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Technological Determinism? Do ePortfolios Themselves Make Students Reflect?

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, May 29, 2012
Updated: Friday, October 18, 2013

May 29th, 2012

One of the hardest aspects of working with technology while retaining academic and scholarly objectivity is "what can I attribute to the technology itself?”

When someone writes about what "eportfolio” does, the phrase sounds like technological determinism. It is hard to write about technology and learning and not sound deterministic. It is especially hard to avoid deterministic language if you hope for a particular outcome from deploying a technology.

An example: In the early 1980s, some of us involved with the nascent technology movement in education bought into the idea that word processors, because they made revising easier than with paper, would lead students to do more revising. How naïve! Simply having the opportunity to revise more easily does not mean students know how to think about revising.

If computers have taught us anything, it’s that we and our brains are infinitely more complex than we thought (how optimistic we were in the mid 1960s about natural speech recognition, how we thought the new field of cognitive science would reveal how we think, how overly optimistic artificial intelligence advocates were, how we realized we humans had conveniently included in our study of the natural world only that which was not "chaos”).

No matter the "affordances” of the technology, no matter how much easier a previously laborious process has become, humans still need to master the thought process behind something such as revising. We learned, unfortunately, that in the early days of word processing, students only did surface revisions with their new technology, such as correcting spelling and capitalizations but not much more if left un-coached. The technology did not determine that students would understand how to revise their writing. Do we assume, now, that eportfolios will determine that students will understand reflection?

Technological determinism was a belief that the trajectory of technology development is predictable; and it was a belief that technology development would continue on that trajectory once a major technology was launched regardless of cultural influences. Thankfully, not only are people not that predictable, but neither is culture.

If technology developers truly believed in technological determinism, they would not concern themselves with user preferences; they would not concern themselves with the market. Nor would they concern themselves with serendipitous discoveries as the technology was being used. In short, technological determinism was cousin to behaviorism and we know what happened to behaviorism.

Information technology has in fact altered our world irreversibly (short of a major disaster). It’s not that technology doesn’t bring about change. It would be absurd to think so. It’s just that we don’t know what the change will be. Without predictability, "technological determinism” is meaningless.

Peter Elbow, in his new book Vernacular Eloquence (2012), says of technological determinism:

I can imagine someone charging [David] Olson [Literacy, Language and Learning: The Nature and Consequences of Reading and Writing, 1985] with technological determinism: the idea that the technology of literacy all by itself changes human consciousness and thinking. [p. 50]

He goes on to quote Brian Street ("New Literacies, New Times; How Do We Describe and Teach the Forms of Literacy Knowledge, Skills and Values People Need for New Times?” 55th Yearbook of the National Reading Conference.):

One response to the growing role of technologies of communication in our lives is to overstate their ability to determine our social and cultural activity. This tradition has been evidenced in earlier approaches to literacy, where over-emphasis on the "technology” of literacy . . . has led to assumptions about the ability of literacy in itself, as an autonomous force, to have effects, such as the raising of cognitive abilities, the generation of social and economic development, and the shift to modernity. [p. 51]

And, about the "new technologies,” again quoting Street:

While these forms evidently do have "affordances” [Gunther Kress, Before Writing: Rethinking the Paths to Literacy, 1997], it would be misleading and unhelpful to read from the technology into the effects without first positing the social mediating factors that give meaning to such technologies. How, then, can we take sufficient account of the technological dimension of new literacies without sliding into such determinism?

In other words, we cannot know which ways people will use technology. And since technology’s existence depends on people using it, the technology must evolve in alignment with use. Neither humans alone nor technology alone determines the outcome of the interaction between humans and technology. Both humans and technology, together, determine the human changes (in behavior) resulting from the potentialities in the technology and determine, also, the technology changes resulting from which potentialities human choose to use.

This co-evolution of people and technology is the challenge facing designers of educational technology: trying to design too tightly to control usage may just make your technology unpopular. Learners don’t all learn in the same way or at the same pace. Maybe the best design is the simplest, like Google’s famous empty home page. Or maybe the best design is one that allows for easy customization like the new open architectures. The social Web has conquered the connected world by offering the simplest interfaces and the ability to add features almost at will.

We cannot design an eportfolio to get students to arrive at a specific learning outcome or goal. For example, one good way to help young students write well is to let them write badly – such as in the practice of "free writing.” Indirection is a key principle in learning.

And to avoid the trap of technological determinism, AAEEBL is not named for a technology, but for the new forms of learning in this century. ePortfolio technologies, as wonderful as they are, will not determine how these new forms of learning evolve. Our thinking, our discoveries, our tacit awareness and abilities, our imagination, or just dumb chance will determine how we use information technology, not the other way around.

The ACM (Association of Computing Machinery), in 1996, to honor the 50th anniversary of the creation of Eniac (an early computer), published a retrospective book. In the book, one author explained how, despite some obvious blunders in predicting the path of technology development over those 50 years, such predictions were correct enough to justify continuing to make such predictions. The same could not be said, this author pointed out, of predicting how humans will use technology. Such predictions were invariably wrong.

A good principle for design – the cow path approach – is to design for what people choose to do. Wait until students create paths on a new campus and then create sidewalks where the paths are. Can an eportfolio tool be created to allow for cow path design?

This is the key to our ironic plight at the moment: we have so many affordances – too many shoes to choose from – that whatever slight predictive ability we had a while ago has been washed away. The best design for applications now is one that is the least deterministic. The deterministic battle was lost long ago. Learning has left the barn.

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