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CPSR Newsletter Winter 1997


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The Social Microcosm of the Classroom

by Elizabeth Buchanan

CPSR News Volume 15, Number 1: Winter 1997


The rapid infusion of technology into school curriculum has become a major tenet of school reform. Many educators have begun to look to technology as the saving grace of the classroom, oftentimes ending up woefully disappointed when the technology does not work. In a society such as ours, it is "normal" to look for a quick, clear-cut, simple answer for why technology has failed to "fix" the problems of American schools. Seemingly, we have taken the necessary steps-teacher training and continuing education, curriculum revisions to integrate the technology properly, school - business partnerships, technology coordination and networking between classrooms and schools.

These steps remain insufficient; there has been research looking at why technological reform isn't enough to complete a successful transformation in American schools (Bowers, 1988; Nickerson and Zodhiates, 1988; Waks, 1991; Gormley, 1996). Succeeding this research are theories that the teachers themselves are to blame, which certainly is not the case. But teachers often receive the brunt of the criticism. From my personal experience teaching the use of instructional technologies to other teachers, one of the problem seems to revolve around the fact that technologies are often "dumped" into the school with little or no additional training or staff to aid in the integration process.

While this is but one serious problem in the implementation of technology in education, there are other macro-level issues which should also be addressed by educators, administrators, staff, and all involved in the schooling process. My focus here is on macro level issues.

I suggest that reform mechanisms must not look solely at technology in and of itself but look concurrently to the surrounding environments. Technology must be understood as a composite of social forces, cultural influence and values, as well as the technical mechanisms. Many theories of education reform hold-whether actively or inconspicuously - that technology is inherently neutral. However, educators would be wise to understand what Bowers, for one, indicates:

"The use of computers in the classroom is simply the most recent experiment with the fabric of culture. A knowledge of the educational uses of computers (to be computer literate, to use the jargon) should also involve an understanding of how this new technology alters the cultural ecology of the classroom as well as influences the larger culture," (1988).

Our cultural ecology is a hybrid; our schools represent our diverse population of races, and classes. While research has looked at gender differences in relation to computer and technology usage, my preliminary dissertation research reveals that little has been done to examine the ways in which technology education affects race and class differentials. We no longer need to stress the growing differential in the haves and the have-nots which is due to technology acquisition, ownership and/or access. Yes, we do have a great disparity; we all agree on this. But we need to understand why. Such disparity is partially due to socio-economics and class, of course. Other factors in the equation which must be considered are the differences in the process of education and their relation to race; and by no means do I ascribe to the misshapen statistical "evidence" offered by The Bell Curve. But there are factors of language differences (bilingualism), income differentials, parental involvement and participation, among other socio-economic issues, that are influenced by education and race.

What we do not teach is as important as what we do. The use of technology in education is one more avenue by which students of color, students of ethnic minorities, students of non-EuroAmerican families may be ignored or devalued by the classroom's curriculum and teaching processes. The optimist will say that the technology offers such non-majority students greater access to the Internet, for instance, where s/he can find information on, from his or her cultural heritage; if this is the case, the next project of reform will be the Internet as more that 90% of its contents are in the English language and a similarly high proportion is Euro-American related content.

Changes are occurring at a fairly productive rate, with world wide web browsers that support multi-lingual text and sound. Information can be created and disseminated much more quickly through the Internet, for example, than through the traditional publication process. Educators must aggressively seek out multicultural Internet sites to include in curriculum revisions. Many good examples of the use of the Internet for multicultural curriculum reform are included in Brave New Schools: Challenging Cultural Literacy through Global Learning Networks.

What is mediated by technology is reality itself. Given that our students bring with them various concepts of reality, what reality is to them and how it is constructed by and for them, the process of technological transmission skews perceptions of reality. If we accept that the classroom is a microcosm of the world at large, then Bowers' assertion is integral: "Šthe critical point in terms of considering the use of computers is to recognize that the facts, ideas, and values-as well as the tacit cultural patterns that serve to organize our explicit knowledge in ways we are not generally aware of-must be judged in terms if the cultural orientations they reinforce. (1988)"

What is needed at the bare minimum is an understanding of the values and ethics underlying technology and education. Educators, from the administration down, must recognize that individual schools, and classrooms do not operate in a vacuum, but are an integral and inseparable part of the cultural ecology. It is necessary to look beyond the surface of our newest software program and our curriculum plans to see what cultural values, what realities are inscribed and which are not. We will see what is esteemed and what is not. What we will discover is not a startling new revelation, but another way in which the dominant reality of the dominant social class pervades what we teach, what we value and what we attempt to instill in all of our students. If we continue to think of technology as neutral, what we are perpetuating is monoculturalism. Are the text books that praise Christopher Columbus' "exploration" of the "New World" merely recreated in multimedia versions? Or, do they offer native American students a voice that the text book versions denied them?

In this light, we should also see why many efforts at school reform have failed and why technology is not the be-all, end-all for educators. What to do? Well, this starts long before the teacher in room 214 receives the latest history CD-ROM program. Software engineers, designers, consultants: we are all responsible for creating and allowing the emergence of different ideas of reality for our multicultural students. A few years ago, multiculturalism was the hot rage in curriculum, with new text books coming out daily. Now, it is time for technology itself to also become "multicultural." Technology and society exist in a dialogic relationship; our classrooms are encapsulated models of society. It is our ethical and professional responsibility to respond to the changes in both our larger cultural environments and our classrooms.

Technology is not neutral; our teaching processes are not neutral: they reflect social conditions, values, and ideologies. We can not continue to exclude the realities and values of students in our teaching and technology training. It is critical to assess what, how, and why we teach what we do and what we don't.


Bowers, C.A. 1988. The cultural dimensions of educational computing: understanding the non-neutrality of technology. New York: Teachers College Press.

Cummins, J. and D. Sayers. 1995. Brave new schools: challenging cultural literacy through global learning networks. New York: St. Martins Press.

Gormly, E.K. 1996. Implementation of technology in American public schools: a qualitative study. American Secondary Education 24 (2) : 14 - 25.

Nickerson, R.S. and Zodhiates, P.P. (Eds). 1988. Technology in education: looking towards 2020. Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Waks, L.J. 1991. The new world of technology in U.S. education: a case study in policy formation and succession. Technology in Society 13 : 233-253.

E.A. Buchanan
School of Library and Information Science
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
PO Box 413 Milwaukee, WI 53201


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