Perspective on Technology, Learning, and Society

In preparing for the doctoral certification exam in CCTE, I took the time to articulate my perspective on technology, learning and society. I first elucidate the notion of situated learning, followed by how technology works in relationship with this theoretical prospective, followed by ways of intervening to take advantage of this relationship.

Perspective on Technology, Learning, and Society

The relationship between technology and how people learn is best described by Vygotsky (1978), who found that “If one changes the tools of thinking available to a child, his mind will have a radically different structure” (p. 126). Vygotsky’s socially situated stance on how people learn and develop, with his heavy emphasis on tools and environment, are central to my perspective on the relationship between technology and learning. Vygotsky’s perspective is particularly poignant because it conceives of human learning and development as in constant dialectical exchange with the social, physical and technological world. This focus on the social and material diverged from earlier thinking, such as Piaget’s notion that human development involves a linear unfolding of pre-programmed stages, or the strictly cognitive viewpoint that learning is primarily the symbolic processing of information in the head. In the situated perspective, the interaction between humans and the material world will both shape the material world and the humans that occupy it. Or put more simply, we create the world and the world creates us. If we assume this perspective is valid, the role of technology is key. In a world increasingly dominated by information and communications technology (ICTs), the interaction between technologies and humans will shape both the technologies that are innovated, sustained, and allowed to flourish, as well as the humans that interact with those technologies. Today’s technologies are more complex and intricate than ever before in that they blend communication across individuals, time, and space using a variety of modalities, including linguistic, visual, and auditory modes. However, this should not be thought of as a deterministic or uniform process where technology will define humanity, but rather should be seen as a complex dialectical exchange that will vary across groups depending on the depth of interactions with the technological, social and cultural domains. In this paper, I will further elucidate my perspective on the relationship between learning and technology by more fully describing the socially situated theoretical perspective and how that strand of thought has been used in research. Second, I will discuss the role of technology given this theoretical perspective. I will conclude with a discussion of how technology can be used to support learning.

The socially situated perspective, employed by many scholars associated with the research area known as the learning sciences, can trace its roots far back; however, for the purposes of this paper I will only go only as far back as Vygotsky. Vygotsky focused on individuals interacting within a society and culture as the largest factor in individual development. This viewpoint is built upon in many important later works, most notably in Jean Lave’s work (1988), who articulated the notion that cognition is situated: “cognition’ is constituted in dialectical relations among people acting, the contexts of their activity, and the activity itself” (p. 148). Lave later worked with Wegner to develop the notion of legitimate peripheral participation, which describes a process of how a newcomer becomes a member a community by gradually taking on the role of the expert (Lave & Wegner, 1991). Lave and Wegner’s work has been heavily picked-up by scholars associated with the learning sciences, and it appears most frequently when the learning context is incredibly important or the group or community dynamics are a primary concern. I, like others in the field, have used this theoretical perspective in analyzing network dynamics in a collaborative knowledge sharing environment (Cocciolo et al., 2007). Brown, Collins and Duguid (1991) have built on Lave and Wegner’s work to argue for greater attention to collaborative learning and cognitive apprenticeship, which is concerned more with group dynamics and providing opportunities for novices than with material context. However, if material context is an important factor, then Lave’s situated learning perspective is often employed, especially if the context is an intentionally designed environment. For example, the situated perspective is used by Barab et al. (2005) as a framework for conducting design research in the making of and assessment of an educational MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game). The theoretical perspective is used not only in the design of technological environments but also in studying pre-existing environments, such as Constance Steinkuehler’s studies of MMORPGs (e.g., Steinkuehler, 2008). This is a very sensible use of the theoretical framework because a technical environment can create both a perceived physical context as well as a social context that can have impact on the learning that occurs by the end-user. The perspective has also been used in developing perspectives for designing instruction, such as using computer software to create scaffolds, anchoring instruction in rich problem areas, and case-based reasoning instruction, among many others (Pea, 2004; CGTV, 1990; Schrader et al., 2003).

Given the socially situated theoretical perspective, technology plays an incredibly important role. For the purposes of the discussion, the role technology plays will be discussed in terms of a socio-cultural perspective and a psychological perspective. Although these dichotomies are somewhat artificial, they are useful in highlighting the micro- and marco-level forces at work. The socio-cultural perspective, alluded to earlier, is the notion that information and communications technology (ICTs) will shape who and what humans become. This process will be uneven across individuals and groups, depending on the extent of interaction with ICTs; however, as a whole, it will influence how people think of themselves, their role in the world, and impact how their brains process information. This strand of thought is highlighted by Chris Dede (2005), who describes how neomillennials (or students who started college after the turn of the millennium) will learn differently and have different expectation than earlier learners because of their heavy use of ICTs during child development. Additionally, this perspective captures how people will perceive the world differently because of the extent to which knowledge, information, and culture is available at their disposal to a much greater extent than ever before. Technology deeply impacting the way people view themselves and the world around them is not unique to digital technology or the advent of the Internet but rather has pervasively played this role throughout history. A single example of the phenomenon is the impact of telegraph on humanity, which Jim Carey (1989) describes as bringing about “changes in the nature of language, of ordinary knowledge, [and] of the very structures of awareness” (p. 202). Other technologies can be located as well that have played a profound role in shaping culture and the social order, such as parchment and the Gutenberg press (Deibert, 1997). This macro-level force is the byproduct and in constant dialectical exchange with micro-level forces, which includes individual psyches interacting with technologies throughout their daily lives. The most important aspect from this psychological or micro-level perspective is the notion of perceived affordances, made salient by Don Norman (1988). The basic idea of perceived affordances is that an object (be it a simple object in the real world to a complex virtual world) exhibits certain function and features that people believe can accomplish some task. The use of the word “perceived” highlights the notion that functions that are not perceived by humans are not important. Of course, the ability to perceive what an object can do is not strictly a psychological process but rather buttressed by education and interactions within the socio-technical world. The natural corollary to this perspective is that things that are easy to do will tend to be done, while those things that are difficult to do will happen less frequently. For example, the affordances of social networking sites such as the Facebook, which allow individuals to signal and keep tabs on their friends (among many other features), make widespread communication happen in ways that were not easily afforded by earlier communication forms. This does not mean that simply because things can be easy done that they will; however, it highlights how once symbolic actions become possible (or afforded by some technology), then the potential for that action to occur increases. This notion has immense implications for society and culture because it indicates that new technological affordances can eventually lead to widespread social and cultural change. This can be seen at a micro-level, where low-cost communication allow for someone living in the diaspora to stay connected to his or her home and culture in a way that was prohibitively expensive or impossible before. It can also been seen at a macro-level, where such changes in communications can impact markets, economies and the division of labor (Benkler, 2006).

The possibility of ICTs providing new affordances, which can ultimately shape cultural and social change, open-up immense opportunities for using technology to support learning. Those opportunities for using technology to support learning can be framed in terms of the situated learning perspective, which as described earlier is based in Vygotsky’s thinking (1978), and built upon by Lave & Wegner (1991) and Brown, Collins, Duguid (1989). From my perspective, the most salient opportunities for using technology to support learning is engaging in design experiments, which looks to create new, innovative, and experimental learning contexts, which can then be studied to better understand the mediation between context, groups, and individual learners (Brown, 1992; Barab & Squire, 2004). This stance on using technology to enhance learning is compelling because the role of the researcher is not simply someone who studies what is “already there”, but rather performs action in the world and contributes to our understanding of how learning occur. Also, engaging in design experiments allow one to fully engage the potential affordances of ICTs. Such design experiments provide the opportunity to study a variety of instructional techniques, such as scaffolding, anchored instruction, case-based reasoning, problem-based learning, instruction that encourages reflection, instruction that promotes metacognitive activity, among others (Pea, 2004; CTGV, 1990; Schrader et al., 2003; Jonassen, 2000; Lin et al., 1999). A prime example of this way of using technology to support learning is the Quest Atlantis project developed by Barab et al. (2005). This project combines the new affordances made available with ICTs, with insights from game design and educational research, to address both educational and social commitments (Barab et al., 2005). Using technology to create rich contexts for learning, or taking advantage of existing environments to create situational contexts, is the area of greatest potential for technology to support learning.

In conclusion, I mapped out my perspective on the intersection of technology and how people learn. I first described the situated learning perspective as a central theoretical framework for my understanding of how learning occurs. Given this perspective, I argued that technology is central to shaping how people view themselves and their world. In addition to this macro-level or socio-cultural perspective, I offered a micro-level or psychological perspective that uses the notion of affordances as a way for indicating how those macro-level forces come into existence. I concluded with a discussion of how technology can be used to support learning: by conducting design experiments that create rich learning contexts where learning can occur.


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