The Internet and Education

Phil Agre

[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 area.

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 stratification.

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 democracy.

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.