Technological Determinism

The economist Thorstein Veblen and educational reformer John Dewey are among a number of thinkers who explored the idea of technological determinism.  This somewhat anthropomorphic view of technological development proposes that technology follows its own course largely independent of human societies' need and wants, and that technology is the chief driver of social change.  Technological determinists further propose that rather than technology serving human needs, the reverse often comes to pass.  Although initially a response to the Industrial Revolution, these ideas have become newly relevant in the Internet age and have been developed further in works such as Kelly’s (2010)  What Technology Wants.

While some views put forward by technological determinists are extreme, it is clear that teaching & learning is on the cusp of a significant technological transformation and the concerns of determinists and analysis of past events may provide useful cautionary tales.  The adoption of standard time, for example, was required by the deployment of railways across Britain, and shift work in factories and mines required the working day to be regulated by the clock. Throughout the developed world students’ working days are broken into one hour slots despite strong evidence that a one-hour lecture is too long.  The Factory Act of 1878 provided for compulsory education for children under the age of 10.  This caused children to be grouped into cohorts by age and this practice continues today in many countries, irrespective of each child’s experiences and abilities. If technological development can alter a society’s relationship with a concept as fundamental as time, then clearly many other relationships are fair game.  The Internet is currently transforming notions of space and community, for example.  Even the very meaning of what it means to know something has been altered by near-instant access to the sum of all human knowledge on small handheld devices.

Technology can constrain how we view the world and it mediates our interactions with the world and with others.  The ease with which certain approaches or world views can interface with prevailing technologies can cause them to be preferred over others.  Two centuries ago political discourse took for form of long essays in newspapers.  In the 21st Century politicians must confine their discourse to 140 characters or less.  While Twitter is merely a tool used for public discourse, it is naive to think that the format does not influence the nature of discourse and promote certain kinds of discourse over others.  Similarly the democratising effect the Internet has brought to publishing has blurred the lines between fact and opinion.  In The Conduct of Inquiry, Kaplan (1964) identified this phenomenon in his, often paraphrased, law of instrument.  He postulated that if you “give a small by a hammer, … he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.”


It is naive to think that the use of technology in higher education does not cause practitioners to favour certain modes of interaction and certain models of teaching and learning, for no other reason than that they are a good fit for the technologies available to them.  To paraphrase Kaplan, if all you have is Blackboard, then every question starts to look like a multiple choice.

I am an early adopter of technologies for teaching and learning.  I propose to examine my own teaching practice through the lens of technological determinism to see if the tools I use are influencing the choices I make.  Of course the irony of attempting this in an online format, which does not lend itself to the reading of long passages of text, and so therefore discourages the use of long sentences and long form discourse, is presumably not lost on any of us.

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