Techno-Determinism in Education

Photo by Thomas Park on Unsplash
By Denys Koval & Christopher Rowe

Over the past week, we’ve been exploring a disagreement in the EdTech world known as the Great Media Debate.  In the late 80’s and early 90’s, Richard E. Clark and Robert B. Kozma separately authored a series of articles presenting their opposing views on the issue of whether or not media has an impact on learning.  Clark’s (1994) position was that media was simply a delivery tool for learning methods and while necessary, could be replaced with a media with overlapping attributes that performed similar cognitive functions (pp. 22, 26).  Kozma (1994), on the other hand, believed that the specific cluster of attributes associated with a medium, presented opportunities for employing unique learning methods (pp. 13-14).  These opposing views continue to influence how educational technologists introduce new tech into a learning environment.  With this debate in mind, we’ve found two contemporary articles discussing the use of technology in the classroom and considered how both Clark and Kozma would respond to them.


Zoë Bernard (2017), tech reporter for Business Insider magazine, wrote an article titled Here’s how technology is shaping the future of education, focusing on how technology is increasingly providing educators with the ability to assess their students on an individual level, and thereby tailor lesson plans to suite their unique needs.  She pointed to developments in the EdTech industry which have increased the accessibility of this strategy.   Kozma and Clark would have interpreted Bernard’s article differently, to be certain.  They would have neither agreed on the proper implementation of the new technology mentioned in the article, nor on the method of its development.

Bernard described how the increased availability of adaptive learning software such as DreamBox, which can monitor an individual student’s progress and provide the appropriate curriculum for their skill level, is allowing educators to work with learners at a pace set by the student. If presented with software like DreamBox, Kozma might argue that the availability of this new technology would provide educators with an opportunity to develop new teaching methods to best take advantage of its unique characteristics.  Kozma (1994) asserted that theories to direct the use of media in instructional design should consider both the unique capabilities of media, but also the “complexities of the social situations with which they are used” (p. 15).  Classrooms are indeed social environments.  If we change the social environment of the classroom, by tailoring the experience to meet the needs of the individual, Kozma would likely say that we must develop new teaching methods designed specifically for the unique cluster of attributes presented by the media forcing that change.  In contrast, Clark might argue that it was always possible for an educator to learn about the progress of an individual student and tailor learning plans to meet their needs, but that this software makes the teacher’s ability to do that more efficient.  Clark (1994) insisted that “the methods used in CBI [computer-based instruction] can be and are used by teachers in live instruction” (p.24).  He believed that teaching methods and the media used to deliver them are separate and that various media could be used to achieve the same goal.  The difference, he claimed, in the way that various media impact learning, is the efficiency with which a particular media might achieve learning outcomes (p. 22).

In her article, Bernard (2017) included a quote from DreamBox’s senior vice-president of learning, Tim Hudson, who expressed that “it’s important that we listen to teachers and administrators to determine the ways technology can assist them in the classroom.”  While Kozma and Clark likely would have both approved of Hudson’s insistence on communicating with educators in the development of new tools, chances are they would disagree on how that communication should take place.  Kozma would likely have been interested in seeing what technology had been developed, so that he could create effective teaching methods based on whatever new capabilities that technology presents.  He argued that while the implementation of a specific technology would limit the options available to educators, the capabilities of that media would also provide direction on what could be accomplished with it (Kozma, 1994, p. 20).  Clark, on the other hand, would probably have approached software developers looking for the technology that would most efficiently facilitate a specific teaching method he already had in mind.  It was Clark’s (1994) position that “it is important to derive media that are capable of delivering the method at the least expensive rate and in the speediest fashion” (p. 26).  From his perspective, it would be the teaching method that should dictate the choice of a technology.

Socially Accessible

Celano, the author of the article Technology in the classroom: How educators are using remote technology as they return to school, published on Owl Labs’ website, references NBC News Correspondent Kerry Sanders, who reported that due to Covid-19, about 30% of the kids from Charter School USA stopped learning due to the lack of engagement between teachers and their students. Owl Labs then promotes the Meeting Owl as a solution for a virtual classroom, emphasizing its 360° camera, which allows educators to teach as they normally would by treating their virtual classroom as a physical one, therefore allowing remote students to stay engaged.

Clark might argue that while the Meeting Owl increases the accessibility of the learning method that the teacher is employing, while it cannot be directly responsible for motivating learning. He would cite Salomon and others “who draw on the new cognitive theories which attribute motivation to learners’ beliefs and expectations about their reactions to external events – not to external events alone” (Clark, 1994, p. 23).

Kozma might argue that Meeting Owl can be responsible for increasing the motivation to learn by making students feel like they are a part of a social process, which is achieved by facilitating interaction with physical resources as well as other students in the classroom. “Learning is not the receptive response to instruction’s “delivery”. Rather, learning is an active, constructive, cognitive and social process by which the learner strategically manages available cognitive, physical, and social resources to create new knowledge by interacting with information in the environment” (Kozma, 1994, p. 3).


Bernard, Z. (2017, December 27). Here’s how technology is shaping the future of education. Business Insider.

Celano, K. (2020). Technology in the Classroom: How Educators are Using Remote Technology as They Return to School. Owl Labs.

Clark, R.E. (1994). Media will never influence learning. Educational Technology Research and Development, 42(2), 21-29.

Kozma, R.B. (1994). Will media influence learning? Reframing the debate. Educational Technology Research and Development, 42(2), 7-19.

2 thoughts on “Techno-Determinism in Education”

  1. I really enjoyed the articles you presented and the analysis of Clark and Kozma. The technology, especially around AI has really changed the potential of personalized learning.
    Do you feel that Clark’s position is still valid with the advances of technology?

    1. Thanks so much, Shelley.

      I do, actually. Before reading Clark’s article, I hadn’t considered his position. I’m definitely a geek… and I love technology and how it can present us with new experiences; educational or otherwise. So, it’s counterintuitive for me to think that it doesn’t actually have an impact on learning… but I found his argument super compelling.

      The actual technology in question, in my opinion, is irrelevant to his position, so any advancements shouldn’t have an impact on it. We can certainly talk about how technological advancements have made the teaching methods employed by educators more accessible, more efficient, and frequently less costly… but that doesn’t mean we couldn’t have taught someone how to perform a specific task without those advancements. A geography teacher in Canada can now use VR in the classroom to give her students a very engaging experience of Paris or Tokyo… but that doesn’t mean we couldn’t have just gone to those places before and had those experiences. The VR simply makes that particular experience less costly and more accessible.

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