Essay: Adam Smith

Introduction

The normative conception of technology held, promoted, and embedded in Educational institutions in the United Sates is flawed. This malformed model of technology has lead, and will continue to lead, to the failure and underperformance of numerous technology-based initiatives in multiple areas of the Educational system: infrastructure, training, education, and instruction. The need to acknowledge and correct normative issues become increasingly dire as U.S. educational institutions approach a major push for technology-based reform, bordering on revolution. Misconceptions about the purpose, place and power of technology exacerbate a number of concerns, both inside and outside the field of Education. Internally, publicly funded institutions face fiscal restraints, which (for the foreseeable future) will either hold or continue to reduce the amount of available resources (e.g., budget cuts, increased funding scrutiny, etc.), as well as untenable resistance to change (e.g., quantitative faculty assessment). External issues include the (somewhat contentious) digital divide, digital disconnect, and digital native. In other words, educators and administrators directly and indirectly pass along their model of technology to students, which affects a number of subtle (but important) variables in the lives of students.

For the purpose of this work I am adopting (broadly) the concept of normativity from the field of Philosophy, which I define as the following: The construction of norms; internalized (mental) notions of both is and ought, as well as determinations of right and wrong (Elliott, 2002). Using this concept I will scrutinize and critique the normative construction of technology held by key members of publicly funded educational institutions, such as teachers, professors, and administrators. Evidence for my claims come from publications in the field of education, including, but not limited to: collegiate text-books on education (and related areas of study e.g., pedagogy), industry-specific journal publications, and public rhetoric concerning technology investment and development. Additionally, I will be drawing a variety of professional-experiences and preliminary-research concerning technology in educational institutions, such as: internal support and development, selection processes, valuation criteria, and policies. My operating definition of technology primarily refers to Information (IT) and Communications Technology (ICT), in a traditional (i.e., non-philosophical or abstract) sense. Thus, when discussing technology, I am referring to the various artifacts (e.g., laptops, tablets, smartphones), software (e.g., Microsoft Office, Apple MacOS), and systems, which are complex combinations of artefacts and software (e.g., Course Management Systems [CMS], like Scholar and Blackboard). Having provide my core position and definitions, will now provide context for what normative misconceptions of technology look like in print and practice.

Norms in Print or Sudo Speciation:  Forms of Technology

(The section title spelling is intentional)
Technology or Technologies? In the course of my studies as a graduate student in the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS), this questions has been raised on several occasions in various multi-disciplinary seminars, such as the History of Technology and Philosophy of Technology. The heart of this matter, for me, has lies in two fundamental questions: Should technology be divided into various species (i.e., categories)? And, what conceptual exchange is made in choosing one model over another, if any (i.e., do we really gain anything from developing a technological taxonomy)? Perhaps I should have saved defining technology for later in this work, as I have already tipped my hand… I have come to the conclusion that dividing technology into technologies is a necessary step in forming an accurate and articulate normative model. The language of technologies enables technologist (like myself) to quickly spot (potential) operating errors in one’s mental-model of technology. Carefully studying the language and logic used to differentiate and discuss technology reveals complex arranges of is and ought, as well as biases and tensions surrounding the state of past, current, and future technology.

The book Schools and Schooling in the Digital Age: Critical Analysis, by Dr. Niel Selwyn of the Institute of Education, has provided a wealth of material for my critique of Educational norms of technology. In this work Selwyn introduces a significant number of technologies: Information Technology, Communications Technology, Digital Technology, Media Technology, Educational Technology, Learning Technology, Biological Technology, and [Business] Technology, to name a few (2011). These categories reveal, sometimes rather explicitly, historic and emotional tension held by Education experts. For example, Selwyn brings up the technology of interactive whiteboards (commonly referred to as SMARTBoards) as a technology “designed for [business]” that have been forced into schools by the “IT industry and government…regardless of demand” (2011, p.4). Immediately, this technology, which I would contend is most commonly associated as a ‘classroom technology,’ particularly since I have never seen one used inside a business, is defined by its market-driven-origins. The interactive whiteboard’s purpose, as a means for displaying an interacting with visually presented data, is excluded. Contrast this definition to that of digital technology, which is the most frequently mentioned type of technology in this work: “‘[D]igital technology’… alludes to the ongoing digitsation of culture, politics, economics, and society… [It] can actually refer to one of any number of portable, handheld and mobile device operating a wide range of software services and applications. … [It] refers to an ever-changing complex of technological artefacts and tools.” (2011, p.6). Here we have rather amorphous description of this type of technology. What’s more, this taxonomy produce more than tools and physical artifacts, the produce human agents.

“Outside of schools exist a growing group of professional ‘educational technologists’ who develop technology applications and tools, accompanied by a growing cadre of ‘learning technologists’ responsible or their pedagogical design and implementation. […] These interest groups are accompanied by a sizable community of policy-makers with power to influence or determine schools technology policies and practices…” (Selwyn, 2011; p.11)

After reading and flagging many passages throughout Selwyn’s work, there is one word that is consistently associated with technology, it is the first word of the block-quote above: outside. Technology and those speaking and/or acting on its behalf are, either in whole or in part, outsiders to the field of Education. The classic definition of ‘outsider,’ from the OED, is “[a] person who does not belong to a particular circle, community, profession, etc.; a person originating from elsewhere. Also: a person unconnected with a matter; a person lacking special knowledge of a subject.” This type of rhetoric, which can be found in many other popular texts on the topic of technology in education, instills to-be educators with the notion that the normal response to technology should be combative. Consider the following quotes, before moving on to evidence of normative errors in practice:

  • Educators face “the digital acceleration of ‘a culture of disrespect’ between students and their schools and teachers.” (Bugeja:Selwyn, 2011; p.13)
  • "The curriculum must be the vehicle for technology integration. … Fit the computer to the curriculum, not the curriculum to the computer." (Earle, 2002, p.10)
  • “[W]hen ‘digital-technology meets classroom – classroom wins’ ”(Selwyn, 2011; p.34)

Norms in Practice or

Robbins v. Lower Merion School District 
Lower Merion School District in Montgomery County, PA has described itself as “one of the first school systems in the United States to provide laptop computers to all high school students” (Magid, 2010) after establishing their “One-to-One” laptop program in 2007 (LMSD). On their website, they state that their program “emphasize[s] digital citizenship and appropriate and effective use of technology” (LMSD). This program, in short, provides laptops for all of the high school’s students to:

  • “Provide digital access for all students
  • Support parents and guardians with tools, resources & strategies to manage technology use in their home
  • Prepare students with essential digital literacy skills to choose and use technology for learning
  • Create interdisciplinary connections through rigorous, engaging, and meaningful instructional strategies
  • Promote and facilitate student critical thinking, creativity and innovation for lifelong learning
  • Cultivate leadership, collaboration and teamwork through digital communication and productivity tools”

(LMSD)

A number of schools around the U.S. have implemented similar technology initiatives over the past decade. These programs are often heralded as progress movements in education, as participating institutions attempt to ‘modernize’ the classroom and learning experience. The National School Boards Association has gone so far as to give special recognition to one-to-one programs through their Trail Blazer awards, describing LMSD’s efforts as “practices in improving teaching and learning environments” (NSBA, 2007). Unfortunately, three years into LMSD’s program they found themselves in state and federal court, potentially facing charges for violating constitutional amendments and creation of child pornography.

On November 11th, 2009 the Assistant Principal of Harriton High School in the LMSD, Linday Matsko, called a fifteen-year-old student, Blake Robbins, into her office. The student was (allegedly) reprimanded for engaging in “improper behavior in his home” (DCEDP, 2010) — let’s give that a minute to settle in. Ms. Matsko believed that the student was involved in taking and/or dealing drugs from his home. When her claim was challenged by Robbins, Ms. Matsko “cited as evidence a photograph from the webcam embedded in the [student’s district-issued laptop]” (DCEDP, 2010). This single incident exposed a massive scandal in Montgomery County, PA concerning the violation of constitutional 4th amendment rights, various state and federal privacy laws, and the (likely) creation of child pornography by the LMSD. Robbins v. Lower Merion School District was the primary class-action lawsuit built on the numerous legal transgressions mentioned above, which was settled in October of 2010.

The LMSD laptop program failed to inform members of faculty, staff, students, and guardians (e.g., parents of LMSD students) about the security-monitoring software that was installed on all district issued laptops prior to deployment. The monitoring software, known as “TheftTrack,” (now discontinued) was designed to track and locate lost or stolen equipment through a variety of means and data. One of the data-collection methods used by the software was covert image capture, taking screenshots of the computer’s desktop (i.e., what is displayed on the screen) and snapshot-photos from the laptop’s embedded webcam. There are a number of security products that make use of these functions, the general idea being that the software can ‘capture’ an image of the person using the laptop and gain details of where it may be (physically) located. In many instance when this software is managed by an organization, rather than a private user, the governing body will alert users that the software is present, that it can and/will capture visual data, and that it will be ‘activated’ under specific conditions, such as an asset being reported lost or stolen. However the LMSD not only kept many users in the dark about TheftTrack, but the software allegedly (based on discovery and analysis during various lawsuits) routinely activated without cause or justification, sometimes with no clear record of who authorized activation (Wiki). This led to the creation of over 66,000 images containing minors in “various states of dress or undress” (DCEDP).

As should be apparent, LMSD’s approach and handling of technology demonstrates significant levels of cognitive impairment. It is my contention that their failings cannot and should not be attributed simply to poor judgment and incomplete oversight. This event signifies a normative model of technology, lacking an appropriate sense of use and ethics. I will ask that my audience grant me a bit of latitude with the following conjecture as I have somewhat limited resources to ground my assessment of the motivations and normative beliefs help by the LMSD administration.

Thus far my account of this incident has focused on the actions leading up to the Robbins v. LMSD lawsuit. I am now burdened with the task of supporting my position that LMSD’s actions speak to a fundamental and systemic flaw in thinking about technology. Hard evidence, in the form of detailed documentation or activity logs from the TheftTracker servers are not available to me for analysis at this time, so I instead call upon basic reasoning from my reading audience. Do you believe yourself to be rational and reasonable? What is your assessment of the district’s actions? Of course I am drawing on the U.S. Common Law concept of the “reasonable person.” A reasonable person would not condone the actions taken by this institution. The lack of rational action by the LMSD is echoed by various groups and individuals who responded publicly to the story and court case. As Lillie Coney of the Electronic Privacy Information Center stated, during an interview with CBS News, “[t]his definitively was not a safe or a secure even a rational thing for the school to be engaged in…" (CBS). Again, to key off of rationality, I question how significant members of a publicly accountable intuition could have justified there gross violations of privacy. My conclusion is that (in part) their ethical norms surrounding the use of technology were skewed by educational training and by the power vested in them, by the district at large. Some may counter this claim with the position that the level of power, the ability of the technology to digitally extend the authority of, faculty and staff, was a corrupting influence on their individual ethics and morals. However, if this were the case, wouldn’t we see this type of abuse reported more frequently? As a technologist and (formerly) IT Systems Administrator, I have routinely been granted access to private corporate data, personal information, and valuable collections of intellectual property. I can say that at no point in over fourteen years of experience as a technologist, have I directly bore-witness to anything near this level of ethical impropriety. I will acknowledge that I have consulted/advised on ethical violations by individuals at other institutions, for potential breaches in (implicit) agreements concerns access to sensitive information. The exact nature and source of this particular type of normative corruption is unclear, owing to a lack of necessary data. However, one possible cause may be the espoused ‘technologies are only tools’ rhetoric.

"[T]echnology enthusiasts continue to forget a basic fact: [Technologies] are tools, valuable only when a human intelligence organizes their use in a productive way. … [Technology] extend[s] the teacher’s power…" (Callister, 1992, pp. 324-325).

The teachnology : tool comparison in education literature is, at its core, a discussion of power. If you were to ask the average American adult to list examples of ‘tools’ you would likely receive a list of hand tools, which most people would keep in their garage or a toolbox in their home. Such a comparison, when anchored with concrete examples, becomes increasingly absurd. The iPad and the hammer are equally qualified and encompassed by the term ‘tool’. No, I cannot accept that such representations avoid serious repercussions. This reductive rhetoric promotes an idea of simplicity and, by extension, transparency. The hammer is a fairly transparent technology. Once shown how a basic (we’ll say claw hammer) is demonstrated to someone, it is not difficult for them to grasp and retain the concept of its purpose and application. Thus, simplicity allows nearly everyone to participate and understand its use, reach, and direct consequence from misuse. The laptops provided in LMSD’s one-to-one program may have been viewed by core members of the administrative body as only a ‘tool’ (instead of as a developed technology). Operating under this mode of thought, it is possible to see how their moral bearings were perturbed: From the mind of an educator - The students know these are school issued laptops, so they must know we will monitor them. Furthermore, the students are aware of the embedded input devices on the laptop, such as the webcam and microphone, then they should make the rational decision that you, can and may be monitored. Finally, the tool formulation could build a right-to-use among the faculty. In this final scenario I could e envision someone like Ms. Matsko building the rational-mental-scaffolding necessary to achieve such missteps: When students are in school, they are in the care of the faculty and staff, serving almost as guardians ad litem, a proxy caretaker. Another reasonable assumption from this vantage point, is that while students are on school property or making use of school resources, they are held to the defined laws and guidelines written for LMSD students. Finally, these resources can be used off school grounds. Stepping into the mindset of an administrators, the users can be (reasonably) monitored without explicit notifications.

[…]


References

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Collins, Allan, & Halverson, Richard. (2009). Rethinking education in the age of technology : the digital revolution and schooling in America. New York: Teachers College Press.

District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania [DCEDP]. (2010). Robbins v. Lower Merion School District.

Elliott, Kati. (2002). "National School Boards Association Honors: The First Trailblazer Award Winner." National School Boards Association.
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Magid, Larry. (2010). "School issued laptop: Good. Webcam spying: Very bad." Huffington Post.
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Wikipedia contributors [Wiki]. "Robbins v. Lower Merion School District," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robbins_v._Lower_Merion_School_District (accessed April, 2013).

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