Technology is Recursive

Every technology comprises other technologies. As a result, any technology can be deconstructed into its component technologies, and each technology can be understood as part of a larger complex of technologies. Scholars refer to systems that occur at multiple levels in this manner as “recursive.” Although related and connected, the component technologies can be considered separate modules, and these modules can be treated independently of each other.

The modular and recursive nature of education is clearly demonstrated in several familiar characteristics of public schools. Physically, schools are comprised of classrooms that are relatively similar in nature. Changes can be made in one classroom (or type of classroom) in a school, and ostensibly those will have minimal disruption to other classrooms. Because the experiences of shared students will be affected by changes, however, complete isolation of changes and their influences is not possible, and so changes in one classroom will affect what happens in all other classrooms. The typical management structure of schools also demonstrates modular and recursive organization. A large school is typically organized into departments, grade levels, or teams, and schools are part of larger districts; so a school is comprised of smaller units of management as well as being parts of larger units of management. Curriculum is recursively organized into units, and units are recursively organized into lessons.

The modular and recursive nature of technology leads to three observations that can be made about all technologies. First, modules do not exist in isolation. Because each technology is comprised of others and because each technology is part of a larger complex, any change in one will affect the others. Even when a technology is treated as a module, technologists recognize that any changes made will affect the entire technology and complex when it is implemented. For educators, it is important to recognize that changes in one part of the school structure will have consequences for the entire system. For example, there is a connection between fitness and brain function, so changes in opportunities for recess or physical education will affect performance in all academic areas.

Second, technologies exist at many levels and so must be understood and evaluated at many levels. Patterns and trends observed and relevant at one level may have little or no meaning at other levels, and interesting properties that are apparent at one level may not be observable or predictable from what is observed at another (these are emergent properties). In education, the multilevel characteristic of technologies can be illustrated by considering standardized test scores. While those scores may illustrate interesting and relevant trends in large groups of students who take the test, the same test results may be only a weak indicator of what any particular student knows or can do. The performance of all students in a school may point to areas in which curriculum and instruction may need to be improved, but an individual’s poor performance may result from an illness rather than his or her skill or knowledge level.

Third, technologies are non-static. As new discoveries are made, the technologies that are used in one module or at one level of organization will be updated and reinvented. These changes will affect all of the technologies in connected modules and at all levels, thus the function of the entire technology system is affected by a single change. Because humans are always seeking improvements in technology (e.g. to meet emerging needs or to improve efficiency, safety, or reliability), all technologies are dynamic and constantly being changed. In education, the non-static nature of the technology is illustrated by curriculum and instruction which is changed to incorporate new expectations, new discoveries, different methods, different students, and new skills developed by the teacher; or even the changing preferences of an influential educator.