I thought this worth sharing with this list.

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Date: Sat, 13 Sep 1997 18:33:26 -0700 (PDT)
From: Phil Agre <[log in to unmask]>
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Subject: The Internet and Education
Resent-Date: Sat, 13 Sep 1997 18:39:52 -0700 (PDT)
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The Internet and Education

Phil Agre
[log in to unmask]

[This is a revised transcript of comments I prepared for the OERI
Workshop on Social Capital, Technology, and Education in March 1996.]

I started out as a computer person, and now, after many changes,
I would call myself a sociologist except that sociologists want to
reserve that term for people with PhD's in sociology.  During my long
journey, I have learned something about the institutional dynamics
that have made it difficult to harness the immense potential of
technology to serve social needs.  The difficulty, simply put, is that
the worldview of computer people is technology-driven.  The coordinate
system of the computer world is defined by "methods" and "problems".
Every computer person is the master of a particular repertoire of
technical methods, and computer people look for work by searching
out problems to which these methods can apply.  If all you have is a
hammer then everything looks like nails, and computer people receive
a great deal of tacit training in looking at the world, and talking
about the world, and persuasively portraying the world to others,
as a vast collection of nails, all fitted to the particular technical
methods that have been developed to date.

The identification of problems is the interface between computer
people and the rest of the world.  Where do problems come from?
Any why *those* problems, and not others?  In practice, the agenda
of legitimated problems arises through a negotiation across the
boundary between the computer people and the people who pay the
bills.  When computer people negotiate with the military, for example,
and especially an office such as ARPA, problems get defined and
redefined periodically to suit the larger strategy of the funding
agency.  Most researchers never witness these negotiations personally,
and most graduate students are simply taught that such-and-such are
the interesting technical problems right now.  ARPA can exert power
in its negotiations with computer people because it is centralized,
well-connected, and relatively immune to political pressure.
Most people whose lives are affected by computer research and its
products do not have these benefits.  And yet it is crucial that
technology-driven agendas not define the terms of debate over social
issues or the parameters of practice in nontechnical professions.

Such has too often been the case in education, which has a long
history of technology-driven visions, each having the effect of
selling a lot of machinery to schools based on futuristic symbolism
and hopeful but superficial cure-all theories of education.  The
symbolism of technology has demonstrated a remarkable capacity to shut
down thinking.  Technologies come and go, but the sales pitches all
sound the same: technology represents the future, everything you have
ever learned represents the past, and if you want to keep up with
the times then you will let go of the past and buy these film-strip
projectors or computer-aided instruction systems or what-have-you.

In each of these cases the problem is not with technology but with
the technology-driven agenda that bypasses the knowledge and skills
of professionals, persuasively portraying people's lives as nails
long enough to sell another batch of shiny hammers.  In education
particularly, the hype for every new technology includes systematic
stereotyping and denigrating of teachers -- the very people who are
in a position to identify the gap between techno hype and classroom
reality -- as backward, resistant, and stuck.

How will we prevent this outcome in the case of the technology du
jour, networked computing?  Instead of a technology-driven social
agenda, I would suggest, we need a socially-driven technology agenda.
A technology-driven social agenda posits an inevitable and autonomous
line of technological development, from which social consequences
flow.  A socially-driven technology agenda paints a picture of
which computers are just one part, and it tells a story that depends
simultaneously on nontrivial ideas about how computers work and
nontrivial ideas about how society works.  Like any technology agenda,
a socially-driven agenda will arise through a negotiation between the
technologists and the people whose lives the technology will affect.
The difference this time is that the nontechnologists will be
organized with the knowledge, the visions, and the power to negotiate
as equals on behalf of social needs.

What might a socially-driven agenda for networked computing be like?
Let me tell you three suggestive stories about this, and then conclude
with three concepts that might motivate educational research in this

The first story comes from the work of Margaret Riel.  Riel has put
together a series of global consortia of classrooms, all pursuing
curricula on a given topic in a coordinated way.  In a curriculum on
Antarctica, for example, the students will be engaged in a variety of
activities, some of which employ computer networking for particular
purposes and others of which do not.  They might do research on
Antarctica in the library, do science work that is related to
Antarctica, and write about what they have learned.  They might use
the network to share data with other students or to share their ideas.
They might work together to formulate good questions, and then at a
scheduled time they might put these questions to an expert.

The key is that the curriculum is in charge, not the technology.
No need to throw away everything that teachers have learned about
organizing lessons -- quite the contrary, the point is to build
on that accumulated experience to understand how best to fold the
computer and network into the mix, and how not to.  If teachers using
computer networking have learned anything, it is precisely this: that
you don't just let the kids loose on the net, that you don't just play
games, but that you organize real lessons in which the network plays
a rational role in supporting learning.  A significant benefit of this
approach is that it lessens teachers' isolation.  They're still cooped
up in the classroom with the kids for most of the day, but now they
have a means for collaboration and community-building with other
teachers.  This allows them to share both curriculum materials and
personal and professional support.

The second story concerns the many local computer societies that have
organized volunteer projects to wire schools to the Internet.  Some
of these projects are famous, but in the wrong way.  It is not very
helpful, as some projects have done, to swoop down on a school with
little notice or planning, running some wires through the ceiling and
disappearing.  The projects that work, in my experience, use a more
professional approach.  They talk to the school staff and parents,
do a proper needs assessment, and draw up an guidelines that tell
the participants how to do it right.  Because the activity of pulling
the wires is labor-intensive, such projects provide an occasion for
community organizing.  That's the real point: the lasting community
bonds that can be built and rebuilt around the school.  These projects
provide a valuable experience of working together and a concrete
sense of what democracy is about.  I'll never forget an evening talk
I gave to a group of computer people about the political aspects of
computing, drawing on concepts from the American populist organizing
tradition.  Many of these people had been involved in volunteer school
wiring projects, and their heads were nodding all the way through.
Everyone had a story about what I was talking about and a lot of
stories beyond what I was talking about.

The third story is about social capital.  I grew up in a town in
Maryland where I was never exposed to the skills of professional
networking.  When I went to graduate school I was clueless in the
matter, and so I set about studying the powerful professors around me
and making theories of their lives.  Later I became a voracious reader
of how-to books.  Some of these books are a lot better than others,
and they're all laced with ideology.  But through these experiences
I formed the conviction that the unequal distribution of social
networking skills is a powerful force for the reproduction of social

Having social networking skills is not the same as having a social
network: it is, rather, the habitus within which one is able to form
new networks.  I remember my astonishment, for example, when in the
midst of organizing a national conference on socially responsible
computing, I finally figured out that social capital formation in
professional and elite networks is based in large part on issues:
identifying an issue of broad concern, articulating the issue in ways
that a specific audience can find urgent, talking to a wide range of
people in that audience to gather thinking on the issue, and above all
organizing a meeting that both supplies a *reason* to be talking to
these people, thus forming social capital for oneself, and provides an
occasion to put people on stage, thus doing favors for everyone that
establish relations of reciprocity.

It was through experiences like these that I resolved to figure out
how the professional world works and write it down.  Pierre Bourdieu
is doing something similar on a much larger scale in France (a country
with virtually no tradition of how-to books), but I wanted to do it in
a way that people could understand and act on.  So I wrote an article
called "Networking on the Network" and put it on the Internet.  It's
a guide to professional networking for advanced graduate students,
though many business people have used it as well.  On the surface
it's about the Internet, but the real point is to learn to "see" the
practical logic of the social world, and then to "see", once again,
how the Internet is only useful when it is used in a rational way as
one piece of a much larger picture.  The Internet does bring changes
in these skills, but they're incremental changes that should reinforce
our appreciation for the underlying principles.

I want to emphasize that none of these three projects was organized or
published as academic research.  I think that the social applications
of computer networking is one area in which practitioners are ahead
of academics, doing a pretty sophisticated job on their own resources.
Academic research, however, does have an important role in providing
conceptual foundations, institutional legitimation, social networking,
replication of successful strategies, and formalized training in the
newly emerging skills.  I want to suggest three areas of research
-- three concepts -- that academic work could develop in support of
the numerous initiatives that are already going on.  These concepts
are collective cognition, community system design, and developmental

First, collective cognition.  What the Internet is really good
at is supporting what I call the lateral institutions of society.
These are the institutions, formal or informal, that people create
among themselves based on a shared structural location, a shared
life situation, a shared problem.  Examples would include professions,
support groups, quilting clubs, labor unions, or the PTA.  What people
mostly do in these lateral institutions is think together: they share
stories, they share language, they share information, they share
social connections, they share emotional support.  This is "thinking"
in a broad sense, but I believe that we should define it broadly.
Lateral institutions engage in this sort of collective cognition
through many means and media, but the Internet is particularly
useful in holding the process together across distances or between
face-to-face meetings.  Riel's teachers provide one example, and
just about any Listserv discussion group on the Internet will provide
another.  And yet we know little about the mechanics and dynamics and
evolution of collective cognition, nor how to design systems that can
support it better.

Second, community systems design.  My story about wiring schools
is a more or less spontaneous example of what people in Scandinavia
call participatory design: viewing systems design and implementation
as a social process, with equal emphasis on both of those words, and
systematically involving all stakeholder groups in every stage along
the way.  Wiring a school is not just a delimited technical exercise.
It is also an occasion for a community to articulate and express its
values.  Where do we want the terminals to be?  How will we make sure
that the boys don't push the girls aside?  Do we want the kids working
alone or in groups?  How will we support teacher development?  Who
else in the community do we want to provide access to?  What other
institutions in the community do we want our school connected to?
How do we want to support ongoing relations between the school and
the parents, and among the parents?  How much money do we want to
be spending on this?  How many books could we be buying instead?
What kinds of software do we want our kids getting into?  What sort
of WorldWide Web pages do we want them getting into?  All of these
questions involve value choices, and all of them can influence the
finest technical details of design and implementation.  Perhaps the
most important outcome of the process is social solidarity, social
asset mapping, social capital, and the community's sense that it is
taking control over its collective life and fate.

Third, developmental democracy.  I wish that somebody had taught me
how to organize a meeting when I was a child, and I wish the same for
all children.  Katherine Brown at UCSD pointed out to me that that's
what Junior League theater productions are for, but involvement in
such activities is currently as stratified as everything else.  How
can we incorporate such things into the daily life of teaching and
learning?  To achieve this goal, we need some sense of developmentally
appropriate social organizing skills.  At what age should children
be able to organize a phone tree?  At what age should they be able to
identify an issue that their peers all want to learn about and talk
about?  At what age should they be able to build consensus in a peer
group?  At what age should they be able to articulate issues that
create occasions for dialogue among different groups?  At what age
should they be able to write an announcement for a meeting?

Having identified these milestones, we can then ask about pedagogy.
What kinds of activities can create opportunities for apprenticeship
in these skills -- what Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger call legitimate
peripheral participation?  I think that networked computing provides
a useful occasion for thinking about these things.  Not only is it a
powerful tool of social organizing and collective cognition, but it is
new enough and strange enough that it invites us to think all of these
issues anew, giving us a chance to drop old habits and consciously
form new ones in accord with democratic values.

In sketching these stories and concepts, I hope to have conveyed
some sense of what a socially-driven agenda for networked computing
technology might be like.  Social values and professional skills
lie at the center of such an agenda, and the technology is just one
piece of the picture.  We know that we have really begun to develop
a socially-driven agenda once the technology seems *contingent* --
no longer inevitable or monolithic but a matter of choice that we
can shape in a conscious way.  Having gotten this consciousness, we
can participate as full partners in the negotiation through which
technical "problems" are defined.  No longer nails being hit with
technologically-driven hammers, we can choose our own future, our
own vision, and our own lives.