Technological Utopianism and the Future (Im)perfect: A Response to Fred Bennett
Research Fellow, School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University
21 Senghennydd Road, Cardiff, CF2 4YG, Wales
In casting his eye over 'education and the future', Bennett (1999) presents an almost carbon-copy thesis of previous visions of technologically-based teaching and learning which have persisted within the educational community for the last thirty years (e.g. Suppes 1966, Evans 1979). In doing so his paper sets out to be deliberately polemic and in responding I will try not to rise to the numerous contestable assertions and speculations, but use his paper as an example of the worst extremes of technological utopianism in education.
From the outset of his argument, Bennett falls into the familiar yet restrictive discourse of technological determinism. Such is his faith in the one-way 'cause and effect' nature of technological progress and society that the premise that "computers will dramatically upend virtually all of society as we know it" is not in question - it is merely a matter of how long this inevitable change will take to materialise. Thus for Bennett it is 'obvious' that education 'needs' to be fundamentally changed to fit the demands of a 'technological world'. However, as Bennett inadvertently acknowledges, the situation is nowhere near that simple. Yet, in doggedly pursuing an overtly technological deterministic line of reasoning he falls into the perennial trap of obscuring the wider social and cultural factors surrounding the use of IT in education. As Qvortrup (1984, p.7) warns, computing "cannot be properly understood if we persist in treating technology and society as two independent entities".
A prime example of this shortcoming is Bennett's stringent belief in computers as a 'technological fix' for education (Weinberg 1966). In this way information technology (IT) is presented unproblematically as a panacea for all of education's problems. As Bennett himself surmises; "the answer to present educational woes is simple - use computers ...". The unswerving belief among many educational technologists in the 'technical fix' has already been comprehensively critiqued by Robins and Webster (1989). Suffice to say, to view technology in this way is to approach education as somehow existing in a social and cultural vacuum. It is this tendency which I would argue is Bennett's major failing.
The principal manifestation of this, constantly reoccurring through-out his paper, is the ubiquitous positive effect that Bennett is convinced that computers will bring to education. To take but two examples of this assertion, Bennett argues that computers will improve education "in even the most backward nations" and across all ability ranges of student; from 'bright' to 'ordinary' and even those who are 'slow' (sic). Thus, for Bennett at least, computers will have ameliorative effects in all countries, all communities, all schools and with all students. To reinforce this claim he asserts that all children are 'fascinated' by learning on computers and that IT will 'rapidly spill' in 'less developed' nations somehow as a result of an increased manufacturing base.
This picture is indeed utopian but such staggering rhetoric flies in the face of all previous experience we have had about the permeation of IT into society. After twenty years of apparently 'affordable' information technology within Western society both domestic and educational access remains severely skewed in terms of social class and socio-economic status, gender, age, race and ethnic background (Kerka 1996, Sutton 1991); all factors apparently irrelevant to Bennett's vision of computerised education. To claim, therefore, that the computer's influence on education will be consistent across all sectors of society on every continent is misconceived. With over half the global population lacking the access to a telephone line that computerised technology is now so reliant on (Holderness 1993) it is absurd to visualise an impending education system where "one computer program can be changed instantaneously through-out the world".
Moreover, information technology's cultural biases - its reliance on the Roman alphabet for example - also do not make for equitable access and use. From all we have seen of the diffusion and implementation of technology throughout the twentieth century it is unrealistic to ever expect a world without huge disparities and inequality of both opportunity and outcome.
In painting such as idealised picture of computer-based learning Bennett obscures perhaps the most significant aspect of education and the technological future - that of commercial involvement with educational IT. As it stands, Bennett's paper does not begin to consider the role of governments, businesses and industry in constructing his utopian educational system - preferring instead to view it as existing in an economic void. Yet commercial involvement with educational IT is rapidly increasing; especially with the burgeoning use of telecommunications networks such as the Internet. Here then the wider question of education as a public good and information technology as a private interest comes to the fore, but this is a critical aspect of the debate that Bennett does not engage with. In commercial terms there is a fine line between philanthropy and profit-making, learning and earning - all issues that require serious examination before even a fraction of Bennett's dream can be realised.
In making these points my main concern is not with Bennett's prophesying. After all, the educational community must look forward in order to remain effective and relevant to the students that it hopes to serve. What does create 'disbelieving' and 'infuriation', however, is that such hyperbole adds nothing new to, and ultimately reinforces, a way of thinking about technology and education which has long ceased to be relevant to schools, teachers and students. Indeed, the adoption of Bennett's approach to educational computing would be nothing but damaging to the widespread integration of IT into education. To continue to treat IT as existing in a social, cultural and economic vacuum will have more of a damaging effect in the adoption of computers in education than any number of 'naysaying' administrators, teachers and students. It is time that the agenda was moved on above and beyond such flawed idealism.