Educational Technology & Society 2(4) 1999
ISSN 1436-4522

Appropriate and appropriated technology: technological literacy and educational software standards

Martin Owen
School of Education, University of Wales
Bangor, United Kingdom


This paper discusses ways that shape attitudes to technology from a socio-cultural perspective. Differing attitudes are explored in relation to the cultures of education and ICT use in education. The role and development of the spreadsheet is taken as an example of a "cultural tool" and its relevance to education is questioned. A way of developing ICT embedded in a educational cultures by adopting interoperable standards for ICT in education is developed, with illustration from the European Commission funded project REM.

Introduction: Educational Computer Literacy

The lid is open. Information and communication technologies are now "in" the world; the box can not be closed. They are with us, but we are often told that we should "refrain from knowing about computers because you do not need to be able to understand the principles of the internal combustion engine to be able to drive a car". On the other hand nobody would dream of considering themselves an adequate driver if they did not know that fuel was essential or that there is a need to change gears in order to make efficient progress. Just how technological do you need to be before the function of getting from a to b is denied to you because you do not have the socio-technical skills to utilise automobile technology as part of your way of life? How well should you understand the technical language and tools of the computer? To draw the automobile technology analogy further, is it appropriate for you be given a fork lift truck, for that is what you are told is "industry standard", when really you want to make a vacation trip and are unable to discover why it is inappropriate? How discriminating a computer user should we be?

This paper will attempt to analyse some issues about the nature of ICT "literacy" in education for educators so that technology may be better applied to education. Beynon (1993) has argued that there is an urgent need for a new, essentially cultural, definition of technological literacy. For teachers to be ‘technologically literate’ (and, through them, their pupils) they need to learn how to ‘read’ technology, treating it not as a series of technical artefacts but as a ‘text’. Beynon argues that the technologising of the classroom has alienating and over-vocationalising effects which can only be overcome by adopting an approach to understanding technology in the classroom from the stand point of critical theory. In this paper however we will examine why an understanding of the technology of artefacts is an important aspect of a cultural definition of "literacy" in the modern world and in education in particular. This paper will argue that the problem of the relationships between education and technology is the introduction of technology that emerges from alien cultures (such as technology emerging from accountancy practice). The paper will argue that there is a need for technologies to be developed for an educational milieu, which in turn necessitates the development of that milieu by for and by education practitioners themselves. The author suggests that the development of technical standards for education as a starting point in that development. This may mean that teachers do need a greater understanding of technology itself alongside their need to "read" technology in Beynon's terms.

Life and Technology

I want to begin this paper by contrasting attitudes to technology as portrayed by two of the seminal works of fiction of my generation: Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s "100 Years of Solitude" and Robert Pirsig’s "Zen and the Art of Motor Cycle Maintenance". In Marquez’s wonderful work, we are placed in Mocando, a desolate town deep in the heart of the South American Jungle where the Buendía family holds power. The solitude and remoteness of the location promote and enable a belief in magic. Very narrow channels controlled by vested interests mediate the outside world to the inhabitants of Mocando.

Technology and technological change is introduced to the early Mocando by the annual visit of a tribe of gypsies, who each year would visit the town to reveal some new wonder from the world outside - the new mysteries of the "sages of Memphis". Once the gypsies had departed, the technology transfer having taken place, the appropriation and use of the technology was through the understanding of Buendía (Buendia was clearly a supporter of Science. He had his own workshop and ensured that his children were educated in mathematics and the laws of physics. It is his relationship with "technology" we question.), the community founder and leader, for the benefit of his fellow citizens. Buendía was a supporter and investor in technology. He saw himself as an inventor, and dearly wished for the invention of a machine which would record all memories. However no matter how keen was his interaction with technology, the interaction was problematic. Ultimately he was dependent on the technology of the mystics of Memphis, brought to Mocando by the gypsies. The telescope was a device for making people go further away, and ice was a wondrous material from which cool houses could be constructed. When the gypsies had departed the inevitable melting happened. Buendía was not anti- technological, but his fascination was that of an alchemist. The technological advances he sought were in the realms of metaphysics. Also he was, in terms of artefacts, a hapless and helpless consumer. Even in later Mocando generations, the phonograph and the cinematograph were interpreted in a uniquely Mocandon way. Technology was an "out-there" thing, although it was understood to be integral to their lives, it was bound up in that which was developed elsewhere by the mystics of Memphis or to be divined through magic. He strove for great inventions, but, for Buendía, these would be the result of miracles.

Pirsig’s hero in "Zen and the Art of Motor Cycle Maintenance" was no less spiritual in his outlook. The book is set around a motor cycle journey with his teenage son across the vast emptiness of the western United States. The book’s major feature is an internal dialogue by the hero on the nature of quality. His relationship with and understanding of the workings of the motor cycle, where not only seen as necessary for the progress of the journey, but also to appreciate what was happening on the journey and what the journey was about. The motor cycle was not merely an artefact to be consumed, but an essential component of the way his life is lived. To not understand, to not have some control, to be able to adapt and modify to allow his choices to prevail would in essence detract from the hero’s coupling with the environment. This is contrasted with his fellow travellers, with a technologically superior motorcycle, whose progress is determined entirely by what is in the instruction manual rather than their understanding of the machine they are using. Pirsig’s hero contrasts those around him as users of technology as spectators: "Caring about what you are doing is either unimportant or taken for granted", and that there is a "… strange separation from what man is and what man does… in this strange twentieth century". For Pirsig technology is not "out-there". Riding a motorcycle or painting a picture are not separate from your existence, they are what you do.

Maquez’s Buendía and Pirsig’s hero are inhabitants of a world mediated by technology. They recognise that technologies are not givens but are the products of human activity. Buendía behaves in highly "technological" way. He recognises the surface properties of ice and that it provides a solution to a major problem of jungle life. He engages in that rich seamless web of human technological actors , but his experiments come to nought because he accepts technology as a given. Pirsig’s hero knows that technology has a history of human origin in a far deeper way than Buendía. He has a deep understanding that it is explainable, amenable and can become in a variety of ways the "appropriate thing", but that those conditions only apply through human action with technology.

Presenting a dichotomy between subject and object, a separation between technology and its users is a root cause of problems of technological illiteracy. This appears to be prevalent in education as many educational solutions seem to come from "outside". Consequently there is a continued failure in the uses of technology in education. Inappropriate technologies that arise in different spheres of social activity get adopted by the education practitioners just as ice was adopted by Buendía to solve the problems of jungle housing. When the gypsies have left one is left with pools of water, and ice, a perfectly good technological artefact in its own right, is viewed with suspicion by the overheating Mocandons. I recognise this dissatisfaction in teachers.

A project

The author has been involved in a project whose aim has been to provide technological support for collaborative learning across networks, the REM Project (The REM Project, Reseau D’Enseignement Multimedia is/was a three year project (1996-99) funded by the European Commission DGXIII-C Telematics Application Programme (Education and Training Sector) with further support from Apple Computer . further information about REM can be had from, which has sought to discover, adapt, modify or create information and communications technologies which provide for socially situated collaborative interaction across networks. The project aimed to provide means for groups of geographically and temporally distributed communities of learners and scholars to explore what Kinchloe and Sternberg(1993) describe as post formal learning: exploring and contrasting patterns of similarity and difference arising from different cultural contexts, to understand the sources of those differences and similarities. The processes which we engage are described by Grabinger and Dunlap (1995 ) as REAL’s – undertaking activities where there is a real outcome or product. It is not the current orthodoxy in web–based learning , whereby "learning" material is delivered by the WWW protocols and responses submitted to a remote tutor for assessment. REM was trying to develop a system for collaborative active learning, whereby learners create the products of their learning and in that creation are in themselves transformed, rather than follow the notion that learning can be delivered.

For a learner or a teacher to engage with technology at this level, where they are producers and not just consumers, it is necessary to have a technology that is at once appropriate and can be appropriated. There needs to be a technology that is under the control of the user and not peripheral to their existence. The development work beyond the REM project has adopted a perspective drawn from Activity Theory to understand how technology as a mediation system fits into a human activity system such as a virtual learning environment

Cultures and the development of technologies

Activity theory as described by Vygotsky (1978) and others asserts that human beings never just "react" or innately "reflex-act" on the environment. Action on the environment is mediated by the products of previous interactions: our culture, our technology, theories, technological artefacts, our behavioural codes and traditions. Consciousness does not just sit inside the head (or heart) but it is an interaction between humans - individuals and their social interconnections, and the object world, the world of the non-human. When the subject acts upon the object the subject is transformed. We build a world rich in cultural artefacts (such as language) which in turn construct the way we perceive and act in the world. Vygotsky and his co-worker Leontjev (1978) further stressed that these processes are socially mediated (see figure 1) - developed by a community of actors which in turn includes the history of interaction and the history of the social grouping.

Figure 1.

Cultural-historical theory suggests that tools, including cognitive artefacts, are created at a particular moment in the historical trajectory of a culture, in response to the demands of the activity in and they continue to be modified, in use, by those who continue the activity. The subject acting on the object changes the object and the mediating system. This in turn inherently changes all the future interactions, thus changing the subject.

Engestrom and Cole (1993), through examining a variety of work settings take the concept further and demonstrate that the relationships between humans, their social setting (community), tools, the division of labour, rules and belief systems interact to form our consciousness. Perturbations in one affect all the others (see figure 2)

The development of the individual is dependent on the tools and practices that are made available for appropriation in the system (Engestrom & Middleton 1996). Individuals and their understanding are part of a rich social web. Technology, society, and our belief systems are not independent of each other, they are all interacting. The nature of our technology is developed by human action, but that in turn influences the way we act and organise ourselves. This is determined by the Vygotskyian activity system and elaborated by the rules (eg laws of the land), the community (eg what your peers hold most valuable) and the division of labour (e.g. can you leave "that stuff" to a technician).

Figure 2.

Within Vygotskyian theory we also draw on the notion of "zones of proximal development". The notion that for learning to take place it requires the learner to transform from one state of "ability to act" to another state of "ability to act". The idea is that there is a zone of potential development in a given activity system where, with support of the activity system a transformation in the learner is possible (ie you can learn things which are within your grasp with the support of an appropriate system).

We need to develop our understanding of ICT in ways which fits into the totality of the educational environment. For successful appropriation to take place one can hypothesise that there is a need for "contact zones" that are "proximal" to the existing activity systems. For computers to become "ubiquitous" in education and training, we need to have activity systems that reflect the culture and history of the educational environment in which they are operating, and are devised on the basis of the changes they are intended to produce in that environment.

Computers and computer software as mediation systems

"Technology" is not a unified singular whole, but a range of tools and technologies. There is a danger that there is a bald acceptance that if technology is good in one milieu it is good in another. This is very much a Mocando response, a response that makes mistaken assumptions about technology. It is not a Pirsig response that sees the technology as something that is actually a part of the activity of the human who is using it. There is a need for educators to have a means of differentiating between technologies that provide for learners and those technologies that are inappropriate.

As a case history I will consider the spreadsheet, a highly significant use of computer technology. The spreadsheet presents a case typical example of a tool that was created by and in turn has shaped a major sphere of human activity. In the accounting world a spreadsheet was and is a large sheet of paper that lays everything out for a business-person. It spreads or shows all of the costs, income, taxes, etc. on a single sheet of paper for a manager to look at when making a decision. An electronic spreadsheet organises information into columns and rows. The data can then be "added up" by a formula to give a total or sum. The spreadsheet summarises information from many sources in one place and presents the information in a format to help a decision-maker see the financial "big picture" for the company.

The term "spread sheet" (nowadays "spreadsheet") has a long tradition; reference to its non-computerised version can be found in the first edition of Eric L. Kohler's Dictionary for Accountants and refers to a worksheet providing a two way analysis of accounting data. In the early 1960s, Richard Mattessich pioneered computerised spread sheets for business accounting. This appeared first in a paper (Mattessich, 1961) and later in two books Accounting and Analytical Methods (Chapter 9 contains the mathematical prototype model) and Simulation of the Firm Through a Budget Computer Program . Gaffkin notes: "While the first is generally regarded as a classic in the accounting literature, is well known and has been well received, the second, less well read title, also had significant impact on the development of the discipline. It, together with an article written three years earlier, sets out the elements of what later generations of accountants have come to accept as a standard tool in the discipline, namely computerised financial spread sheets."

Dan Bricklin (see Jones 1998) developed the first Spreadsheet programme for personal computers, which in turn has spawned a significant sector of the personal computer industry. Bricklin proposed that his program would enable users to manipulate numbers as easily as they could manipulate words. Budgets, cost estimates, inventories, and investments could be easily managed through one program.

From this historical evidence it is obvious that the mediation system the "spreadsheet" has a particular history and form arising from a specific community of use and a specific type of dialogue. However the spreadsheet has found its way as an information technology "given" , and essential part of understanding technology, in the primary classroom in the UK, and I suspect it has, or will, elsewhere. This provides a classic case of Mocandon views of technology. The spreadsheet is a wonderful and powerful tool. It can do many tasks we might want to do in educational situations, and indeed I am sure there are teachers who work hard to make the spreadsheet fulfil their educational goals. However I am not sure it is the tool that an educationalist would design for the goals set by educationalists.

In England and Wales there is "official" recognition that children commence their study of the spreadsheet at the age of nine ( see for instance . I do not want to suggest that some primary school children cannot manage the spreadsheet, nor do I suggest that the spreadsheet cannot be used to explore a great variety of mathematical investigations which would further the mathematical capabilities of children. However I do believe that if our aims were to develop tool or set of tools for the exploration of numerical relationships and quantitative modelling in schools we would not necessarily adopt the formalisms adopted by accountants for that purpose. At the minimal level of describing how inappropriate the tool is one need only consider that equations had to be entered in relation to titles of cells rather than the names of variables that the cells represented in the most popular spreadsheet products (although latest versions correct this problem).

For instance instead of representing: circumference = 2 * PI * radius (this representation system is in itself a bit dubious), we might have: = E4.. B$4$ * C$4$ * D4

The use of a tool that has not been designed to develop a child’s understanding of mathematics is highly promoted. It seems to be mediating well outside a zone of proximal development. Why is this so? It could be a reflection of relationships with technology exemplified in the tales of Pirsig and Marquez. Spreadsheets are seen a de-facto given of the computer world because there is insufficient ownership of information technology in the life and work of school communities. Schools adopt the tools of other communities without detailed question of appropriateness for their own communities. Schools are using technology, but they are not using technology arising from their own community, tools which have grown out of their own discourse, tools which have arisen from their own actions. The schools are in the role of Buendía: interested in adopting and using technology but without that deep appropriation which can be detected in Pirsig’s hero.

There are potential explanations of this situation including:

  • an inherent belief that "what is right for commerce must be right for learning" ;
  • a belief that what counts as an appropriate IT education is the knowledge and use of commercial software;
  • that there are no appropriate tools other than those commercially available;
  • software is too complex for the educational community to develop
  • it is difficult for educational users to conceive of tools which are for educational purpose.

There is support for the first two arguments, however the argument does not extend to all sections of the curriculum. The study of commerce is rightly part of the curriculum, however in other curriculum areas, like reading, we do not expect learners to have legal statutes, regulations and company annual reports as their main reading matter.

Currently, software development is without doubt complex. A spreadsheet program like Microsoft Excel has had over a decade of development by what has become the world’s largest corporation. It is difficult to conceive of the development of a large monolithic application of this complexity being developed just for education. This is a problem that needs resolution. It is this problem which also makes it difficult for educational users to define their own solution. Because technology is "out there" and not of "education" the tools and the dialogue needed for appropriate software development of education are unavailable. However there have been small windows of opportunity that allowed a greater flowering of educational software: in the early days of personal computing most development occurred through the BASIC interpreter and many teachers experimented in their spare time. However the ideas were often handed to computer professionals to make resources robust, transferable and widely available. Similar activity happened when Apple HyperCard became available (see Ambronn & Hooper 1990). For these teachers the development of the use of information technology arose from a set of tools that could give them access and ownership of technology, for them to participate in technology as an owner rather than a consumer.

The author does not wish to suggest that it is appropriate for all teachers to become spare-room software companies. What I am saying is that an activity system was available that enabled some teachers to at least enter into a discourse about what information technology can do in the educational milieu.

Resolving a Dilemma

To progress educational computing to a point where it is "of education" we clearly need developments in ICT to make it possible for educational practitioners to enter into new dialogues to effect their practice in relation to ICT. The models of computing available that have grown from object oriented programming that went under significant development in Xerox PARC in the 1970’s (see the August 1980 edition of Byte) offer some ways forward. The dream of modularity and independent but interoperable computer objects within a mode-less operating environment is nearing fruition. Although in its final analysis it was clear that SmallTalk , the language developed in Xerox Park, was not "intended for education" (Goldberg 1980), the project’s motto "DREAM BIG" encouraged computer scientist and educators to think what a computer environment for education might be like. Theoretically it should be now possible to engage in models of computer use that centre on the document such as OpenDoc; or where computer programmes (possibly small) can inter-operate with each other within web browsers like Java and JavaBeans (a system developed by Sun computers see, and applets (small programs) which can function within web browsers.

All these systems make possible the development of small programs or sub systems that can act together with other small programs, which provide for a new impetus of development for educational uses of information and communication technologies, many of which have directly influenced the experimental development of the REM system. In order for these developments to make sense there are two requirements. Firstly there is a clear need for these subsystems to integrate with each other. This implies a standard for inter-operability. The second implication is that there should be a system for locating and trading in subsystems so that educators can obtain the parts they need to develop their own systems. This, in turn implies a need for some standardisation in educational cataloguing and indexation of educational components for ICT in education.

What are/were standards?

To develop a body of educationally relevant material where there is genuine "Pirsig" ownership is problematic. On the other hand increasing access, improving quality, and reducing costs of learning environments requires the development of a substantial body of educational software. Implementing standards can have a significant effect in overcoming these problems.

There is no doubt that there is a will in the educational community to develop learning resources suitable for education. Technical standards coupled with existing network technology can realise the potential. By having a well-implemented and supported standard we lower the development costs for creating and using online materials and encourage the development of market incentives for distributing online materials. By facilitating the creation and compensated (ie by paying for small-scale developments) distribution of learning materials, the implementation of standards will increase the quantity of materials available and the methods for locating these materials.

The interoperability of small (or large) components will allow for customised/flexible learning environments that can be adapted locally for the needs of specific learners. The adaptability can provide for integrated learning activities.

By permitting teachers and learners to seamlessly integrate learning materials from a wide range of sources, the application of standards can promote the development of a wide range of learning environments that are tailored to the needs of individual students and their learning styles. There would be no need to rely upon a "one-size-fits-all" approach to the learning process nor would we have to rely on commercial "hand-me-downs". The interoperability and modular structure makes sharing resources between learning institutions much more likely with other potential benefits.

There are also clear advantages to the commercial sector. Not only does it provide an assured mechanism of producing a resource (no matter how small) that will be usable in many different contexts across platforms. It can stimulate the development of a robust commercial market for educational software. Software that conforms to a supported standard will, by default, have an in-built dissemination advantage.

Standards and REM

From the outset the REM project was committed to an open and extensible environment that would allow the two main activities: firstly, giving learners and teachers the maximum range of expression of ideas in ICT mediation; secondly, if the learning process is to be open flexible and collaborative, providing a mechanism for sharing educational resources that has little overhead in finding resources on the part of the searcher, and little overhead in describing resources on the part of the publisher. Resources made available by one learner or teacher need to be easily found by others, and having been found they need to fit easily into the others' own learning environment.

In its initial stages, REM sought to achieve this integration through using what could have become a major standard, OpenDoc. This standard was abandoned by its main supporters in early 1997. This created a problem for REM. However since the emergence of IMS and Ariadne ( and the apparent possibility of a supra standard sponsored by the IEEE (P1484, see REM has sought to develop in ways that will be forwards compliant with these systems - in particular, tools which will enable learners and teachers to collect and share resources and information about resources with each other in a way that is interoperable.

The international projects named above have (among other issues) focused on a need to have some common system of metadata, information about information, which can describe educational and training material on the www, and thus make it easier to find. REM has made a specific contribution to this activity by building a resource locator for education. REM recognises that specific communities will want descriptions that are appropriate to the specialist needs of those communities. In order for diversity to exist within a standards framework, the "community metadata" needs to have a degree of interoperability that will allow it to be visible and usable by those searching for information and resources. An additional requirement for the tool is that it might inter-operate with other peoples metadata and other people search tools.

REM provides a searching and cataloguing mechanism that allows differing metadata systems to inter-operate with each other. The REM team hope this will provide an educational tool which simultaneously allows individuals or specific communities to define and develop ICT systems that fulfil their needs and yet operate as part of a wider learning community. In this way the REM project hopes that it is offering a model of use of ICT which enables education and training users to develop ICT systems which conform to their own needs, value systems, rules and division of labour, and transform them.


This paper has sought to raise the issue of appropriation of information and communication technology by education rather than have information and communication technology as an alien system.

I suggest that cultural historic activity systems provide a framework for understanding the issues involved. Many of the ways in which ICT has been developed are from systems that have not been developed with educational intent, or by practising educators. The paper suggests that for ICT to be appropriate for education and training, there is a need for open, modular and extensible systems which will allow learners and teachers to construct their own ICT learning environments that satisfy their own needs. Linked to this development there needs to be a rich on-line cataloguing system. This would permit the development of a cultural mediation system in its own right that would allow learners and teachers to specify their ICT requirements for education and training. The experience of the REM project indicates that such systems are a credible proposition.

Ubiquity in the application of ICT is only realistic in education and training if there is a genuine appropriation of ICT by education itself, rather than a simple acceptance of the technologies left to us by gypsies carrying the magic of the mystics of Memphis.


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