Teaching and Learning Forum 98 [ Contents ]

What are the shortcomings inherent in the non-problematic perception of new technologies?

Robert Fox
Office of Teaching and Learning
Curtin University of Technology
Great expectations surround the new and emergent electronic technologies. It is assumed whether implicitly or explicitly that the use of new electronic technology will result in more efficient and effective teaching and learning in higher education. The use of electronic technology is considered to be the most logical, effective and efficient response to the problems facing universities in the 90s because: The paper outlines some issues arising from the points mentioned above and in the dilemma session, these issues will be used to stimulate discussion of the shortcomings inherent in a non-problematic perception of new technologies.


Universities are caught within a time of rapid political, socio-economic and technological change. The many internal and external pressures on universities are creating the need to look at teaching and learning patterns and practices from a new perspective. These pressures include a demand for a greater number of higher education places but no corresponding increase in funding; a larger 'clientele' of learners from varied backgrounds, with diverse needs, motivations, abilities, learning preferences, time availability and course content requirements; a demand for more client responsive and open and flexible courses; the need to seek alternative funding to government; technology opportunities and the drive to use electronic technologies in teaching and learning.

Commonwealth reports (for example, NBEET, 1992; NBEET, 1995; NBEET, 1996) indicate that the former government was actively encouraging the use of distance education, open and flexible learning strategies, and the use of new technologies for all educational deliveries, both on- and off-campus. There has been no indication from the new government that this trend will be reversed. There is an assumption that these strategies and alternative modes of delivery will facilitate more efficient and effective learning. In the most recent government report, the West Committee's discussion paper (November, 1997) suggests that new technologies may make higher education cheaper: '... new technologies offer cheaper and less expensive [sic] means of communicating information to large numbers of people' (p.11). This does not of course translate to new technologies making teaching and learning less expensive. However, throughout the report suggestions are made concerning the inevitability of the technological imperative in higher education. I interpret this as inferring that new technology is with us today, it's the latest and the greatest and it's bound to be improving what we're doing. The UK Dearing Committee report also talks of the growth in importance of new technology, notably communication and information technology (C & IT), although it is more cautious with it's rhetoric:

'Universities have also been experimenting with new technology, in the expectation that this could lead to more cost-effective teaching. Almost invariably IT has lead to higher costs, with greater efficiency still a promise for the future.' (Dearing Report, 1997)
Many educational institutions publicly declare that they see electronic technology as one of the best options to meeting the needs of tighter budgets but expanding markets, however, certain questions need to be raised and discussed. Issues concerning, for example: This paper outlines some of the issues mentioned above to stimulate discussion concerning ways in which various forms of electronic communications and information technologies support teaching and learning and the implications of applying electronic technology to supplement or take the place of predominantly face-to-face teaching.

Cost of communication and information technologies

Technology resources - email, the Internet and the World Wide Web (WWW), and multimedia - are increasingly common components of the instructional experience for American college students, according to the 1997 Campus Computing Survey, a national study of the use of information technology in higher education (Green, 1997). The cost of these technology resources, however, cannot be born by the institutions themselves and students are required to pay an extra 'IT fee' of around US$140 per year to cover the excess costs. The survey also points out that this extra funding is way short of the requirements and institutions are having to look elsewhere to supplement the costs, which each year increase.
Financing technology is a growing concern ... : fully a fifth of the survey respondents (20.4 percent, up from 17.4 percent last year) identify "financing the replacement of ageing hardware and software" as the most pressing IT issue for their institutions (Green, 1997).
Becker (1996) conducted a detailed costing of introducing information technology into education. His estimates are that an additional US$2,000 to $2,500 is needed to fund each student (two thirds of this cost is human).

The publication of the Dearing inquiry into higher education in UK, was closely followed by a one-day colloquium on the implications of the report's pronouncements concerning the use of C & IT. The paper reflecting on the Dearing's findings was published shortly afterwards (Fraser, 1997). The Dearing inquiry into C & IT recorded it's main concern to resolve the problems associated with using C & IT in higher education. It defined these main concerns as C & IT costs in terms of time and funds and the relative scarcity of materials where value of the content outweighs the difficulties inherent in its mediation by computer.

The development of computer-based materials is ... always expensive and any economic benefits, at least, are notoriously difficult to identify ... The use of C & IT in learning and teaching might result in a better quality of learning: it might result in a more efficient means of learning: it always results in higher costs (Fraser, 1997).
Todd Oppenheimer in an article entitled The Computer Delusion (1997) raises a number of controversial issues concerning the importance of computers in schools.
There is no good evidence that most uses of computers significantly improve teaching and learning, yet school districts are cutting programs -- music, art, physical education -- that enrich children's lives to make room for this dubious nostrum, and the Clinton Administration has embraced the goal of "computers in every classroom" with credulous and costly enthusiasm (Oppenheimer, 1997).


The position taken in this presentation is that (electronic) technology is not and cannot be neutral or value-free that the ever increasing inclusion of electronic technology into the curriculum will impact and change the curriculum and will inevitably lead to a shift which now includes the technology as an entity in its own right in the curriculum (Green, 1993: p.148).

And further that ever increasing familiarity with the technology will also hide the impact and influencing factor of the technology on the message (Ihde, 1982). That technology, for example, the computer is selected and is seen to be not merely 'non critical' to those 'reductively predisposed' as 'metaphysically similar but potentially literally identical to the human mind'(Ihde, 1982, p.229) and that (electronic) technology and its impact is complex and enormous and does affect change and in order to understand it and influence what happens and how it is used we need to understand and appreciate the multitude of non neutral effects the structures of texts and/or sounds and images; the impact of juxtaposing texts and/or sounds and images have on various social groups, on age, on gender, etc.

Dominant, prescriptive application of technology

Franklin (1990, p.18) discusses various uses of 'prescriptive technology' that break down the learning process into clearly identifiable steps. Preceding steps are followed by subsequent steps and all steps are defined and fixed so 'that there is only one way of doing 'it'.' An assumption is made that these parts when put back together will then make a whole. Franklin defines prescriptive technology in political terms as 'designs of compliance' (p.24). Prescriptive technology requires external management and control and where production is under control and where students and teachers must first be 'deskilled' to forget what they have learnt, then 'reskilled' by the technology (de Castell & Luke, 1987 p.425 cited in Bigum & Green, 1993, p.12-13). And further that prescriptive technology glorifies the experts and scientific constructs of reality and downgrades or discounts personal experience, (Franklin, p.40) 'with an inherent trust in machines and devices' (Franklin, p.30). How far do technologies used, precipitate the use of prescriptive models of learning?

Access and equity

Significant questions regarding access and equity issues need to be addressed. As we rely more and more on sophisticated and expensive technologies, will their nature, cost and complexity exclude certain social groups from access to a higher education? Will disparities between the 'haves and have nots' increase with the increased use of electronic technology? Will the growing importance of electronic technology simply 'reproduce historically entrenched patterns of exclusion on the basis of gender, class, colour and ethnicity?' (Luke & Gilbert, 1993, p. 2).


I believe we need to focus much more critical attention on the ways in which we use electronic technologies in creating teaching and learning environments and materials. We need to consider the issues, opportunities and problems associated with the shift from print to electronic technologies for teachers; for students; for administrators; for the institution; and to an extent, for the community and society? We need to review in what ways do mediated teaching through electronic technology change how we work, how we teach, what we teach, what and how we and our students learn.

Sherry Turkle told Oppenheimer, 'the possibilities of using new technologies poorly so outweigh the chance of using it well, it makes people like us, who are fundamentally optimistic about computers, very reticent' (Oppenheimer, 1997).

I'll finish with some quotes from teachers talking about technology applications through an intranet forum:

'When using technology in teaching and learning, we need to 'ensure the technology is not allowed to run away with itself' in our thinking. We need constantly to remind each other and ourselves of the key factors underpinning successful learning which need to be accommodated by each kind of learning-with-technology situation. I've seen millions of taxpayer's money wasted. I can see even more about to be wasted. Getting into the habit of putting the reflective breaks on is in my view essential'.

'I think (you're) right ... what we need is more reflective breaks on technology because much of the implementation of technology is either anxiety-driven or has a "magic-box" element to it ... there must be some great potential there for us to tap if we could only find out how. I believe a lot of our expectations of computers is unrealistic. '... technology can (appear) to help you teach in a more innovative or interesting way. But does it help you teach in a better way? For the teacher who is using IT, it may be more interesting and innovative ... (to them) ... but does it have any impact on your students. 'I think that we overlook the fact that computers are mostly used for repetitive, mundane tasks ... . This is really what computers are good at and what we mostly use them for in our washing machines, automatic tellers, etc. It is comparatively rare for a computer anywhere to be used for anything even marginally more creative. This includes at home where most people use their computers to play games - another largely repetitive task of minimal creativity and personal input.

This would suggest that trying to use computers in classrooms for creative tasks is really working against both the nature and usual function of the object'.

' ... while I'm happy to think about changes in the way we do things. I'm not sure about one being better than something else. Higher resolution of pixels does not make for more clarity in arguments, more RAM does not make for wiser decisions ... '

'... attempts to equate machines to teachers. In Victoria we ... sack a pile of teachers and use some of the $ to buy technology'.


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Please cite as: Fox, R. (1998). What are the shortcomings inherent in the non-problematic perception of new technologies? In Black, B. and Stanley, N. (Eds), Teaching and Learning in Changing Times, 96-101. Proceedings of the 7th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1998. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1998/fox.html

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