Historians of technology recognize the collection of human technologies includes both hard technologies and soft technologies. Hard technologies include the artifacts—from stone axes to automobiles to computers—that humans have built and that can be held and manipulated. Soft technologies include those practices—from language to banking to computer software—that function as technologies but that cannot actually be held. The formal education systems familiar to students approximately aged six through eighteen are an example of a soft technology. By understanding the educational system in which they work and that they help to create as a technology, educators can better explain the origins of innovation in the classroom and can better explain the causes and effects of various factors on and in their classroom than if they consider education to be either a science or an art.
W. Brian Arthur, an economist and complexity scientist, observed that there is a rich literature in which scholars have reported studies of technology and the affects of technology on humans and cultures, but that there does not exist a theory of technology that can be used to predict and explain in the same way that other sciences that follow Kuhnian paradigms are guided by theory. Scholars have defined broad characteristics of technologies, and common elements of technologies, so Arthur (2009) asserts, “Technology in fact is one of the most completely known parts of human experience. Yet of its essence—the deepest nature of its being—we know very little” (13). Despite humans’ rich experience with technology, Arthur observed, “we have no agreement on what the word ‘technology’ means, no overall theory of how technologies come into being, no deep understanding of what ‘innovation’ consist of, and no theory of the evolution of technology” (13). Arthur concluded there exists no –ology of technology.
Theory, such as Arthur claims is missing from technology, plays a fundamental role in defining the paradigm of a field, and the paradigm represents scholars’ best knowledge of how the field actually works. The paradigm helps the scholar determine which problems need study, the design of methods to study those problems, and it gives guidance for interpreting the results of their studies. A paradigm defines what we think is “true.” Any field that lacks such a unifying theory cannot advance in a manner that Kuhnian fields advance and is likely to be characterized by frequently changing and mutually contradictory ideas being advocated by experts.
The observation that a general theory of technology is lacking can be applied to education in the 21st century as well. Educators have detailed histories of how particular approaches to education originated and developed. Educators have detailed guides providing advice on the design classrooms for specific purposes, and how to design schools to support a wide range of educational practices. Educators have deep philosophical ramblings on the meaning of education in our society, and both utopian and dystopian views of the future of education and schooling (those views usually determined by our choice to accept or reject the writer’s stance). Despite all of this, there is no comprehensive and coherent theory of teaching and learning upon which educators can agree. The multiplicity of the pedagogical models being proposed for teachers is evidence that the experts are each working within a different paradigm—some advocate education as science, some education as art.
All of these observations are especially true when considering the literature specific to educational technology. Education as technology is a lens that can begin to unify these diverse and changing and contradictory views of education and the role of technology in education. Education does share the characteristics of other technologies and those characteristics appear to describe how education originates and evolves and how innovations emerge and spread through the field just as is observed in other technologies.
Arthur, W. Brian. 2009. The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves. New York: Free Press.