Understanding the Peril & Promise, Nouns & Verbs, of Educational Technologies

Understanding the Peril & Promise, Nouns & Verbs, of Educational Technologies

J. Granville Marshall


For most people, the term “educational technology” (ET) has become synonymous with computer technologies, and for good reasons. Schools that pass technology bonds are buying more computers. When businesses say that students need to be exposed to technology, they are talking about computers. School districts that have ET support staff use them to fix or install computers. The technology committee in the middle school where I work primarily deals with purchasing computers.

This popular definition has had the effect of mystifying educational technology to the point that ET curricular decisions are frequently made out of either a blind fear of the peril of these technologies or the blind optimism of their promise. Whenever technology was mentioned in our staff meetings, half the staff looked excited and half looked petrified–but I am not sure any of us really understood it. When our middle school team wrote, and won, a grant to receive 16 Apple e-mates (a precursor to the new Apple ibook), we thought we knew what we were doing-we thought we understood educational technology. But the e-mates showed up and, despite one full day of in-service training on how to use them, we just kind of stared at them for awhile, in awe of their uniqueness.

We didn’t really understand educational technology, and more than just causing confusion, this lack of understanding kept us from evaluating and planning how to use the e-mates effectively (though through trial and error, we eventually came to terms with their use). Though this article is primarily concerned with the drawbacks and possibilities of educational computer technologies, a subset of ET, I suggest that before we can understand their perils and promise, before we can begin to evaluate their use, we must fully understand the definition of “educational technology.”


Newby, Stepich, Lehman, and Russell (2000), define educational technology (they use the term “instructional technology”) as that which “translates and applies basic research on human learning to produce instructional design principles and processes as well as hardware products that teachers and students can use to increase learning effectiveness.” The first thing to notice about this definition is that computer technologies are just a part of this definition; books, filmstrips, and videos would also fit this definition. The second thing to notice is that ET is more than just objects; it also encompasses the processes involved with good teaching, including the teaching techniques and skills that all good teachers use to engage learners. This is a crucial part of the definition that is oftentimes left out of the discussion of educational technologies and hamstrings our attempt to understand the perils and possibilities we face. And it can happen even with “old” technologies like books.

In a recent article in The Journal of Educational Research titled “Putting Books in the Classroom Seems Necessary But Not Sufficient,” McGill-Franzen, Allington, Yokoi, and Brooks (1999) reviewed what the authors called the “access hypothesis” of reading instruction–the idea that the easy access to reading materials alone increases reading achievement. The authors note that this hypothesis has been widely accepted, and because of its widespread acceptance, much has been made of increasing low-income children’s access to reading materials. The theory goes that if low-income families have fewer books available in their homes and schools (compared with wealthier districts), their reading levels will be lower; and therefore, increasing the availability of books to low-income children will increase reading levels.

This appears to be a logical idea. Who would be against giving low-income children more reading materials? Doesn’t it just make sense that increasing the kindergarten library, thus increasing access to books, will improve students’ reading? McGill-Franzen et al. mention that there is even research to support this access hypothesis. However, when they looked at this access hypothesis in an actual kindergarten classroom, they found something quite different. Kindergarten students in a classroom that had a plethora of reading materials, and a teacher who was trained in the display and use of the books, had significantly higher scores on all measures of literacy, compared with a kindergarten class that just had a well-stocked classroom and no training for the teacher. The authors concluded that “simply providing teachers with a generous supply of children’s books had little effect on the educational outcomes of students.”

I don’t suppose that the conclusions of the McGill-Franzen study come as a shock to most teachers. As a teacher, I was frequently given books and materials, told that the “research said that this works,” and then left to my own devices to figure out how to integrate the materials.

What is evident in the McGill-Franzen study, and probably in other situations like it, is that when people involved with curriculum decisions subscribe to ideas like the access hypothesis, they are viewing educational technology (albeit in the McGill-Franzen article a relatively old technology) as if it is only a noun. They look at kindergarten reading books as just things to put into the classroom, and they don’t respect all of the process and pedagogy that is attached with integrating those books into the classroom (Saettler, 1990). They don’t see that educational technology is also a verb, which is why McGill-Franzen et al. found that loading a classroom full of ET (books as noun) had no effect without the concurrent teacher training (pedagogy) on how to use that technology (books as both noun and verb). It is important to recognize this duality, because as teachers we can’t do much about changing the “nounness” of a book (or any technology for that matter), but we can do quite a bit to change the “verbness” of a book–its actions and uses.

I am indebted to Robert Kegan’s 1982 book, The Evolving Self: Problem and Process in Human Development, for the concept of things being both noun and verb. Perhaps an example that Kegan uses might clarify this idea. He proposes a magic trick from Alan Watts: “Make a fist. Now we shall make your fist disappear. Ready? Okay–open your hand.” Kegan goes on to suggest that the thing has disappeared because it is as much an action as it is a thing. I am not suggesting that we can make technologies disappear buy opening our fists, but I am suggesting that not taking into account the verbness of the computer is tantamount to changing the technology. The McGill-Franzen study is a good example of this.

The same point can also be made with other forms of educational technology, including the focus of this article, educational computer technologies. Such technologies, both hardware and software, shouldn’t exist in the classroom as just nouns; they should be represented as process and product, noun and verb. To an outsider walking into a classroom full of computers, those computers are most certainly nouns; but to the educator, they need to be much more. To understand the peril and the promise of educational computer technologies, teacher concern with these technologies must take into consideration the complete definition of ET, as both noun and verb.


This idea of peril and promise would appear to be a continuum, but looking over some of the popular literature on this issue it is easy to get the sense that there is no middle section of the continuum, that it is a dichotomy with only polarized ends. The titles of some of these books about computer technology illustrate this dichotomy. Jane Healy’s 1998 book, Failure to Connect, brings up images of computers fraught with the perils of separation and isolation, while Nicholas Negroponte’s 1995 book, Being Digital, is a title full of the promise and possibility of real change in a digital world, of becoming something better.

The problem with this dichotomy is that it is false, and it is hurting education and making teaching more difficult. The apparent dichotomy of good and bad technology works only when the verb portion of the definition is left out. Is there a teacher in the world who would say that educational technology, as represented by books, are good, or that books are bad? Of course not. The teacher would need to make certain pedagogical decisions (books as verbs) in order to come to any conclusions about a certain book.

I am setting up a continuum with the false dichotomy of Healy on one end and Negroponte on the other to elaborate a point: that when educational computer technologies are looked at as both noun and verb, Healy and Negroponte have more in common than a casual reading would imply. Healy may focus on the peril of computers more than Negroponte may, and Negroponte may focus on the promise of computers more than Healy may, but they share some very important ideas, thus filling out the continuum.


When Healy worries about computing, she is almost always worrying about the computer (I am using “computer” as a generic term for all computing technologies, both hardware and software; I will make distinctions where needed) as a verb, yet the tone of her book, including the title, is really talking about computers as nouns–their nounness.

She asks if it is computer use that gives a boy social-emotional learning disability, or SELD. She gives the painfully obvious advice that “using the computer will not automatically make your child smarter” and “the mere presence of computers guarantees nothing about educational value.” She ends a particularly unflattering portrayal of a third-grade classroom with a quote from the teacher, “Isn’t it wonderful what this technology can do!” and then interjects, “Other than getting them out of her [the teacher’s] hair for the better part of an hour, I seriously wonder.”

These are all problems stated as if it is the thing, the computer, that is the problem. I suppose that it might be easy to look at this and say that Healy is anti-computer, but looking further into the book, it becomes obvious that she is not anti-computer-as-noun (despite the tone of the book); she is against poor pedagogy, computer-as-verb. She believes, in fact, that we can learn from this because we can change it. Quoting Lin Foa, Richard Schwab, and Michael Johnson about the “effective integration of technology in schools,” Healy says, “Successful integration of classroom technology implies changes of huge magnitude in educational philosophy, classroom management, and curricular goals.” Here she is giving credence to this idea of computer-as-verb, and in fact is recognizing that it is important that the verbness of computers be recognized.

Most of Healy’s helpful lists follow the computer-as-verb pattern. In most of them, you could substitute any educational technology word for “computer” because Healy is talking about good educational technology pedagogy, the verbness of ET In quoting a technology director on the proper use of philosophy, she says, “No `edutainment’ software. Only applications with a strong contribution to the theme-based curriculum …” should be used, and that learning should have the “emphasis on thinking and problem-solving as well as acquisition of information.” These are guidelines that could be used with any aspect of teaching. Healy even has a list of interesting projects that follow her common-sense pedagogical guidelines and that primarily deal with the computer-as-verb.


Negroponte, with his desire to “make the interface go away,” is almost all computer-as-verb in philosophy. Negroponte essentially wants to eliminate the computer-as-noun. He uses the metaphor of a “well-trained English butler” to explain the ideal human-computer interface. This butler would know the user’s preferences and idiosyncrasies and be able to make decisions for the user that otherwise would be tiresome or difficult. Negroponte’s book is all about the promise of the verbness of computer technologies.

It is not that far of a leap from Negroponte’s butler to teacher’s assistant. What teacher wouldn’t want a butler to take care of the attendance, and lunch money collecting, and fundraising, and sending out of homework, and makeup work for sick children? Negroponte furthers the use of computers in the classroom to include the ability of students to play with information and make learning more meaningful. Instead of dissecting a frog, “children can be asked to design frogs, to build an animal with frog-like behavior, to modify that behavior, to simulate the muscles, to play with the frog.”

Though Negroponte believes that the computer can change education by “making us more able to reach children with different learning and cognitive styles,” this is not to say that he ignores the perils of computer technology. Instead, he recognizes that “something as banal as printing a computer file can be a debilitating exercise that resembles voodoo more than respectable human behavior”; and he opens a chapter with the quote, “Personal computers are less able to sense human presence than are modern toilets or outdoor floodlights that have simple motion sensors.”

The difference between Negroponte and Healy is that Negroponte recognizes that while the nounness of the computer may be part of the problem (processor speeds need to be increased, for example), ultimately it is the verbness of the computer that is the problem–and he believes in the promise of this verbness. His second section is even titled “Interface,” which really is a type of computer verbness. It is where the action of the technology takes place, in the meaning-making land between machine and human.


On the surface, this optimistic account of the promise of technology seems quite different from what Healy is worried about, but substantively, I don’t think that it really is. The biggest difference is that Negroponte ultimately believes in the promise of technology–that things can change.

So where is the common ground here? It really lies in the verbness of the computer. It is very difficult to imagine that Negroponte would walk into one of Healy’s dysfunctional example classrooms and be happy with the use of the technology there. It is also hard to imagine that Negroponte would disagree with Healy that “producing sophisticated learning is a function of the sophistication of conversation that surrounds the use of the technology–not the sophistication of the technology.” This point is also made painfully clear in the McGill-Franzen article: It is not the books that are important, it is the conversation that surrounds the use of the books. Healy and Negroponte agree that educators must make sound pedagogical decisions about educational computer technologies, taking into account the whole definition of educational technology.

Healy says that 20 billion dollars were spent on educational computer technologies in 1997. Negroponte says that, “Like a force of nature, the digital age cannot be denied or stopped.” The question of stopping educational computer technologies from entering the schools would appear to be a Quixotic task, so all members of the educational community must learn to deal with their influx, and learn how to evaluate their perils and promise.

Some comfort may be provided if educators can look at computer educational technologies as a subset of ET. If the teaching team in our middle school had been able to see this, perhaps our initial bout of stating at the e-mates would not have been as long or as confusing. Most good educators understand the nounness and verbness of educational technologies such as books and blackboards, but because of the newness of computer technologies, they can get caught up in the mystical nature of computers, and the peril and promise can become confused. If educators can keep from separating educational computer technologies from the larger set of all educational technologies–and if they can look at the complete definition of ET–they should be able to begin to make sound pedagogical decisions about how they use them.


Healy, J. M. (1998). Failure to Connect. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Kegan, R. (1982). The Evolving Self: Problem and Process in Human Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

McGill-Franzen, A., Allington, R. L., Yokoi, L., and Brooks, G. (1999). “Putting Books in the Classroom Seems Necessary But Not Sufficient,” Journal of Educational Research 93: 67-75.

Negroponte, N. (1995). Being Digital. New York: Vintage.

Newby, T. J., Stepich, D. A., Lehman J. D., and Russell, J. D. (2000). Instructional Technology for Teaching and Learning: Designing Instruction, Integrating Computers, and Using Media (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill.

Saettler, P. (1990). The Evolution of American Educational Technology. Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited.

Also, see TECHNOS 8:4, “Interview II: On Today–Jane Healy”

John Marshall currently is a teaching assistant in the Department of Teaching and Learning, Washington State University. He has taught for four years as a seventh-and eighth-grade language arts and social studies teacher in Spokane, Washington.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Agency for Instructional Technology

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group