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Down with technological determinism

November 23, 2009

Technological determinism is the belief that technology X will always yield result Y. Today my colleague had to endure a couple of mini-rants as I reacted to flagrant determinism, first in a survey and later in an article.

Sometimes determinism leads to faulty research questions, like “Which learning theory is best promoted by technology X?” The answer is “none and all.” It depends on how the technology is used – the teaching strategy.

At other times determinism results in dismissing a tool altogether: death to technology X! Regrettably, certain learning technologies are easy to use badly. It’s also easy to drive a car like an idiot, but bad habits can be corrected.

And now, a few overstated examples to drive the point home:

  • Printing press: There are lots of badly written books out there. Do we keep all books out of the classroom? No, we are careful which books we recommend.
  • Video: There is a lot of manipulative, deceptive video on TV, on the web, and in theaters. Should we eschew video? No, help students understand the subtexts as well as the obvious.
  • Clickers: There are many ways clickers can be used to engage students in learning. Does that mean we need to use them all the time? No, be judicious. If we overuse a strategy students will disengage.
  • Second Life: A virtual world offers intriguing possibilities for simulation and communication. Should we tear down the ivy-covered walls tomorrow? Of course not – this technology is just not ready for prime time.

So what’s the point? It’s this: rather than asking, “Is technology X inherently effective?” the question should be “Can I use technology X to help students learn Y effectively?” One last thing – frequently the answer is that NO technology is needed.

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