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Academic Transformation: It’s About Technology, With a Capital “T” (Part 1)

Academic Transformation: It’s About Technology, With a Capital “T” (Part 1)
New technological innovations have been bursting onto the educational scene for more than a century, but they are rarely created or introduced in such a way that promises real change.
Ask the average person to define the word “technology” and he or she is likely to point to a smart phone, laptop computer, high-definition TV or some other immediately available electronic device. But if you look up the definition of the word, you’ll discover most scholars view the term more broadly to mean “the systematic application of scientific and other organized knowledge to practical tasks.”[1] Stated differently, Technology (with a capital “T”) is the application of our knowledge about tools, techniques or systems to solve practical problems.

In addition to the fact that the word’s meaning is actually much broader than most people realize, there are a few other things that should strike us about this definition. First, in some respects, Technology is almost more of a verb than a noun. While it obviously involves some sort of thing (tool, technique or system) it’s the application — how we use the thing — that’s key to the definition. Second, note that what is actually being applied in the definition is our knowledge of the thing. This suggests we must have a keen sense of the affordances or “action possibilities” that the tool, technique or system provides upon which we might capitalize.[2] And, third, the definition presupposes a practical problem that must be solved or a need that must be addressed. One might even say that, unless the application of our knowledge of the tool, technique or system is addressing some practical problem, it cannot be called a Technology at all.

Why make this distinction? Because there is a long history of technologies (lower-case “t”) bursting onto the scene accompanied by great excitement over their potential to disrupt education — that then never materializes. For example, in 1913, Thomas Edison was so enthusiastic over the motion picture’s instructional potential that he predicted educational films would make textbooks obsolete and would change schooling completely.[3] In the 1930s and ’40s, pundits claimed radio had “undreamed of possibilities for education” that would result in vast “universities of the air” with courses taught by the national leaders of their fields.[4][5] In the 1950s, educators, faced with post-World War II teacher shortages and baby-boom classroom overcrowding, viewed television as an efficient and inexpensive way to satisfy the nation’s instructional needs.[6] In the 1960s and ’70s, mainframe computers integrating audio-visual media were predicted to provide students access to “the personal services of a tutor as well-informed and as responsive as Aristotle.”[7] And, by the early 1980s, enthusiasts such as Seymour Papert predicted that the microcomputer would restructure schooling while Time Magazine claimed the new generation of “microkids” was spearheading an electronic revolution.[8][9]

Tracing this 100-year-old history of technology in education reveals a repeating pattern of initial enthusiastic claims followed by subsequent classroom implementation difficulties that leads eventually to the discovery of an underlying lack of instructional substance. In the end, the basic act of teaching has changed very little by the introduction of technology in the classroom, despite all the hype.

The issue here is that simply introducing a new tool, technique or system into an educational context changes nothing unless we first understand the need it is intended to fill and how to capitalize on its unique capabilities to address that need. In the absence of this understanding, educators tend to rely on techniques they already know. This is perhaps most clearly illustrated by a 1927 photograph of an “aerial classroom” Cuban discovered in his research on constancy and change in the classroom.[10] Depicted is an extraordinary opportunity for students to experience geography first hand from the windows of an airplane. But the students aren’t looking out their windows from their bolted-to-the-floor airplane desks. Instead, their attention is focused on their teacher standing at the front of the cabin, in front of a chalkboard and pointing at a globe.

To read the next installment in the series, please click here.

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[1] Galbraith, J.K. (1967). The new industrial state. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

[2] Gibson, J.J. (1977). The theory of affordances. In R. Shaw & J. Bransford (Eds.), Perceiving, acting, and knowing. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

[3] Saettler, L.P. (1990). The evolution of American educational technology. Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited.

[4] Ferrand, L. (1931). Address of welcome. In L. Tyson (Ed.), Radio and education: Proceedings of the first assembly of the National Advisory Council on Radio in Education, (Vol. 1, pp. 1-4). Chicago: University of Chicago.

[5] Waller, J. (1934). Where is American radio heading? Education on the air, (No. 5, pp. 29-44). Columbus, OH: Ohio State University.

[6] Hezel, R.T. (1980). Public broadcasting: Can it teach? Journal of Communication, 30, 173-178.

[7] Suppes, P. (1966). Sets and numbers (teacher’s ed., books K-6). New York: Random House.

[8] Seymour Papert. (1984). New Theories for New Learnings: a transcript from the National Association of School Psychologists Conference. School Psychology Review, 13(4), 422-428.

[9] Here come the microkids. (May 3, 1982). Time, 50-56.

[10] Cuban, L. (1986). Teachers and machines: The classroom use of technology since 1920. New York: Teachers College.

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