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A Critical Theory of (Educational) Technology

December 20, 2000: This message was distributed by Papyrus News. Feel free to forward this message to others, preferably with this introduction. For info on Papyrus News, including how to (un)subscribe or access archives, see

(Note: I'll be on vacation the next week or so, with iffy access to the Internet. Papyrus News may continue during this week, or may slow down a bit. In any case, best wishes to all Papyrus News readers for Ramadan/Eid, Christmas, Hanukah, New Years, and what ever else you may be celebrating--and certainly best wises for a happy and peaceful 2001.)

Let me continue my previous message and make more explicit some of the links to educational technology. A determinist view would content that computers in school are necessarily good (or necessarily bad), and will most certainly bring particular results. (And, indeed, one of the most common questions I get is "Is there research showing that computers are beneficial to education? -- as if this question could be answered in such a sweeping way, without analyzing the context of the diverse ways computers are used and the myriad results). An instrumental, or "neutralist," view would contend that computers carry no bias, that they can be used however we wish. However, computers do carry with them the bias of their history and design, and this bias intersects with social inequalities which impact education.

Take for example, the situation in Egypt, where I've been working nearly three years (note: I'll be returning to the US in January to start a new post, but more on that later). An instrumental view would suggest that computers can be a great equalizer, since they can equally benefit rich and poor. However, the broader context in which computers have been developed and are used means that other preconditions are required for access to computer technology, such as literacy, electricity, etc. This means that in a context like Egypt (and in many places), computers are more likely to be a stratifier than an equalizer.

For example, it is widely recognized that in Egypt, as in many developing countries, primary education is key to social equality and socio-economic development. A major challenge that Egypt faces is improving primary education and making sure that it is accessible to all. (Especially among rural girls, there is a high level of dropout from primary school, leading to illiteracy.) Previously, Egypt has had a disparity of funding, with relatively too much government spending (relative to educational budget at least) going into tertiary education, and not enough to primary education.)

Now, back to computers. Egypt--perhaps to its credit--is putting a great deal of money into putting computers into education. But, let's face some basic facts. Computers will be of most use where they can most easily be absorbed. It is not surprising that more computers are being put in secondary schools and universities (with better trained teachers, better physical infrastructure, etc.) than in primary schools, or that they are being placed in urban areas (where more of these secondary and tertiary institutions are found) more than in rural areas. Thus, educational technology expenditures in Egypt could end up worsening the very contradiction that is at the heart of educational problems in Egypt--an inadequate basic education system which leads to a high level of illiteracy.

This does not suggest that computers should not be installed in Egyptian schools, or they should be put only in rural primary schools and not in universities. Indeed, there are possible counterveiling factors by which computers can lead to MORE equality in education (for example, if they help university researchers to gather more up-to-date information about how to improve rural primary schooling). But this may not happen spontaneously. Educators and policy makers can help see that computers are used to serve important societal goals only if they have an accurate understanding of the role that technology plays. And that demands a critical approach which analyzes the social context surrounding technology use, including issues such as inequality based on class, geography, gender, language, etc.

This is just one quick example, and obviously needs further elaboration (another future project). I hope though that it serves to illustrate a more general point regarding the need for a critical perspective in assessing the role of information and communications technology in education.
Mark Warschauer

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Last updated: December 23, 2000 in Hot Metal Pro 6.0