AECT Handbook of Research

Table of Contents

9. Critical Theory and Educational Technology

9.1 Introduction
9.2 Foundations of Critical Theory
9.3 Habermas's Epistemology
9.4 Critical Theory and Technolgy
9.5 Critical Theory and Education
9.6 Critical Theory of Educational Technology
9.7 Topics in Critical Theory of Educational Technology
9.8 Problems with Critical Theories of Education
9.9 Problems with Critical Theories of Educational Technology
9.10 Summary
9.11 Being Critical Educational Technologists
9.12 Why Appropriate Critical Theory?
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Randall G. Nichols Vanessa Allen-Brown




Writing about critical theory is interesting and challenging when several critical theories exist, and they are everchanging. For people who believe in verities, these changes can be exceedingly problematic. However, many critical theorists revel in the struggle it takes to become familiar with diverse, contradictory, and even conflicting theories and meanings. Helping educators interested in educational technology to understand and adopt critical theory may be even more challenging, since the typical experiences of these educators do not include much conscious attention to critical theory.

Partly in response to this lack, one of the goals of this chapter is to help readers understand critical theory by staying within a somewhat foreshortened conception of it. Thomas McCarthy's (1991) description of the main aspects of critical theory implies the conception the authors of this chapter have in mind:

  • Critical theory challenges the notion of pure reason, showing its changeability depending on the culture, the history, and the power in which it is embedded.
  • Critical theory rejects the "Cartesian picture of an autonomous rational subject" who is capable of controlling the world.
  • Critical theory emphasizes the practical over the theoretical, but the two are inseparable.
  • Knowledge is not disembodied from the test of existence, though a distanced or objectivating understanding of knowledge is needed.
  • Established human sciences, scientifically trained experts, and rationalization are all closely analyzed by critical theorists.
  • Critical theory's major purpose is to make problematic what is taken for granted in culture, so that a degree of social justice can be had by those who are oppressed (p. 43).

At this point, some readers are noting that the view just presented is not all that foreshortened. Perhaps it is more accurate to say this chapter addresses critical theory a la the Frankfurt School and Jürgen Habermas, and it crosses theoretic borders into critical theories that are feminist, postmodern, poststructural, deconstructionist, and critical pedagogical. However, this chapter leaves a good deal of the study of these latter views-particularly the postmodern-to the chapter by Yeaman and Hlynka, in this volume (see Chapter 10).

9.1.1 Critical, Educational Technology and Language

Note that critical is not meant to indicate a theory that examines only the negative. Critical theories seek to reveal the contradictions, social inequalities, and dominances; to this extent they can be called negative. However, it might be more accurate to say that because critical theories run contrary to that which oppresses people, the theories usually are positive and hopeful.

Educational technology, as it is used here, refers to media and hardware and the conscious, systematic application of technologies such as the processes of instructional design. But it also indicates more than this mundane description. Educational technology includes the ways in which technology gets into learning and schooling without anyone taking much formal notice. A number of authors (e.g, Apple, 1986; Bowers, 1993; Damarin, 1994; Koetting, 1994; Schrage, 1994; Taylor & Johnsen, 1986) argue that infusions of technology into learning and schooling are not guided so much by conscious, empirical, theoretical knowledge about learning as much as they are by so-called progressive, productive, and revolutionary mentalities that have many deleterious and often hidden effects. These manifestations of educational technologies are cultural phenomena in that they are widespread and largely taken for granted. It is these cultural manifestations of educational technology to which we also are referring.

The authors also acknowledge from the outset that the language of critical theory is at times difficult to understand. Goodman (1992) says that the language is needlessly abstract and jargon laden. It often seems to be aimed at building individual careers by criticizing the work of others, and it emphasizes the ways in which people are oppressed and despairing. Later in the chapter, we indicate refutations of these claims but, for now, note that we try to use less-difficult language where possible, and we have no illusion that the language is always easy to understand.

9.1.2 Limits of the Chapter

The scope of this chapter does not allow for an exhaustive examination of the ideas, people, places, or actions related to the several decades of critical theorizing in education and elsewhere. For fuller views and histories, readers should examine authors such as Yeaman and Hlynka (see Chapter 10) and Arato and Gebhardt (1978); Aronowitz and Giroux (1991); Bernstein (1976); Ellul (1964, 1990); Foucault (1976); Giroux (1983a, 1991); Giroux and McLaren (1994, 1994a); Grundy (1987); Held (1980); Hoy and McCarthy (1994); Ingram and Simon-Ingram (1991); Jay (1973); Lather (1991); Luke and Gore (1992); Marcus and Tar (1984); Martin, Gutman, and Hutton (1988); McCarthy (1978,1991); Roderick (1986); Wexler (1991); and Young (1990). The first several pages, at least, of Yeaman's 0994a) "Deconstruction and Visuals: Is This a telephone?" also provide a very good introduction to various histories, versions, and examples of critical theories.

Note, too, that most of the works in this chapter represent obvious critical?theory pieces, referring directly to aspects of critical theory or authors in the field, for example. However, other works appear because they are about oppression, freedom, technology as philosophy, and/or research that reflects an approach used by critical theorists. That is, several works fulfill the spirit of critical theory and, so, are included.

One more limitation: This chapter is not as much an example of critical theory as it is a review of critical theories. The authors are trying to describe and analyze this complex and, we think, noble enterprise, but we are not trying necessarily to bring our own critical analysis to bear, except inasmuch as our own subjectivities unavoidably inform our writing,

Despite these limits, and because critical theory speaks to many conceptions of educational technology outside the mainstream, critical theory is worth examining in some detail to establish its value in making educational technology more fully understood, meaningful, and even emancipatory

9.1.3 Chapter Overview

After an introduction to several of the thinkers, ideas, and works associated with critical theories, an examination of the relationships of critical theories to education is presented. This is followed by an exposition of the work that has been done in the area of critical theory as that work relates to educational technology. Near the end, the chapter turns to problems associated with critical theories and, so, with critical theories about educational technology. The chapter ends by suggesting ideas to help educational technologists proceed with being critical theorists and by explaining why doing so is important.

*Many thanks to Elizabeth Ellsworth, Long Tran, Lauryne Alexis Boyd, Andrew Yeaman, and Sharon Nichols for their valuable help with this chapter.

Updated August 3, 2001
Copyright © 2001
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