Progressive
Perspectives
Year 2001 Monograph Series
Volume 3  Number 3                 John Dewey Project on Progressive Education                  Winter  2001
                     College of Education and Social Services, University of Vermont

Re-envisioning Technologies for Education and Democracy:

Ruthanne Kurth-Schai and Charles R. Green

INTRODUCTION

    Educational technology, though widely accepted as an important resource for extending the senses and evolving understanding, can either augment or obstruct progressive educational goals in subtle and complex ways. Contemporary policy discourse on the topic, however, is often neither subtle nor complex enough. Much of what we hear is reduced to the recurrent interplay of sharply opposing positions. As we are inundated by the sounds of overzealous corporate hype, countered by equally impassioned voices of ardent critics, our deliberations concerning appropriate uses of technology in schools and society can become unnecessarily limited. Such discourse seemingly restricts our conceivable options either to full-scale adoption of the latest technological 'fix', or to avoidance based on principle or by default. In this essay we propose that re-envisioning the development and use of technology to support progressive educational aspirations requires more expansive and intensive listening. 1 The momentum of the dominant visual metaphor in calling for 're-envisionment' can obscure the need for a fuller integration of the senses in effecting political and educational reform. In addition to intelligent foresight, many voices are required to support the teaching and learning necessary to sustain democracy. We have structured this essay with narrative sections followed by related commentary to invite our readers to join us in listening both to the experiential and to the theoretical voices that have influenced our thinking, and also to those that have moved us to action in relation to these challenging issues. 2

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From the Director:
  The role of technology in our schools is certainly a major issue facing teachers, school administrators, school boards and students. Budget items devoted to upgrading computer hardware and software are routinely listed in school budgets across the state of Vermont. Some community members express concerns about the use of computers in the classroom, while others laud the educational benefits of computers. Our children are increasingly exposed to "virtual realities" that are socializing them, whether we like it or not. Brain research studies are showing that young people are beginning to learn differently, attributing much of this change to the rapid developments in our information technologies. In their article, "Re-envisioning Technologies for Education and Democracy," Ruthanne Kurth-Schai and Charles Green present a provocative look at the tensions inherent in technology and education. By offering a possible scenario of how a school board member, "Naomi," might be confronted with making some tough decisions about accepting "free" technology, they stimulate us to think of the very real implications of such decisions on schools and students. They invite us to consider what Naomi's response should be. We have two respondents in this volume and invite more. Jim Moulton, of the Maine Center for Educational Service, and the John Dewey Project's own Chris Koliba provide their thoughtful responses to "Naomi's Dilemma." Chris also offers a book review of Hank Bromley and Michael W. Apple's, Education/Technology/Power: Education Computing as a Social Practice. I believe this monograph provides us with a variety of perspectives on the role of technology in our children's education. The issues are complex and require us to take a step back and ask the critical questions: How might a greater variety of technological tools be used to enhance students' critical thinking and problem solving activities? How can computers be employed to foster social interaction and collaborative work? In what ways might evolving technologies limit human social, moral, emotional, and cognitive development? And as C.A. Bowers asks, in his recently released book Let Them Eat Data: How Computers Affect Education, Cultural Diversity, and the Prospects of Ecological Sustainability (2000, University of Georgia Press), what sorts of cultural patterns are created and enforced through the use of computers? The promise of information technology is immense, but only time will tell whether it contributes in a meaningful way to the development of a more just, democratic, creative, and participatory society.
Kathleen Kesson, Director JDPPE

Re-envisioning Technologies for Education and Democracy Cont.
Ruthanne Kurth-Schai and Charles R. Green
Departments of Education and Political Science
Macalester College
 
 

    It was clearly a good deal: the latest technology---free!  The young charismatic CEO from the state’s leading software company had offered the Board a gift of his latest teaching / learning product for installation in all the District’s middle schools. The Board had listened as he made his presentation with a confident demonstration of his “multi-modal, cutting edge technology” and forceful talk of its promise for education.  Yet he closed quietly, with a subdued reading of an old Indian aphorism:

    “Learning is the best of all wealth; it is easy to carry, thieves
cannot steal it and tyrants cannot seize it; neither fire nor water can
 destroy it; and far from decreasing, it increases by giving.”

    It was a compelling presentation and the Board had listened attentively.  They had been offered a gift of the newest learning technology---what a good deal for the District!

    Naomi had listened closely to the CEO’ s offer of his technology gift with growing excitement.  She had run for reelection to the School Board on a platform featuring more effective use of educational technology, more productive business and community partnerships, and more budget relief.  She had heard her constituents talk frequently about the importance of technology in schools, so when the Board Chair asked for a Member to conduct a brief ‘impact assessment’ regarding the offer, she volunteered immediately.

    Like all school districts in her state, Naomi’s was hard pressed for financial resources.  This offer could be a major contribution toward critical budget relief as well as being an image-maker for their schools.  The young CEO had mentioned his desire to use the middle schools as the background site for his company’s advertising campaign.  He had said both the students and his software were very “photogenic.” She knew, however, there could be problems with any corporate-school partnership.  The up-front offer of the technology and support would inevitably require something in return  probably something more than a few photo opportunities with the students.  Yet this technology was an attractive prospect.

    The District’s chief technology and media administrator was impressed, especially with the prospect of having one central system. He was stretched beyond his department’s resources to support the wide variety of educational software individual schools and teachers had bought.  He was sure this offer was a very good deal for him.
 

    The at once promising and difficult situation Naomi faces is not uncommon.  Important connections between “democracy,” “'education,” and “technology” spark impassioned debates concerning the nature and purpose of public education.  There are so many voices distributed across time-space---some amplified through position or crisis, some muted and barely audible in the background. To whom do we listen?  So many criticisms, stories, initiatives, and dreams are voiced. What are we listening for?
    From the voices alluded to in Naomi’s story, to the foundational voice of John Dewey and the rich voices of the current commentators and critics, there is much challenging listening to do.3   But to respond productively to these voices and to the others they represent, we must do more than attend to the content of their messages.  A highly interactive and integrative “form” of listening is required if we are to develop technologies that can support our efforts to transform education and democracy.
    We suggest that listening in order to create and sustain experiences of deep learning and democratic living is a radically social, imaginative, ethical, aesthetic, and exploratory process. Our experience has taught us that it is possible to learn to listen in this manner by engaging in technologically supported approaches to teaching and learning that we describe as conversational, compositional, and courageous.
    We further propose that the technology necessary to support this form of active listening currently exists, and is reasonably accessible.  We contend that it is possible to begin the process of transforming education and democracy by supporting teachers and students in using available technology differently (i.e.,  shaping usage to fit specific learning goals rather than realigning goals to fit available technologies).  Progressive agendas can then be further moved by providing the encouragement and resources necessary to engage students and teachers in the actual design and development of new technologies even more responsive to the challenges of democratic learning and life.

CONVERSATION

    As an active Board member, Naomi had found it prudent to spend time in the schools to listen administrators and teachers.  She had called ahead to the middle school that her children had attended years ago. She wanted to visit with the people who would be most affected by the gift: students and teachers.  She had asked to sit in on a newly created [service learning] class.  The class had been developed to meet the new State Graduation Standards that required students to “demonstrate abilities to effectively utilize human and technological resources in problem-solving.”   While many in the District complained that the new state mandates were just another round of oppressive and burdensome interventions into classrooms, a number of teachers had collaborated with renewed imagination.  This [service learning] class was one response that fascinated Naomi.

    The classroom quieted as she walked in.  The teacher and the student teacher both knew she was coming and greeted Naomi warmly.   The classroom’s  twenty-five students clustered around five tables, two of which were centered by computers.  She had the CEO’s generous offer in mind as she tried to blend into the purposeful murmur as the activity resumed.  This seemed to be a perfect place for powerful technology.

    Not wanting to distract the students from their work, Naomi quickly fell into conversation with the student teacher who enthusiastically sketched the history of the class project:  “We just kind of stumbled onto a swamp.  Well, not exactly fell in, but then some of the kids actually have gotten wet. I mean this whole project is both about a swamp and at times it seems like it’s becoming a swamp!”

    What had begun as a joint venture with an ecology class down the hall had evolved into a very complex project.  Initially, students from both middle school classes worked with volunteers from the nearby university to learn about local wetlands.

    “It has a wonderful, complicated ecology, “ the student teacher continued.  “The swamp provides habitat for many plants and animals that few of us had ever noticed before. “

    While the swampiest part was an environmentally protected area, most of it was privately owned and now thought to be a prime development site. A nursing home had proposed expanding onto some of the adjoining land.  “That would provide our elderly residents with a scenic overlook of the wetland and its wonderful wildlife activity as well as help us meet our pressing need for new facilities,” the nursing home’s director had said during a class visit.

    Two competing real estate developers had submitted plans for housing tracts.  Both required extensive land filling, but neither directly encroached on the protected area.  While no one from the developer’s offices had time to talk with the students, both companies sent brochures with colorful artists’ sketches of the wetland with the proposed homes on spacious lots forming the background.

    If that weren’t enough to occupy the members of the Planning Commission, who must decide on any building and land use permits, the county chapter of an environmental organization was opposed to any development on or near the wetland.  It proposed that the county buy the whole wetlands site and make it into a nature center.

    Toward the end of the last term, the service learning students became interested in more than learning about the swamp’s natural ecology.  Its  future in the community emerged as their present focus.

    The teacher continued Naomi’s briefing.  “Some of our students interviewed Planning Commission members and some others attended a couple of the environmental group’s recent meetings.  We got all the newspaper’s articles on-line from the paper’s website and also got to interview two of the reporters and a features editor.”

    “What are they doing there at the computers?” Naomi asked, referring to the two groups of students clustered and chattering around computers on the tables.

    “We’re reviewing the State Wetlands Regulations and looking at the Environmental Impact Statement that the nursing home filed when it proposed its expansion last year, ” the teacher responded.  “The developers haven’t filed theirs yet. It looks like they’ll push the filing deadline.  We’ve been in e-mail contact with a person at the local office of the Environmental Protection Agency.  He has agreed to help the students out by answering their questions on-line.”

    “Isn’t that pretty dense, technical stuff for middle school kids?”  Naomi asked.

    “Wow, not just for middle schoolers,” the student teacher interrupted.  “But they’re trying to prepare questions for their visit to the EPA office at the end of next week.”

    “And what about these other students---what are they doing this morning?”  Naomi asked.

    “Perhaps you’d like to talk with them directly, “ the teacher suggested.

    One small group was revising questions for interviews with residents and business people in the swamp’s neighborhood.   They had “pre-tested” their first draft questions on their parents and were confused and a little overwhelmed by the results.  They fired off comments:

    “My mom was mostly worried about me wandering around asking total strangers all these questions.  She said like we should leave the swamp to the mosquitoes and concentrate on real school stuff.”

    “My dad said that the houses would mean more property taxes for the city and maybe less for him to pay than if the nursing home built there or if it became a public park or whatever.  Anyway, he says the city and the county don’t have enough money to buy the swamp.”

    “My family thinks that the nature center is a neat idea and it could be a kind of community thing and be part of all our schools’ programs. They said we need to protect what’s left of our town’s ‘open spaces’”.

    “Well, my aunt is like on the Board of Trustees of the nursing home and my grandfather lives there.  You know, you met him when we did our service learning for “seniors” unit there. Well, my aunt she says the Home wouldn’t interfere with the swamp near as much as some fancy new houses.  She said that most of the houses would be built on dirt they’ll have to haul from somewhere and dump into the swamp.”

    “Dad told me his service station could sure use more customers and those pictures of the new houses all have at least two car garages attached.  New business would be good for my family.”

    Naomi could well understand the students’ confusion.  Many voices clamored to be heard. She too became discouraged at School Board meetings when her questions just led to more questions followed by more information, none of which led her immediately closer to a clear cut solution.

    The last group of service learning students was discussing what they had heard at their Planning Commission visit.

    “One man told us what the Commission needed to know in order to decide what to do with our swamp,” a student told Naomi.

    Another in the group quickly added, “like, it’s a lot more than we can come up with!”

    “No way, we have much more information right now than we can ever use!   Like, we’re using websites they haven’t even heard about!“

     “What are you trying to do?” Naomi asked.

     “Why we’re going to make, I mean our service learning class is going  to present a big plan for our swamp to the Planning Commission.  We already have a lot of stuff from the people we’ve talked to and what we learned with the ecology class in school and around the swamp.”

    “And we’re getting tons of stuff from the websites we’ve found.  We have stuff from all over the state, and from other states, and some things from international agencies.  Tons of stuff!”

     Naomi could see that they did have a great deal of information and they had heard from many people with many ideas.  The student’s phrase “tons of stuff” connected Naomi back to her memories of the CEO’s powerful demonstration.  He had said his software package was based on “tons of stuff” from recent learning theory.  It was a versatile multi-media system that, he said, included some social and environmental analyses and decision-making modules.  How would that work here in this service learning class?

    As best as she could recall the CEO’s presentation, his offered gift was a highly resourceful interactive simulation with some conferencing and messaging features. Student users could call on embedded databases and even import selected information through links to other databases.  It was all very colorfully presented and used highly dynamic graphics with catchy sound segments.  The CEO had dubbed it  “arcade quality --- designed to capture the attention of the typical middle school kid.”

    The system framed a problem, then guided users toward the best solutions given the nature of the problem and the available information.  There were prompts for better lines of inquiry and little tutorials on some of the more detailed or technical parts.  There was also a very extensive “help” function that had been carefully developed by the systems’ clever designers and tested by computer professionals.

    Naomi felt that any middle school student could work by him or herself, interacting with this high capacity package and get a sense of the different types of information needed. It seemed a “good fit” for complex problems like this class’ “Swamp Plan.”  It could teach appropriate ways to prioritize information, and to represent and analyze problems.   Most importantly, it could help students to think rationally and pragmatically—even do cost/benefits calculations---the software could assist them in coming to the best possible decision.

    “Yes,” mused Naomi, ”this offer was clearly looking like a good deal!”

    Conversation has always been an important feature of community life in progressive classrooms.  In his classic work,  Democracy and Education, John Dewey defined criteria still useful today for judging the quality of our efforts to promote inclusive, goal-centered conversations.  Dewey proposed that the quality of a community’s ability to learn and to live together is measured by how fully and freely its members interact around numerous, broad, and varied interests. 4    He regarded conversation as perhaps the most important method of social interaction. 5
    Following Dewey’s lead, progressive educators can promote deliberation as a primary tool for social problem solving. 6   Most often the instructional emphasis is on thinking critically and speaking persuasively—we teach students to formulate, justify, and then convincingly present their own perspectives, with the intended outcomes of finding the best solution and then convincing others to agree.
    But an unfortunate and unintended consequence is that by doing so, we inadvertently encourage students to narrow their considerations and to silence diverse response.  At the same time, in light of serious concerns about the persuasive and authoritarian power of technology, we advocate for the curricular inclusion of “media literacy” as a requisite skill for democratic participation.
    This is not to say that we shouldn’t educate students in the arts of debate and persuasion, and in the uses of technology to enhance these.  Rather, it is to suggest that in order to meet Dewey’s criteria, we must develop with our students a practiced sense of the radically social and ethical character of listening required to collectively and collaboratively transform our thoughts, feelings, and actions.
     Listening that carries the capacity for personal and societal transformation is shaped by the intent to discover meaningful, often surprising, and sometimes challenging connections across many and varied perspectives.  Its demands are both radically social and ethical in that we are called to assume responsibility for drawing forth, clarifying, and eventually providing representation and advocacy for others whose voices are quite different from our own, especially for those whose voices might not otherwise be heard.
    Although the sharing of diverse and at times controversial positions is best initiated and sustained within the context of trusting and respectful face-to-face relationships, [interactive] technologies can play a significant supporting role. The capability of initiating and sustaining enriching personal connections can be extended across time and space through appropriate use of existing e-mail, [computer mediated conferencing technologies], and “chat room” utilities which so captivate contemporary youth.   Educational theorists and cognitive scientists also raise promising possibilities concerning the role of technology in moving the development of new strategies for teaching and learning about complex issues. 7  Now more than ever before, our students need opportunities to process and prioritize diverse and extensive sources of information.  Through strategic use of powerful search engines and course conferencing technologies already easily accessible on the Internet, large numbers of ideas can be disseminated, integrated, synthesized, and interpreted in multiple, dynamic, and interconnected ways. 8

COMPOSITION

    Naomi returned to the service learning class twice over the next two weeks.  She was becoming less sure about just how good a deal the technology actually would be for teaching and learning in this middle school setting.

     Early on she had come to the regrettable realization that the “in-school” resources the district provided were just not enough.  Still she was ambivalent about all the “out-of classroom” activity that an intensive service learning class entailed.  From her Board member perspective, there were the usual liability concerns and all the public relations risks of having middle school students interacting with so many community members.

    Naomi had then thought that the technology offered by the CEO would be a good alternative. It would keep the students in the classroom, be much more structured in its guidance for their projects, and would provide an attractive graphical, almost game like, format.  It might also control risky use of the Internet and access to unsuitable websites.   If the students used it here, maybe this classroom would even be less chaotic and noisy.

    But all that was changing.  Naomi was now a bit more at home in this class with its constant murmur.  The student teacher had told her how they had distributed the survey.  They had hand delivered it to [some people, particularly in the Nursing Home,  most area businesses, and private residences that boarders the wetlands, while e-mailing it to members of the Planning Commission, and to staff members; to the receptionists at the two Development companies; and to members of the executive committee of the environmental organization.

    The many survey responses revealed many good ideas but also many conflicting priorities. The student teacher lamented that the data had to be compiled and analyzed by hand.  “There is software for this,” she said impatiently.

     The class had divided up the task of designing their plan and had committed themselves to representing as accurately and fairly as they could the things they had been told and the things they had learned from their inquiry.  Naomi wondered how “software” would aid or interfere in both the classroom and the Board.

    To develop the preliminary presentations to their “constituents”---the various “stake holders” to whom the students had listened---the teacher had recommended that they should be sure that their proposal was understandable and responsive to the concerns expressed.  Although they should not expect to achieve widespread agreement on every aspect of the plan, they did need to be responsible to the people who had talked with them.  He encouraged his students to imagine how these people’s lives might change if their proposal was adopted. He told them that each person who participated in the planning should find within the proposal some connection to the story of their own life.  He told them about how powerful narratives could be.   He emphasized that the students should listen carefully before bringing their final recommendations to the Planning Commission.

    The students wanted to get people excited [about what they had found]---as excited as they had become.   They wanted them to see ideas expressed fairly in their proposal.   They wanted support from at least some of the people they had talked with.  Perhaps most importantly, they wanted to be taken seriously!

    That was all quite a challenge!  The student teacher told Naomi she’d encouraged the students to think creatively about how they might best  share their work.  She had asked them to consider what resources made learning easier for them, and what strategies held their attention.   The students had responded with an immediate barrage of suggestions for incorporating their writing, music, pictures, and animation.  The student teacher wished these middle schoolers had access to some of the multimedia authoring packages, desktop publishing, and presentation technologies she could use at her university.

    “It would really help with both understanding and expression here.  We need lots of different presentation tools---maps, pictures, some charts, and various types of sound and text production here,” she said.

    A student interrupted, “And we want to put video clips of the swamp and from our interviews into this.”

    Naomi was now quite sure that what these young students didn’t need was the “gift technology ” that had once so impressed her.  This learning experience required a customized mix of support that the students could themselves decide on and utilize.    Maybe the Board should provide resources to each class to compose the mix of technology that best supported  their particular projects and visions.

    The [service learning] teacher was speaking to the entire class, and Naomi thought perhaps especially for her attention:  “You know, it’s not only about being persuasive and narrowing to a decision.  It’s not just about a conclusion, however necessary that is at some point.   It’s about getting the Planning Commission and this class to continue to raise questions and remain open to new ideas.  It’s about keeping all of us open.”
 
 

    The word “composition” implies not only the inclusion of carefully selected elements but also their creative arrangement in an aesthetically pleasing (and persuasive) manner.  Beyond the ability to hear and to respectfully incorporate diverse voices in social problem-solving and design is the capacity to listen artistically for those very special connections that integrate purpose and beauty into an inspirational whole.  This is significant because it is the inspirational quality of a communal vision (like the one created by the service-learning students in our story) that guides and motivates imaginative attempts to translate shared dreams into educational and democratic realities.
    For most of us, what emerges from participation in an inclusive, goal-centered communal conversation is likely to be interesting and informative but not necessarily inspirational. There is a tendency to narrow in on surface understandings of the mean or the majority opinion, and then to settle for the safety of familiar solution paths.  Further support is needed if we are to work together with teachers and students in developing the aesthetic and imaginative dimensions of transformative listening.  (Yet, the question remains, what role should emerging technologies play in creating and sustaining dynamic exchanges between citizens—such as in the case of the service learning students in our story, whose interactions with agencies, organizations, and individuals located in their local community culminated in the students’ composition of an “unofficial” policy document?)
    Students’ sensitivities to the experiences and opinions of diverse “others” can be enhanced as they are challenged to grapple with the aesthetics of representing complex policy interests and concerns in formats that are both informative and emotionally engaging. “Hypertext” and “hypermedia” technologies can be arrayed to support student efforts to compose interactive multi-media presentations.  Theoretically limitless possibilities for organizing and expressing thoughts, voices, images, and feelings provide rich opportunities to consider design issues from multiple, dynamic, and novel perspectives, thereby encouraging students to “be creative in unpredictable ways.”9   As students share their policy presentations with others, and watch and listen to the responses, new avenues for artistry and accountability can be opened.
    In contemporary voices, we hear echoes of Dewey’s thoughts suggesting that the essence of teaching/learning (and political advocacy) is captured in acts of prophecy and poetry, whereby what is needed “to meet the needs of needful times” is  “called into existence”10; that teachers/learners (and responsible citizens) are moral artists, whose work is enhanced by collaborating with others in developing and acting upon an evolving capacity for moral imagination. 11  Through our engagement with varied forms of compositional technologies, we can strive to create opportunities for students to directly experience and mindfully attend to those connections between power and beauty, between ethics and aesthetics, which are capable of transforming our social, political, and educational lives.  It is possible to configure educational technologies to inspire persistent and principled action in ways that more traditional approaches to social planning and problem solving cannot.

COURAGE

    The [service learning] classroom was unusually quiet.  Students were actively working together on the final presentation.  Naomi sensed that it was not only a subdued atmosphere, but also one with unclear expectations.   The classroom looked a little like a crisis decision center. Both computers flickered. Maps, charts, some photographs and newsprint sheets with lists and planning outlines covered almost all of the wall space.  Left visible was one poster the teacher had been careful not to cover.  It quoted Pericles:

“Make up your minds that
happiness depends on being free,
and freedom depends upon
being courageous.”

     It was difficult for these middle school students to create presentations that were not only in-class assignments.  The student teacher had told them that they were not performing for the people to whom they had [initially] listened.   Instead they were being accountable to them.  Several students had already experienced conflict well beyond the differences they had hashed out between the class’s planning groups.  Parents, relatives, and neighbors had expressed many concerns and sometimes voiced sharp disapproval of their work.

    The class members had also struggled with making their presentation materials legible, understandable, and especially attention-getting.   They were used to flashy, riveting experiences in the movies and television they watched and the computer games they played at home.  There were so many stories to tell, voices to be heard, problems to be named, and solution paths to be explored---no one was quite sure what to do.

    “We really worked hard on this, but will the Planning Commission take a bunch of kids like us seriously?” asked one of the students.

    Naomi eyed the wall poster again and concluded Pericles was speaking as much to her about needed courage as he was to these young students.  Clearly, a different kind of technology package than the one offered to the District was needed. The “arcade” quality [of the offered technology] was certainly attractive, but it was mostly a closed interactive system designed by talented software guys who were not in this middle school classroom, not in this community, and not in this “swamp.”

    What was going on here was indeed a kind of adventure game, but not the type these students told her about playing, mostly alone at home; not like the violent video games that appalled her, and not at all like those Naomi’s children had played when they were this age.  The student teacher showed her pamphlets on some of the current multi-media construction tools and other software opportunities that could help. There were many alternatives available on the Internet.   But much more would be needed to support democratic projects like this one.   There needed to be more democratic technologies at work.

    “Perhaps democratic projects take more courage than most others,” the teacher said quietly.  “Do you think that this generous computer outfit of yours might be willing to partner with us on something like this?  Do you think they’d actually be willing to listen and learn with us? Do you think they could work with students in some kind of shared development?”

    Naomi was sharply challenged.  Could the School Board reshape the CEO’s generous technology offer into something else?   Was it even conceivable that it might be in the District’s best interests---in the students’ best interests--- to turn it down?

    She honestly didn’t know.  It really sounded like a good deal!  She was sure that the CEO had his own schedule and his own interests in mind.  She knew all of the other Board members favored accepting the offered software system.  The District’s [technology experts] certainly thought it would simplify life and be an impressive “cutting edge” addition to their resources.

    A burst of questions flooded her awareness.   How could she share with her Board colleagues what she had learned in only a few visits to this classroom?    How could she persuade them to think carefully about balancing all of the pros and cons involved in the CEO’s gift offer?  How could she tell them what would be needed for their middle schools when she didn’t know fully herself?

    Her troubling musings were interrupted by a student who asked, “And what do you think the community will do about our swamp?”

    The achievement of an imaginative, accountable composition—a design of a proposal to enhance the quality of community life—is a moment of pause and silence.  Akin to a musical “rest”, this moment provides a break to contemplate all that has been accomplished and to recover and create resources for exploratory listening in the future.  Moving on from and through conversation and composition requires courage—a courage that is both individual and social.
    To explore is to act creatively within the context of an often unknown and challenging world. Exploration is dependent upon a radical sense of openness—the willingness to seek out and then listen intently to new voices that continually re-open even the most inclusively and artistically composed personal convictions and social visions to further consideration, compromise, and change.
    As the process of exploration moves beyond openness to action, we are called upon to live with the complex consequences of engaging in bold constructions of education and democracy.  Those who propose new approaches to democratic learning and life quickly find themselves immersed in a myriad of “high stakes” situations that require experimental and unprecedented responses.  Repeatedly, they must summon the courage to persist in the face of uncertainty, ambiguity, perceived inadequacy, and pressures to revert to education and politics “as usual".
    Experience has taught us that such efforts, though valiant, far too often result in tragic tales of the increasingly isolated and alienated individual or very small group that struggles “against all odds” to sustain an instantiation of “the” answer within an oppressive, at times openly hostile, environment. Defensive and oppositional political strategies soon prevail, justified by a growing and ultimately paralyzing sense of victimization. 12
    The service learning students and their teachers in the story would face many such challenges as they developed their “swamp plan.”  Given the political hurdles and dilemmas, how prepared would the students have been to engage in democratic conversation, composition, and courage?  How might technology support students in the processes of social expression and collaborative inquiry that Dewey advocated?
    As we look to the future, we propose that a contemporary technological metaphor in the software genre—the adventure game—might be further developed to assist us in moving the ways in which we have come to understand, experience, and interpret collaborative inquiry and design.  The metaphor provides some possibilities for evolving pedagogical strategies to support and sustain shared exploration and risk-taking.
  Computer-based adventure games can provide platforms for exploratory teaching/ learning interactions across multi-layered, diversely expressed narrative frames.  In the best designs, players must venture together through complex scenarios with words, images, and sounds.  These rich situations offer resources for actions as well as obstacles and challenges to overcome.  These games’ relatively open architectures support varied event sequences, (the resources players select and the actions they take determine the scenario’s next “frame”), flexible action time-spaces (within adjustable limits, the players can proceed at their own pace---even looping back to reconsider prior stages), and multiple decision paths (there is no one best route toward an outcome).  Such loosely hierarchical structures support experience-based social learning.  Within a well designed adventure game, as in many learning situations, an evolution of more creative and complex responses is required in the face of surprising and ever more challenging contexts.  Multi-media representations can heighten sensory and aesthetic engagement.  Navigational tools can be incorporated to assist players in mapping their journey and plotting alternative routes, thereby providing connections across time, events, and places.  There are even systems of accountability to track resources used and progress made.
    Perhaps most important, the concept of “gaming” shapes emotional and intellectual engagement, encouraging playful, often novel responses, while the concept of “adventure” anticipates, even welcomes, uncertainty, ambiguity, and challenge.   For us the adventure game metaphor is helpful in shifting our imaginations from defensive stories of individual heroics in the face of uncaring, seemingly unassailable bureaucratic systems to proactive tales of communal inquiry, innovation, and change. By intentionally merging gaming programs with educational aims, students could engage in complex, real-life problem-solving.  With broader sharing in the development and responsible use of technologies, students could deepen and extend their experience and expression of social courage and resourceful action.
    While we do not need a “state of the art” information technology to recast collaborative work in education and democratic politics, we do advocate far more inclusive forms of information technology design.  We can all work to advance a collaborative transition from current multi-media authoring, conferencing, simulation, and presentation software toward systems that can support interactive strategic narratives and integrate deep planning scenarios.  This is not just the stuff of social science fiction!  Opportunities currently exist as the characters in Naomi’s narrative have discovered.  Creative alternatives to “education as usual,” to “ politics as usual,” and to “technology as usual” all require situated social imagination and courage.   As John Dewey reminds us, appropriately supported exploratory listening and responsible social action are essential to educate for and participate in a dynamic democracy.
 

In the spirit of “transformative listening”, we invite our readers to submit a narrative vignette to close this essay---Naomi’s recommendation to the Board…



1. Bickford, Susan, The Dissonance of Democracy: Listening, Conflict, and Citizenship  (Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press, 1996); Garrison, Jim, “A Deweyan Theory of Democratic Listening” Educational Theory 46 (1996) pp. 429-451.

2. The utility of narrative as a teaching/learning strategy is increasingly noted [see, for example, O’Riley, Patricia, “A Different Storytelling of Technology Education; Curriculum Re-Visions: A Storytelling of Difference,” Journal of Technology Education 7 (1996) pp. 28-40; and Schram, Sanford F. and Philip T. Neisser (Eds), Tales of the State: Narrative in Contemporary U.S. Politics and Public Policy (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1997)].

3. See, for example, Apple, Michael and Bromley, Hank, (Eds.)  Education/Technology/Power: Educational Computing as a Social Practice (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1998); Bowers, C.A., Education, Cultural Myths, and the Ecological Crisis: Toward Deep Changes (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1993); Croft, Richard S., “What is a Computer in the Classroom? A Deweyan Philosophy for Technology in Education,” Journal of Educational Technology Systems 22 (1993-94) pp. 301-08; Hickman, Larry A., John Dewey’s Pragmatic Technology (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990); Kane, Jeffrey, (Ed.) Education, Information and Transformation: Essay s on Learning and Thinking (Upper Saddle River, NJ, Merrill-Prentice Hall, 1999); Lanham, Richard A.  The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Fine Arts (Chicago & London, University of Chicago Press, 1993); Raboy Marc and Peter A. Bruk (Eds.), Communication For and Against Democracy  (Montreal & New York: Black Rose Press, 1989); Sclove, Richard, Democracy and Technology  (New York and London: Guilford Press, 1995).

4. Dewey, John,  Democracy and Education  (New York: Macmillan, 1916, 1984), p. 83.

5. Garrison, 1996, Ibid.

6.    Parker, Walter, ed. Educating the Democratic Mind (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1996).

7. See for exmaple Burbules, Nicholas, “Aporia: Webs, Passages, Getting Lost, and Learning to Go On” Philosophy of Education 1997  (Urbana, IL: Philosophy of Education Society, 1997) pp.33-43; Callister, Thomas, “Educational Computing’s New Direction: Cautiously Approaching an Unpredictable Future” Educational Theory 44 (1994) pp. 239—256;  Egan, Kieran, The Educated Mind: How  Cognitive Tools Shape Our Understanding (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997); Norman, Donald A.,  Things that Make Us Smart: Defending Human Attributes in the Age of the Machine (Reading, MA:  Addison-Wesley, 1992).

8. www.nicenet.net is one technology that provides versatile and dynamic possibilities for addressing these objectives.  It is used widely in K-12 and higher education settings.  The authors have deployed it in many different courses over the past three years to post documents and course rosters; to provide conferencing, scheduling and personal messaging; and to note connections to course-relevant websites.  We have used it not only to extend our classroom time but also to include community members and other consultants in course conversations and project development processes.

9.  Don Nix cited in Callister, 1994 , p. 249.

10. Garrison, Jim, Dewey and Eros: Wisdom and Desire in the Art of Teaching (New York :Teachers College Press, 1997).

11. Johnson, Mark. Moral Imagination: Implications of Cognitive Science for Ethics (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1993).

12.   Kurth-Schai, Ruthanne and Charles R. Green, “Schooling Stories: Three Paths, Two Tragedies, and
       One Vision” in Schram, Sanford F. and Philip T. Neisser (Eds), Tales of the State.


Koliba Responds to “Naomi’s Dilemma”

 “Re-envisioning Technologies for Education and Democracy” invites us to reconsider the relationships that the students in our classrooms have to the “real world.”  The narrative provided by Kurth-Schai and Green uses an example of what appears to be a highly successful “service learning” class that draws upon real-life issues impacting the environment and citizens of the community into which the students find themselves a part.  In fact, the example provided by the authors is such a powerful illustration of how service-learning can be used to open the classroom up to a larger community, that the role of technology in facilitating the students’ inquiries might be lost on the reader.
     At the heart of this article lies the future role of technology in the opening or closing of our classrooms to the “realities” facing a local community, state, nation, or global society. As the authors explain, technology can be used either as a means of opening up the classroom to the nature of community life, or closing them down to such realities, and in effect, fictionalizing these realities to the point that they are meaningless.
     Let us, for example, consider the impact that a pre-packaged software system offered by the “young, charismatic CEO” would have on the community service class described by the authors.  Suppose, by chance, that it contains an “environmental impact” software package designed to teach the students about the impact that zoning decisions have on a local community.  The town would, by necessity, be fictional, populated by mythical people programmed to operate in rational ways.  The surrounding environment could never have the same geographical make-up as the one in which the students find themselves.  The students would have no real-life audience to prepare a presentation for, and in all probability, they would be glued to their computer screens for much of the class time trying to bring the simulation through to its conclusion.  A competition of sorts may even develop between teams of students to see who could do the “best.”
     Left out of the simulation are the possible interactions that the students have with their parents, local residents, and members of the zoning board.  The students would learn little about the governing process of their own local community, and may learn little about the nature of their local ecosystems.
     In this example, the software package might teach students about what an environmental impact statement is, and have them learn about the relationship between a local decision made by a zoning board and the fate of say, a given species of bird.  Yet, students may find it difficult to translate what they have learned to their own lives and community without a direct connection between the curriculum and the local places in which the students find themselves living.  In this case, the technology software could actually put distance between the students and their local communities.  Although the students are actively engaged in a simulation, they are dealing in a world created by others, who may or may not have the students’ educational interests at heart.
     Kurth-Schai and Green only briefly allude to the persistent tensions that occur when corporate interests collide with educational aims.   Over 1,200 schools across the country offer “Channel One,” a commercial news and educational channel for young people.  Peppered amongst the news and educational programming are commercials for products whose manufacturers hope to instill “brand loyalty” at an early age.  The extent to which the educational content offered by Channel One is critical of, say, the labor practices of a manufacturer that is advertising over the network, is shaped by the business relationship that the producer of the educational content has with the corporate sponsor.  Educational programming that stimulates critical thinking about the prevailing economic forces will not be offered by Channel One, just as it is not being offered by any commercial media outlet.
     What are the implications for student learning when corporate sponsors are actually responsible for creating the parameters of a “virtual world” used for educational purposes?  The role of a real-life teacher in the education of students will be diminished and perhaps eventually usurped.  Students will learn through a hyper-textually mediated reality in which teachers, parents and community members will have little or no comprehension of what is actually being taught and how.  The learning outcomes resulting from such corporate-controlled gaming software will likely be tailored to the needs and expectations of the business community, and not necessarily to the dictates of the local community and its citizens.
     Kurth-Shai and Green used a story of a service-learning class as the backdrop for an exploration of the potential benefits of interactive technologies.  The service-learning class presented in the story was, indeed, a living laboratory for democratic participation.  Students learned critical thinking and research skills, and picked up an appreciation for differences and the mechanisms of policy making.  By using Internet research, e-mail communications, and other “basic” tools of contemporary computer networking, they were able to reach out to their community in ways previously unimagined.  Barriers like limited access and transportation to take students to and from school were overcome by creatively using the Internet to communicate.
    Through the use of interactive technologies, potential community partners willing to give some time to working with students are able to communicate quickly and effectively with the students over e-mail.  As new interactive technologies are made more affordable, the links between communities and schools may actually be strengthened.
     It is with these considerations in mind that I would respond to “Naomi’s dilemma” by holding firm against the acquisition of the “free software.”    She could use her experiences with the service-learning class as a backdrop for engaging her fellow board members in a dialogue over what, exactly, are the reasons for bringing new technology into the school.  A discussion about the aims of education could ensue during which the pros and cons of market-oriented and democracy-oriented uses of technology could be creatively discussed.  The incorporation of technology into classrooms would not simply be considered a good unto itself, as if it were part of some form of educational “keeping-up-with-the Jones.”  A deeper commitment to acquiring technologies that serve to connect students and their teachers to their local communities and beyond could be achieved.  The links between technology and democracy could be clearly understood and appreciated.

 Jim Moulton Responds to "Naomi's Dilemma"

     I want Naomi to be part of the leadership of the schools my children attend.  I am exceedingly selfish when it comes to wanting the best for my own children, as all parents should be. Here is the short version of why I want her to be part of my children’s school community:

The decision that she is facing must be understood within the context of the way in which technology interfaces with the learning process.

    “Ahhhh, technology!  With it, anything is possible. Without it, one is doomed to live in the past and be relegated to a life of unaccomplished possibilities.”  These are common wisdoms as we begin the 21st century, the public beliefs of a nation that has witnessed the transformational effect current technology has had in arenas ranging from health care to entertainment and communication.  When problems rear up, it seems that we only need apply current technology toward solving it, and it is gone.  Diseases are held at bay by an ever more complex realm of drugs, and access to the information one needs to make informed decisions is only a mouse-click or two away.  All of this is good news.
    The Internet, the most common public entree into the high-tech world appears so simple to the casual user.  Point, click, and deliver.  One really doesn’t need to know any thing in order to make great things happen.  However, there is of course, a depth of thinking, planning, designing and revision that simply does not show up in the final product.  Rather, this is purposefully concealed, allowing the myth of the easy technological fix to be perpetuated.  The companies involved work very hard to make it appear very easy.
    While this lack of obvious complexity is a consumer’s dream come true, it threatens to cripple students who are learning what it means to think.  Questions that are beginning to be asked include: “Why do we have to use books when the Web is so easy?” and “Is content really that important when all around me I see evidence that what people really care about is presentation?  As long as it’s multimedia, isn’t that enough?”
    In the rush to “technologize” American schools, teachers around the country are having technology delivered to their classrooms even though many have no clear idea of how they are going to use it.  This is a clear case of the promise of technology, as we fervently hope that technology will foster a desire to learn, achievement to high standards, and a willingness to think deeply, reflectively, and with purpose in students and in schools where this is not the norm.
Effective use of technology in the process of teaching and learning presumes a few givens, without which there is no ground for belief in it ever accomplishing its potential.  Here are those givens:


    The transition of technology’s energy from glowing potential to hardworking kinetic will not be easy, but that is how it must be.  First things must be placed first. The purpose is placed in front of the possibility.  With that as a beginning, the two will eventually  be able to grow together. New possibilities will spur new realities, and applications will follow realizations.
    In order for this to happen, teachers must become knowledgeable about technology and improved pedagogy.  Improved methods of teaching will cause teachers to naturally look for new tools to help students manipulate, record, analyze and otherwise make use of the materials they are studying.  In the same way they will empower curious, inspired students to take advantage of their potential to reach goals that are meaningful to them.
Laying the power of technology on top of failed educational practices will not create success. However, by combining healthy, engaging practices with teaching and learning that has students engaged in solving problems which have meaning for them and their communities, tremendous power can be unleashed.
    There are so many people who know how to use technology, but far too few who understand how to go about researching and working to resolve issues that affect our lives, or what technology’s  role is in doing that.  It will be in the combination of these abilities that today’s students will find the keys to their success and the opportunities to build a better future for us all.
    In the end, educational leaders must forego the promise of the “Technological Silver Bullet” as the cure-all for America’s schools in lieu of in depth planning along with organizational and professional development to support change.  These pieces, along with a demonstrated ongoing commitment for supporting such efforts will begin the process through which the promise of technology can truly be realized.  Let’s join Naomi and get to work.
 
Jim Moulton is an independent educational technology consultant working with educators across the nation to support their efforts to develop effective integrations of technology in support of teaching and learning. His work utilizes a blend of his twelve years of classroom experience and five years of technology focused staff development work to help teachers, schools, districts, and communities transform technology's potential into healthy and effective reality.

 
Book Review:
Education/Technology/Power: Educational Computing as a Social Practice, 
Edited by Hank Bromley and Michael W. Apple

Reviewed by Christopher Koliba










      From the primitive paint brushes used to draw images of sacred animals on cave walls to the feather and inkwell… From the printing press to the latest computer software package… the evolution of human consciousness has been closely tied to the tools it has used to organize knowledge and communicate ideas.   Indeed, the relationship between “technology” and education is an important one, perhaps even more important in this day and age.
     In their edited volume, Education/Technology/Power: Educational Computing as a Social Practice, Hank Bromley,  Michael W. Apple, and other authors look at the relationship between technology and the social and political forces that help to shape the role of computer technologies in schools and community organizations.  They ask if the enormous investment in computing technology that schools and communities are making is a good idea.  “Reaching a useful answer,” they conclude, “will require a more finely grained question: investment in what kind of educational computing? A good idea for whom? Under what conditions?” p.2
      In his introductory chapter, Bromley describes a “technological determinism” that “naturalizes technical change, implying inevitability and cloaking the social processes actually accountable for the path taken.”  He adds, “The result [of technological determinism] can be a public sense of resigned acceptance, and a (learned) helplessness in the face of technological change, unless we shift our focus from technology per se to the surrounding culture.”p.3
      The remaining nine chapters of the book focus on the social and political environments through which our perceptions of technology and education are filtered.  Several authors discuss the roles that gender and poverty play in shaping who has access to computers and just how these computers are used.
      “Telling Tales Out of School: Modernist, Critical, and Postmodern ‘True Stories’ About Educational Computing,” a chapter written by Mary Bryson and Suzanne de Castell cite a 1989 study conducted by the Center for the Social Organization of Schools which encompassed a national survey of 1,082 computer-using schools.  This study suggests the existence of a real “digital divide.”

1. More computers are being placed in the hands of middle- and upper-class than poor children.
2. When computers are placed in schools for poor children, they are used for rote drills and practices instead of the cognitive enrichment that they provide for middle- and upper-class students.
3. Female students have less involvement than male students with computers in schools, irrespective of class or ethnicity (p. 75).

     These findings suggest that the impacts of technology in schools are not overcoming social inequities, but enforcing them.  Bryson and de Castell claim that current research projects on the uses of technology in education often ignore the underlying stories of alienation experienced by women and the poor.  Reviewing the research literature through a “modernist,” “critical theory” and “postmodern” lens, they suggest that researchers need to take into account people’s real-life stories of engagement and disengagement with technology.
     Bryson and de Castell go on to suggest “that no master narrative can be found or made in educational discourses about educational computing”  (p.82).  Somewhat ironically, they make this assertion despite Bromley’s earlier discussion of how the relationship between technology and education is shaped through a lens of technological determinism.  Many of the chapters in the book that focus on gender and poverty take a “postmodernist” perspective, an orientation that may, ultimately, serve to undermine the central message of the book: that an unstated, but dominant, view of technology as the “silver bullet” to student achievement and workplace success underlies all conversations and decision-making around the interplay between education and technology.
     The chapter written by Michael Apple and Susan Jungck titled, “You Don’t Have to Be a Teacher to Teach This: Teaching, Technology, and Control in the Classroom,” helps to return the focus of the book to this issue of technological determinism.  They link this notion of technological determinism to the current trends in education toward the homogenization of curriculum, the move toward universal standards, and the implementation of high stakes testing.
In outlining these trends, Apple and Jungck write: “If schools and their teachers and curricula were more tightly controlled, goes the argument, more closely linked to the needs of business and industry, more technically oriented, with more stress on traditional values and workplace norms and dispositions, then the problems of achievement, of unemployment, of international economic competitiveness, of the disintegration of the inner city, and so on, would, largely disappear”  (p. 134).  The role of computers and computer software in education becomes a crucial element to business’s educational agenda.
     Software packages are being used to systematize and standardize the curriculum, leaving the teacher’s role to that of simply helping students to interpret the messages they are reading on their computer screens.  By asking the critical question: “Do I need to be a teacher to teach this unit?” Apple and Jungck call to mind the potential risks to teacher autonomy, creativity, and professionalism that computerized curriculum is bringing about.  They leave us asking what will the future role of teachers be in a digitalized world?
     In their chapter titled, “Control and Power in Educational Computing,” Peter H. Kahn, Jr. and Batya Friedman look at the potential drawbacks and benefits that a computerized curriculum can bring about.  They discuss how, when computer programs are presented as a “persona,” users engage in cooperative behavior with the computer and attribute some human personality traits to the computer, and suggest that learners may begin to see computers as “others” as opposed to “objects.”  They speculate how computers may be becoming to be understood less as “tools” and more as “collaborators” in learning.  Kahn and Friedman suggest that computers may, potentially, play positive roles in assisting learners to take more active roles in constructing their own learning opportunities.
      The negative consequences of a loss of connection between human teachers and students is raised by Brigid A. Starkey in her chapter, “Using Computers to Connect Across Cultural Divides.”  She suggests that computer technologies may serve to undermine the important relationships that need to be established between teachers and their students.  She states that, “While computer chat groups may provide ‘cyber’ friends and the Internet can provide a channel of access to faraway worlds, the focus on technology can detract from day-to-day social interaction among students and between instructors and their pupils” (p.177).
      Starkey goes on to discuss the potential positive uses of “simulation” computer software, which provide students with opportunities to make informed decisions using real information generated from primary sources.  This software is used in tandem with face-to-face instruction with teachers, peers and people from other cultures.  Other computer technologies, such as the Internet, are used to link students in one classroom to others in other parts of the world who are engaged in the same learning opportunity.  The potential uses of technology to provide a safe, virtual environment for students to engage in simulations in decision-making and encounters with other cultures are discussed.
      The editors of Education/Technology/Power fail to conclude the volume with a summarizing chapter.  Thus, the book lacks a coherent critical framework through which educational uses of technology should be viewed.  This, despite Bromley and Apple’s allusions to “technical determinism” in their chapters.  It would have been useful to provide the reader with a clearer framework through which to understand and evaluate technology’s impact on student learning, school culture, and society-at-large.
      The question of technology in schools is a complicated one.  All of the chapters in Education/Technology/Power help us to understand that, indeed, these issues are complex, the impacts of computers for educational purposes are often inequitable, and the assumptions underlying the uses of technology routinely go unstated.
     Grounding the chapters in the book more firmly in a critique of the educational uses of technology would have provided readers with a better map through which to negotiate the technology maze.  Such a focus would help to better inform decision-makers about the trappings of viewing technology as a panacea for all that ails our modern educational system.  Not only is student learning at stake, but the very aims of education and the role of teachers in students’ lives hang in the balance.

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