without Amazon.com, or your daily interaction with the world without email? Such changes capitalize on what technology affords but unlike the previous kinds of effects, these ones are focussed and intended. Neither banking nor libraries, neither shopping nor the training of pilots have changed unintentionally on their own as side effects. Obviously, in reality technology's effects do not divide so neatly into two separate categories: Unintended long-range effects become desired and intended, and intended ones have their own unintended side effects.

It is quite likely that on the long run education will be affected by the unintended, drip-like effects of computing, particularly the Internet and computer mediated communication. There are those who claim that whether the educational establishment likes it or not, intends it or not, major changes are going to take place such as the gradual disappearance of the school building, the textbook and the flesh and blood teacher. A colleague of mine, a very thoughtful sociologist of education, predicts that schools will gradually disappear and those remaining will serve a small and rich elite. But, since we are speaking of unintended effects, all this remains to be seen.

Turning now to the more immediate, focussed and intentional changes, we can see how the whole world of commerce, medicine, communication, design, travel and most interesting to us – higher education, are rapidly undergoing major changes. These are deliberate and intended changes, making the best out of what technology can offer. Do similar processes apply to other realms of education? Has formal education experienced such effects? Has education finally seen the equivalent a Model T Ford? Has it experienced a revolution resembling the introduction of the tractor into farm work? Has it come to see any profound changes that transcend doing more or less the same things only a bit faster, happier, and with more color? No, not really, or at least not on any reasonably large scale.

Disappointments and their reasons (I)

Indeed, the truth is that by and large, history keeps repeating itself. Very little, if anything, has happened so far as a result of computing in education. This state of affairs has lead a leading American journalist, Oppernheimer, to comment that the investment into computing to the tune of Billions of dollars, as it comes at the expense of other subjects, activities and resources, may well be considered educational malpractice (Oppernheimer, 1997).

A study published in Israel only a few days ago reports results that correspond to Oppenheimer's verdict. Thus, are our expectations, and consequently the financial investments in educational computing, justified? Are computers likely to have a profound and positive impact on education? Or is all this no more than fantasy and wishful thinking? Indeed, why do we witness profound effects on, say, advertising, medicine, or travel and not on formal education? What is there in education that succeeds to avoid any major changes? Numerous answers have been offered, blaming the conservative nature of education, its need to maintain the facade of being updated without really changing, and more. I'd like to add my two pennies worth of thoughts on the matter.

In my opinion there are three factors involved here: The technological paradox (or the rule of trivialization), the technocentic focus (or how omnipotence turns into impotence), and misguided research (or how not to learn from past experiences). To an extent, these three factors represent different takes on the same issue, and they complement each other.

The first factor, the Technological Paradox, results from the consistent tendency of the educational system to preserve itself and its practices by the assimilation of new technologies into existing instructional practices. Technology becomes "domesticated", which really means, that it is allowed to do precisely that which fits into the prevailing educational philosophy of cultural transmission. According to this implicitly espoused philosophy, there are those who know and those who don’t; there is a body of important knowledge that all will have to master; and mastery comes through acquisition, internalization, rehearsal, and digestion. It is of course acknowledged that learners differ from each other and hence the knowledge ought to be transmitted in bite sizes that fit each learner’s channel and digestive capacity.

According to this view, knowledge can be transmitted and the role of technology is to assist in this process. Hence the development of drill and practice programs, courseware, and such, which until recently have dominated the use of computers in schools (Becker, 2000). Learners are to learn from the technology, but its uniqueness as tools of construction, communication and design to learn with, not from, is suppressed. Nobody wants to upsets the prevailing practices by rocking the educational boat. To quote MattiSinko, of Finland (LLINE, 98)

Information Communication Technology has come into the classroom and homes, but the new learning paradigm has stayed in therhetorics. Information Communication Technology is seldom used in student-centered planning of learning or guidance… The new concept of learning seems to serve more as an argument for using Information Communication Technology than in the actual use (p. 217).

A very recent survey carried out in the USA by Henry Becker (1999) shows that whereas 68% of the teachers report using the Internet, and 28% report using it at least once a week, 18% use the Internet to post information, suggestions, opinions, or student work and only 16% use email to communicate professionally with other teachers.

There is a paradox in here. A most powerful and innovative technology is taken and is domesticated such that it does more or less what its predecessors have done, only it does it a bit faster and a bit nicer. Consequently, nothing really happens, which comes to prove what skeptics have argued all along and what misguided research tends to show: Technology makes no difference in learning. But of course it cannot make a difference since it has been domesticated to be totally subservient to the ongoing practices. Emasculated tools cannot do any harm, but they do not do any good either.

Disappointments and their reasons (II)

The second and most important factor is the technocentric focus. Leaving the technological paradox aside and turning to those elements in education that do want to see a change, it appears that they entertain the expectation that computers, all on their own, will bring about a change. Sheidlinger (1995) provides typical hype about the Internet, as follows:

…the role of IT is not to help, deepen, widen or enrich but to replace the school and the teacher. As the tractor did not come to improve the horse or electricity to "complement" the candle so will IT, headed by a few excellent teachers, ensure far improved learning and teaching over the present. Concepts like "the human factor" and "human touch" belong to the past!(Sigmond Sheidlinger, 1995).

I have come to recently read numerous rationales, description, prescriptions, recommendations and visions of CMC in higher education distance learning. In most expositions I have encountered there was a common point of departure, the basis for all the rationales: What the Internet, throughALN, CMC and the like can accomplish. Hardly ever did I find a paper that starts out from the learning perspective. Technology is the beginning and the justification for all rationales. What is possible become desirable!

It is interesting to note that this technocentric approach is taken not only by technophiles but also by teachers and students. Oppenheimer (1997) reports on a poll taken in the USA that found that teachers ranked computer skills and media technology as being more important and more essential to master than history, science or dealing with social problems such as drugs, teenage pregnancy and divorce. It is the technology that needs to be mastered as an end in itself, not as a means for the acquisition of something such as knowledge or social skill. Teachers in one of our better teacher training colleges were taught a new (constructivist) pedagogy and the technology that helps realize it in real classrooms. Students were given the opportunity to experience first hand a constructivist, team-based, problem-oriented and technology intensive pedagogy. But when asked what was the most significant thing they have experienced and learned, they reported that it was the use of the computer! Pedagogy was rarely mentioned.

Not knowledge but the computer becomes the centerpiece! Why? Because, as I have said in the beginning of my talk: The computer, like the Biblical apple, commands much attention, as it is a far more tempting object than a new approach to teaching. More specifically, as that study with the student teachers has shown, mastering the technology promotes one’s self esteem and perceived self efficacy, while mastery of the new pedagogy arouses uncertainty. Little wonder, then, that this seductive tool is expected to produce results all on its own. Indeed, one may ask: Are we not aware of computer's long-range drip effects on society, commerce and communication? Don't they take place quite automatically without much doing? Would not education be so lucky as to experience the same? The answer is that it might, but there are at least two reasons why this is not a particularly useful attitude to entertain. First, drip effects on society are long-range, something education cannot justifiably sit and wait for. Second, and far more importantly, these long-range effects are unintended. There can be all kinds of unintended effects, some may even be educationally interesting but many may not. Only recently have we learned from three large scale studies about adverse effects of Internet communication: As it turns out, Internet users experience an increase in loneliness, depression, and anxiety and their social relations become shallow and fleeting (Kraut, et. al., 1998). Education is not in the business of producing unintended and unknown effects; it is designed to attain well-intended positive outcomes!

Others may argue, and they do so quite forcefully, that we should not wait for some unknown and unintended effects, but rather we should join the technological bandwagon and, as they call it – "move with the times". Consider more specifically the case of higher education. It is now claimed that higher education, as we know it, fortified as it is in its ivory towers, can become increasingly more virtual, democratic, egalitarian and less costly. Its three functions – preservation of knowledge, production of new knowledge and transmission of knowledge can easily be replaced today by on-line courses, always accessible to all from everywhere. Indeed, who needs today the 37 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica if it is free of charge on the Internet? Why pay $17,500 for the last print collection of one million abstracts in chemistry if you can access them on the net? The same applies to the spread of virtual research communities covering the whole globe, and, of course, teaching, the labor intensive activity that can be easily and cheaply replaced by on-line courses(Noam, 1996). Writes Hutchinson (1995), of the School of Information Systems in the UK:

"In the constantly and rapidly changing world in which we now live, with new technologies relentlessly redefining the way we work and live, it may not merely be an anachronism to continue to embrace the model of the traditional residential university as the primary locus of learning -- it may arguably be an impediment to appropriate learning and ultimately a threat to growth, both economic and personal."

It would seem that we have reached the Garden of Communicational and Educational Eden when we fully embrace virtual instruction: Once all of us join the technological bandwagon equal-to-all high quality education will be attained.

This is in my eyes is the ultimate oftechnocentrism; it totally ignores some crucial social and human factors. Without taking these into consideration, virtual distance learning – as one example of technocentrism – is in danger of yielding virtual results. Indeed, this can be witnessed by the pitiful small percentage of students who actually graduate distance learning courses of studies with real degrees. Not many students have the self-discipline or the sustained motivation to be distance-, virtual learners.

At this point allow me to deviate for a few moments to elaborate on one such human factor, a factor that raises questions about the centrality of technology as it pertains to the acquisition of knowledge.

Herbert Simon made an important observation. He claimed that the concept of knowledge, which until now was taken as a noun denoting possession, is gradually becoming a verb denoting access. It is now less and less important what you carry in your head for eventual use sometimes in the future; it becomes far more important what information you can access when desired and what you know what to do with it. Knowledge thus changes its meaning from being an object-like entity which is to be hoarded like valued goods to an activity of instrumental utility.

Simon's observation implies an important distinction between access to information and the knowledge that guides it and results from it. The growing emphasis on access to information, and the processes of selection and integration that it implies, compel us to distinguish between information and knowledge.

The information encountered and accessed is not the same as the knowledge constructed on its basis. Information is not knowledge. It is perhaps for this reason that we are talking of the information highway and of the information age, not the knowledge highway and not the knowledge age.

What are the differences between the two?

    1. Information is discrete, knowledge is arranged in networks with meaningful connections between the nodes
    2. Information can be transmitted as is; knowledge needs to be constructed as a web of meaningful connections
    3. Information need not be contextualized; knowledge is always part of a context
    4. Information requires clarity; the construction of knowledge is facilitated by ambiguity, conflict and uncertainty.
    5. Mastery of information can be demonstrated by its re-production; mastery of knowledge is demonstrated by its novel applications

This process of transforming information into knowledge is an effort demanding and purposeful process. Information items do not link to each other all on their own, except for by sheer association. Connecting them requires at least two things: Tutelage, and a community of learners.

Concerning tutelage, there is no need to explicate here the importance of social mediation in learning. It is crucial in helping the individual transform information into knowledge, it serves as an external model and supervisor of yet-to-be-developed self regulation, and it sees to it that motivations are sustained in the face of competing motivations. I once studied (Salomon,Globerson, & Guterman, 1989) the extent to which an intelligent computer program can serve as a "more capable peer" in students’ZPD. It can, but – for whatever reason - it is no match to a human tutor; it lacks most everything that we'd include in the concept of "human touch".

This relates to the second factor – a community of learners. Again, there is no need to reiterate here the importance of the interpersonal component in learning. We have increasingly clearer ideas as to the importance of socially distributed cognitions and of socially appropriated knowledge as indispensable and fundamental elements of good learning. Computer Mediated Communication tries to emulate the functions of tutelage and community, but as Roschelle and Pea (1999) point out, unlike what Internet evangelists claim, facilities for the exchange of messages over the web are not really "collaborative tools" as they do not usually afford the creation of shared beliefs, values and deeper knowledge.

As creatures who are quite stingy when it comes to the expenditure of mental effort, frequently preferring to mindlessly follow familiar routines (Langer, 1997), we are often satisfied with the raw information which thus yields inert, useless, or ritual "knowledge". This is information that masquerades as knowledge as it just sits there like a piece of useless wood, or is mindlessly executed like a ceremonial geometric dance. For indeed,

"Seduced by the effortless gathering of data, we discount the costs of turning data into information, information into knowledge, and knowledge into wisdom" (Harris, 1987).

Here is where the technocentric approach misses the point:

"Schooling is not about information. It's getting kids to think about information. It's about understanding and knowledge and wisdom" (Larry Cuban, 1993).

Whether information is turned into meaningful knowledge or stays as a collection of scattered bits and pieces, like an assortment of screws and nails in a shoe box, greatly depends on numerous factors, and technology plays but a minor role among them. Technology can provide the information, allowing easy access, it can offer problems to be solved, like in simulations, it can afford means of traversing new multimedia routes or connect students from three continents, but it cannot transform the information accessed into knowledge for them.

Disappointments and their reasons (III)

And then, if you remember, there is a third factor which in my eyes contributes to the disappointment with the computer revolution in education as it reinforces the technocentric tendencies: Misguided research.

Research on the new media today is misguided in at least two ways. One misguided way concerns the ubiquitous question: Does the use of medium X produce better learning results than medium Y (Usually a tired and lonely instructor or professor); the other misguided way concerns the kinds of outcomes we expect from the new media and which we study. There are literally hundreds if not thousands of studies that keep repeating this horse-racing paradigm, a paradigm that has been condemned and sentenced to death years ago when discovery learning, educational television, and CAI were compared with their traditional competitors. Now it is ALN courses versus F2F classes. It is still the same horse race paradigm. Neither Cronbach’s idea of interactions with individual differences, or interactions with tasks and with contents, nor Bronfenbrenner’s idea of ecological context, have had an impact on the vast majority of studies. The horse race approach – who runs faster, who arrives first – which disregards aptitudes, tasks, contents and contexts still reign supreme with the omnipresent conclusion of No Significant Differences. Thomas Russell has recently established two websites(http://cuda.teleeducation.nb.ca/nosignificantdifference/index.cfm), annotating research about learners’ use of computer mediated communication.

Of 374 studies in which CMC was compared with F2F communication, only nineteen studies, that is – 5%, showed any difference between the treatments; of these, a third showed it to be in favor of F2F. Notice how such research, pitting one medium against another, with no regard for human and situational factors, reinforces the belief that it is the technology that ought to make the difference. The consistent lesson that it does not seems to be continuously ignored.

The second misguided issue pertains to the kinds of outcomes measured or observed. Say, we study a new learning environment, replete with technology, team work, authentic problem solving, and the likes. What do we end up measuring? By and large – routine, traditional achievements. Why is this misguided in my eyes? Because different means, if they are powerful, serve different rather than the same ends. The greater the difference between the means -- the greater the diversity of outcomes that can be attained. The technology we are now concerned with, powerful and different as it is supposed to be, is not just another means to attain the same old goals traditional education has tried to serve. Not that there is anything wrong with the three R’s or with the accumulation of college level information; but the idea of introducing high tech into education was not to do the same things a bit better, faster or cheaper. We wanted profound changes, not slight improvements. Imagine that someone in Europe at the end of the Seventeen’s Century would have discovered electricity. It would have been a missed opportunity to evaluate that discovery in terms of its ability to light fires in the coal stoves.

When novel, often constructivist and technology intensive learning environments are designed, as for example, the Schools for Thought project, then not just the old objectives are attained but entirely new goals become attainable. When we say that the Internet affords new activities, new experiences, and new ways of encountering the world, we want to attain new goals such as the ability to ask smart questions, to work in teams, to acquire life-long-learning skills, to construct higher order knowledge and perhaps above all, to be able to tackle new, complex problems in intelligent and creative ways. Looking only for the amount of retained information is stooping to the lowest common denominator of attainments. Here is a modest example of a study we have carried out, comparing novel, constructivist classrooms with traditional ones. The point of the study was not to test which environment is "better" but which is better for what purpose. As it turned out, traditional classrooms produced better mastery of recalled information, whereas the more technology intensive, constructivist classrooms produced better improved skill of question formulating, hypothesis generation and ability to intelligently tackling a new problem.

Notice how these two misguided research approaches keep reinforcing the technological paradox and the technocentric approach: The paucity of convincing findings reinforces the view that the whole enterprise is not worth the investment; the dominance of the medium in the horse-race approach to research reinforces the expectation that technology in and of itself will do the trick, and the search for the same old kinds of achievements fails to show in what new ways technology can and does make a genuine difference.

If it ain’t technology, what is it then?

So, if it is not the technology alone, what does make a difference and what role does technology play in this respect? Technology alone, as I have tried to show and as all of us know, is but a trigger, it is an opportunity, it is anaffordance, but there is a huge difference between what technology can do, what it does in actuality and what, in our eyes, it should be doing. We have a fairly good idea of what technology is capable of affording. We are also quite aware of the gap between that affordance and its realization in actuality. What technology does or fails to do in education depends far less on what it can do and far more on what education allows it to do. The gap between the two is accounted for, in part, by such factors as the technological paradox,technocentrism, misguided research and such. These are factors that prevent the potential of what could happen from actually becoming realized.

But should everything that technology could make happen actually take place? When visionaries tell us that more and more instruction will take place via remote communication, is this what we really want? How compatible is this with what we know, for example, about the difficulties of self-regulated learning of the lonely student? Would we want to move socialization away from the school-based peer group and into the family den?

To use Sarason's wise words, in education, not everything possible, wondrous as it might be, is necessarily also desirable. Clearly, the fact that you can do something does not automatically make it also desirable only because it is possible; after all, there are so many bandwagons to join but only a handful would be considered educationally desirable. But desirable in light of what? If technology is allowed to transform education, will this be a transformation driven by what is technologically possible or will it be driven by what is desirable? Will technology be a source of new possibilities to be judged in light of some wider educational rationale, or will the rationale be drawn around the bull’s eye of what technology affords? Will technology be allowed to play the role of the great educational seducer, a bandwagon luring education to hop on it and join the e-commerce crowd? To put it differently – will the technological tail be allowed to wiggle the educational dog or will it be the other way around?

A persuasive and practical educational rationale would most likely be based on three foundations: First, we need a vision of graduate we’d want our educational system to cultivate. As I see it, in this age of postmodern decline of criteria for judgment and decision making, when knowledge multiplies every couple of years, when people change their vocations every so often, where access to information becomes more important than possession, and where technology is so dominant, we’d want our graduates to be independent, mindful thinkers, skilled in life long learning, capable of intelligently handling complex problems alone and in teams, and guided by some social values that transcend egotistic benefits.

Second, a good and useful rationale would consider what intelligent learning is. As I, like many others see it, it is a constructive process of guided knowledge building supported by team work. Berieter would add ideas likeintentionality, as in intentional learning, and Jim Greeno - participation. Seen in the light of a rationale based on such a conception of"intellignet learning", it is reasonable to wonder, as Roschelle and Pea (1999) do, whether Web-based activities allow genuine construction of knowledge (which they don't), or whether the Web's flood of information really promotes higher order thinking.

And then, of no lesser importance, is an understanding of what technology can afford.

Such rationales, as developed and realized by Bereiter and Scardamalia with their CSILE program, by the Vanderbilt group with their Anchored Instruction, by the late Ann Brown with her Community of Learners, or by all three of them under the label of Schools for Thought, are prime examples of where a vision determines the role of technology, not the other way around. Education is far too important to society to be wiggled by a technological tail. Let technology show us what can be done, and let educational considerations determine what will be done in actuality.