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Technological neutrality and practice in higher education

Robert Fox
Centre for Information Technology in School and Teacher Education
Faculty of Education, University of Hong Kong

New digital-electronic technology solutions

Great expectations surround the new and emergent digital-electronic technologies, which are seen as being our 'salvation and our solace in a time of crisis and change' (Bigum & Green, 1995, p.5). It is assumed, whether implicitly or explicitly, that the use of new and emerging digital-electronic technologies will result in more efficient and effective teaching and learning in higher education (Burbules & Callister, 1999). There is considerable public rhetoric, which declares that the use of new digital-electronic technologies is one of the best options to meeting the needs of tighter budgets but at the same time, expanding markets in higher education. However, certain questions need to be raised and discussed. Issues concerning, for example: This paper introduces the above issues through a review of the broader social and political contexts of technological practice and change in higher education. It outlines the more complex issues, understandings, challenges and opportunities the new digital-electronic technologies provide. Technology is viewed not simply for what can be done through it: it is viewed as acting 'to reorder and restructure social relations' and practices in society and the workplace (Franklin, 1990, p. 13). McWilliam (1996, p. 11) reminds us that the word 'technology' derives from techne, meaning 'ways of doing', joined with logike, meaning 'reasoning', and that 'technology' is 'all embracing in terms of its importance to human practices'. Technology, then, refers to what people do as well as what they know. With reference to Franklin's (1990) analysis of technology as culture and as practice, the paper draws attention to the importance of social and political factors in deciding whether, and how, technology should replace existing activities. Technology privileges certain ways of doing things and excludes other ways and, therefore, decisions about technology implementation must take into account what the technology takes away as well as what it provides. The paper draws on the above understandings of technology with reference to staff work practices and explores the relationships between staff, the workplace, digital-electronic technologies, and teaching and learning.

Constancy amidst change

Cuban (1986) introduces a powerful image of the use of new technology in teaching in his book, Teachers and machines: The classroom use of technology since 1920. In the book, he includes a New York Times National Archives photograph, (Illustration 1 below), taken in 1927, which depicts the 'state-of-the-art' aerial geography lesson, conducted inside the aeroplane - the aeroplane represents a new technology. In the photograph, the students sit in rows, behind traditional wooden desks with ink wells. The teacher stands at the front of the class, pointing to the globe of the world. Behind her is the blackboard. Above the blackboard is written, 'Today's Aerial Geography Lesson'. The clock indicates the lesson has just begun - it is five past nine. The class is being conducted inside the aeroplane - using the new technology - yet the classroom, itself, looks exactly like a conventional classroom. Thus the picture illustrates the stereotypical 'bolt-on' effect of using a new technology; which often results in no significant difference being made to how a class is taught or to the learning outcomes of the students.

Illustration 1

Illustration 1: Today's Aerial Geography Lesson
New York Times No. 306-NT-520 A-6 in National Archives

We can only guess as to how the class was conducted. However, we can assume that the teacher used the technology around her to make the most of the situation. Perhaps she pointed to the globe to show her students where they were located in the world. She may then have directed them to look out of the window, drawing attention to a mountain far below. She may have referred them to the blackboard, where she has written 'a mountain is a lofty ... earth'. The students can be in no doubt what a mountain is - they have seen it with their own eyes as they flew over it. Nevertheless, they look suitably bored.

It is very easy to criticise this picture. The photographer more likely than not was responsible for setting up the shot, which was probably commissioned by public relations or marketing staff, to demonstrate how advanced public education had become. Yet, like recent photographs of modern classrooms with computers, the classroom environment often remains unchanged and very familiar. Are we doing the same with the new digital-electronic technologies in higher education today? Are they being used as a 'bolt-on' to our existing education practices? Are we using these new technologies well? What impact do new digital-electronic technologies have on teaching and learning in our institutions? These questions need to be addressed.

In this paper, I want to draw attention to practices and changes in practices, brought about, in part, or in whole, by the use of digital-electronic technologies, especially CITs. I am, as Postman (1996, p. 207) states, 'not arguing against computers in [higher education] ... [I am] arguing against our sleepwalking attitudes toward it, against allowing it to distract us from important things, [such as educational principles] against making a god of it'.

In last year's TL Forum (Fox, 2000a, pp. 235-41), I argued that the question was no longer whether educational institutions should embrace the new technologies, but where to use them and how they should be used to best advantage. I made a reference to medieval warfare and the use of technology, and the similar challenges we currently face in higher education. In 1066, the Norman's use of 'technology' in the form of riding the horse into battle rather than riding to the battle, dismounting and fighting on foot, was a key factor in the Norman victory. The English, who rode to the battlefield, dismounted and fought on foot were at a distinct disadvantage (Illustration 2). I propose that the Norman's rethink of their battle strategy needs to be mirrored in our approaches to using new technology in higher education.

Illustration 2

Illustration 2: Different use of the horse 'technology'

What might help us to rethink the way we use new technology is to develop a model that encourages us to critically question any form of new technology adoption. This paper proposes one such model and briefly outlines its usefulness. The model or framework, designed to help us rethink our adoption of new technology, arose from data collected from interviews with seventy-five staff across two institutions in Australia. The framework consists of four elements that need to be mapped onto any decision making process we would want to adopt in reviewing new technology for teaching and learning. The four elements are: new pedagogical opportunities; changed work practices, technology (non)neutrality and unintended consequences of new technology adoption. Each of the four elements applied to educational practice is outlined below.

New pedagogical opportunities

New pedagogical opportunities can be viewed at two different levels. The first level relates to new opportunities to do the same thing we have always done, just adding the technology to it, perhaps making us 'more efficient'. This can be exemplified by viewing activities, which are the same, though 'enhanced' or 'made easier' by the use of new technologies. For example, placing lecture notes and PowerPoint presentations on the Web, providing students with an alternative source to receive lectures notes and PowerPoint presentations, perhaps, in advance of a lecture. There may well be advantages of using new technologies in this way, but if this is all we are doing with the new technology, I would question whether we should bother. Are there real advantages, for example, in transferring notes designed in one medium and placed to another? What is the add-on value for the students and for the lecturer in doing this?

The next level of opportunity in using new technology is enabling us, as teachers and our students as learners, to do something different. Something we would not have been able to do without the use of the new technology. For example, the Web has many useful ready-made resources we can tap into. Rather than developing our own content for the course, we could set students activities to use relevant resources already developed online.

Changing work practices

Changing work practices refers to the changes in the way we work, how we work, who we work with and what we work on. New technologies place us in a different position to that we have previously been in. According to Sproull and Kiesler, these changes come about because:
... new communication technology leads people to pay attention to different things, have contact with different people and depend on one another differently. Change in attention means change in how people spend their time and in what they think is important. Change in social contact patterns means change in who people know and how they feel about them. Change in interdependence means change in what people do and for each other and how these coupled functions are organised into norms, roles, procedures, jobs and departments. Social roles, which codify patterns of attention and social interaction, change (Sproull & Kiesler, 1991, pp. 4-5).
Based on experiences of changes in work practices, in my work and that of my colleagues, I believe that we need to develop strategies to handle these changes, which might be quite stressful. Taylor (1999) has written a useful text on dealing with and making sense of these changes in higher education.

One example of changes in work practices relates to work time. Very often, lecturers and students may communicate with each other and between each other via computer-mediated-communications, asynchronously. At the same time, a lecturer may well respond to student queries late at night, if she is online at the time and has a relevant response to make. This shift in work time and the speed in which responses can be made, change student expectations regarding, for example 'turnaround time': the time taken for lecturers to respond to student queries.

Technology (non)neutrality

Bowers (1988, p. 26) states that a 'widely held view within our culture is that technology is neutral' and is seen to function best when we are unaware of it, when it is 'transparent' and does not interfere with what we are trying to do. In educational settings, many researchers agreed with Clark (1983, p. 445) who argued that media are 'mere vehicles that deliver instruction but do not influence student achievement any more than the truck that delivers our groceries causes change in our nutrition'. Ihde (1982) has emphasised the 'selectivity' of technology, which facilitates certain forms of communication but excludes or restricts other forms and that technological neutrality is problematic. In this paper, I contend that technology is not neutral and hence it has an influential and transformative effect on what it is used for and how it is used. In educational settings, I have argued (Fox, 2000b) that we must pay attention to technology itself, and analyse the changes resulting in a particular technology application. For example, the ease with which some Web courseware tools allow us to transfer our MS Word files into the Web, encouraging us to blindly transfer text designed in one medium into another. A common term for such activity is known as 'shovelware' (Hopper, 1999). It should be noted that recent research into reading (eg Rohonyia, 1999; Nielsen 1999; Lander, 1999) reveals that we read very differently off screen than we do off paper. In addition, Schriver (1997) points out we tend to read less accurately and slower off screen than off printed pages.

Unintended consequences

The uncritical adoption of technology to educational settings is not a new phenomenon. However, because of the perceived benefits which technology can bring, there is a danger that education becomes captive to a non-problematised use of technologies (Green, Gough & Blackmore, 1996) without considering how it effects and transforms various contexts and situations (Ellul, 1962; Idhe, 1982, 1990; Kling, 1996). Seldom are there public discussions about the potential problems and consequences of adopting a particular technology or even if there are unintended consequences of adopting a technology which may not be apparent at the time (Kling, 1996; Tenner, 1996; Herrmann, Fox & Boyd, 2000; Burbules & Callister, 1999). Technology is often cited as the way to overcome problems or difficulties faced. However, the unintended consequences are often hard or impossible to predict and are only realised after a passage of time. Too much emphasis on providing materials online can backfire, as Shirley Alexander found during the collection of data for her research into IT projects in Australian Universities (1998). In a presentation on her research at the VC's Showcase on University Teaching, University of Sydney, 1998, Alexander reported that several students had strongly objected to too much online work. As one student told her: 'I did not come to university to read text off screen'.

Final comments

This paper has focused on reviewing some of the complex and interwoven issues of technological practice and change. The relationship between the use of new technologies, especially CITs in higher education, academic practices and the varied contexts in which these practices occur, are complex and changing. These complexities can be investigated by examining staff perceptions of their role, the role of technology and its use in the institutions and by the use of the framework introduced in this paper. McNeil (1990) sees any adoption of technology in higher education has three primary obstacles: attitude, technical and structural. He sees attitudinal issues 'are far more important than structural and technological obstacles in influencing the use of technology in higher education (p. 2)'. The relationship of staff attitudes and beliefs to change is therefore crucial. The broad concepts of new pedagogical opportunities, changed practices, technological neutrality and unintended consequences have been introduced in an attempt to maintain a problematised view of new technology adoption.


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Author: Robert Fox, Associate Professor
Centre for Information Technology in School and Teacher Education
Faculty of Education
University of Hong Kong
Pokfulham Road
Hong Kong

Please cite as: Fox, R. (2001). Technological neutrality and practice in higher education. In A. Herrmann and M. M. Kulski (Eds), Expanding Horizons in Teaching and Learning. Proceedings of the 10th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 7-9 February 2001. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2001/fox.html

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