Technology as a Concept

In December 2014, my OSC co-author Barbara Stefanics wrote about the recent IB Pre-Publication document The role of technology in the IB programmes.  Looking at the publication in more detail, I’m struck by the idea of “technology” originally having been devised as a concept  –  timeless, universal and abstract.

After presenting several definitions of technology, we read that “in these definitions, “technology” is only noticed when it is new, when it fails, or when it disappears. It is also characterized as “things”.  A pen, a laptop or a mobile phone are all “technologies” that enhance and alter human experience. “Things” are very simple to recognize and understand as having this function. However, the first English use of the word in the seventeenth century classified “technology” as either a discipline or an art—something that could be studied and practised (Marx 2010: 563). In short, “technology” was devised as a concept. This publication views technology as both a collection of things and a series of concepts in order to grasp fully its effect on teaching and learning.” (The Role of Technology in the IB Programmes (pre-publication).  International Baccalaureate Organization, 2014. p. 3.)

I was curious about the paper cited in the above paragraph (Marx, L. June 2010. “Technology the Emergence of a Hazardous Concept.” Technology and Culture. Vol 53, number 3. Pp 561–77.), so I downloaded it from Georgetown University at this webpage.  It is very interesting reading, especially for anyone involved in using technology in teaching and learning.  Leo Marx‘s writing sheds useful light on our ed tech conundrum.

He explains that the concept of technology is particularly susceptible to reification: endowing a human activity with the characteristics of a thing or things, i.e.,  the thingification of social relations or of those involved in them, to the extent that the nature of social relationships is expressed by the relationships between objects. It implies that objects are transformed into subjects and subjects are turned into objects, with the result that subjects are rendered passive or determined, while objects are rendered as the active, determining factor.

“Are computers (or smartphones, or technology, etc.,) ruining education?”  “Is technology bad for us?” “Why technology is destroying our students!”

This might be one of our difficulties when talking about ed tech.  We often hear the phrase “It’s all about the learning – not the technology.”  But in the closed community of a school, the “learning” can’t be designed without consideration of the “technology”.

Towards the end of his essay, Marx writes that “In contemporary discourse, private and public, technologies are habitually represented by “things”—by their most conspicuous artifactual embodiments: transportation technology by automobiles, airplanes, and railroads; nuclear technology by reactors, power plants, and bombs; information technology by computers, mobile telephones, and television; and so on. By consigning technologies to the realm of things, this well-established iconography distracts attention from the human—socio- economic and political—relations which largely determine who uses them and for what purposes.” (p. 576)

Enter the discussion about Digital Citizenship, Digital Literacy, Information Literacy, etc.  In the IB Role of Technology document quoted above, the acronym AID is introduced: “Agency, information and design (AID) are three concepts that link technology use to the ideals, approaches to learning (ATLs) and approaches to teaching in the IB programmes. They are regarded as intentions and actions that foster technology literacy.” (p. 11).

Marx continues “…we tacitly invest a machine with the power to initiate change, as if it were capable of altering the course of events, of history itself. By treating these inanimate objects—machines—as causal agents, we divert attention from the human (especially socioeconomic and political) relations responsible for precipitating this social upheaval.” (Marx. p. 577.)

In schools, this is where staff training, device and software management, collaboration between a tech department and teachers, learning goals, curriculum design etc., become so complicated, and so easily misconstrued. “Technology” in a school  is an investment by all parties, and sometimes it’s hard to describe which is the cart and which the horse, or which the chicken and which the egg.


Photo credit: creative commons licensed (BY-NC-SA) flickr photo by jen_kels:

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