The Social Microcosm of the Classroom

The rapid infusion of technology into school curricula has become a major tenet of school reform. Many educators have begun to look to technology as the saving grace of the classroom, often ending up w'efully disappointed when the technology d'es not ìwork.î In a society such as ours, it is normal to look for a quick, clear-cut, simple answer for why technology has failed to ìfixî 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. Yet so far, these steps remain insufficient.

There has been research looking at why technological reform isnít enough to complete a successful transformation in American schools.[1,2,3,4] 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 experiences in teaching the use of instructional technologies to other teachers, one problem seems to revolve around the fact that technologies are often ìdumpedî into a 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 that should also be addressed by educators, administrators, staff, and all involved in the schooling process. My focus here is on macro-level issues.

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 ó whether actively or inconspicuously ó 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.[1]
  • 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 ìhavesî and the ìhave-notsî that 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 that 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 ìevidenceî 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 influence education, race and class.

    Between the Lines

    What we do not teach is as important as what we do teach. The use of technology in education is one more avenue by which students of color, students of ethnic minorities and students of non-Euro-American families may be ignored or devalued by the classroomís curricula and teaching processes.

    The optimist will say that technology offers such non-majority students greater access to the Internet, for instance, where s/he can find information on and from his or her cultural heritage. If this is the case, the next subject of reform will be the Internet itself, as more than 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 now available, for example. Information can also be created and disseminated much more quickly through the Internet 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.[5]

    Cultural Contexts

    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 Bowersí assertion is integral:

  • Öthe critical point in terms of considering the use of computers is to recognize that the facts, ideas, and values ó as well as the tacit cultural patterns that serve to organize our explicit knowledge in ways we are not generally aware of ó must be judged in terms of the cultural orientations they reinforce.[1]
  • At the bare minimum, what is needed 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 which cultural values and realities are inscribed and which are not. In this way, we can see what is esteemed and what is not. What we will see 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 textbooks that praise Christopher Columbusí ìexplorationî of the ìNew Worldî merely recreated in multimedia versions? Or, do they offer native American students a voice that the textbook 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.

    Ethical & Professional Responsibility

    What to do? Well, this starts long before the teacher down the hall 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 ìhot rageî in school curriculum, with new textbooks coming out almost daily. Now, it is time for technology itself to also become ìmulticultural.î

    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. n

    Elizabeth Buchanan currently holds an adjunct faculty position at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and teaches classes on ethics and information technologies, production and utilization of instructional technologies, and library instruction. Buchanan is also a doctoral student in the Urban Education Program at UW-M, where she received her masterís of Library and Information Science from its School of Library and Information Science.

    E-mail: [email protected]


    1. Bowers, C.A. (1988), The Cultural Dimensions of Educational Computing: Understanding The Non-Neutrality of Technology, New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
    2. Gormly, E.K. (1996), Implementation Of Technology In American Public Schools: A Qualitative Study. American Secondary Education. 24(2), pp. 14-25.
    3. Nickerson, R.S. and Zodhiates, P.P. (Eds), 1988. Technology in Education: Looking Towards 2020, Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
    4. Waks, L.J. (1991), ìThe New World of Technology In U.S. Education: A Case Study In Policy Formation and Succession,î Technology in Society, No. 13, pp. 233-253.

    Cummins, J. and Sayers, D. (1995), Brave New Schools: Challenging Cultural Literacy Through Global Learning Networks, New York, NY: St. Martins Press.

    This article originally appeared in the 05/01/1997 issue of THE Journal.