HelpThe Scope of Technology

By the end of this lesson, you should be able to:
1. Identify the scope of technology, as you see it.

2. Identify and discuss issues concerning the use of technology and technology assessment.

3. Characterize the relationship between technology and humans.


The first half of our class is on the study of "Using Technology" (whatever that means); the second half looks at "Technology Assessment" and the third half (third half?) will involve individual student-directed projects.

Along the way we will all raise a number of important issues. These might take the class in a different direction, and that's just fine with me.

The Scope of Technology Searching the literature on technology is an eye-opening experience. 
It seems that more and more, the term "technology" is used to refer only to computer technology. For our class, examples of computer technology are very appropriate, but please feel free to expand that notion of technology to include a wider variety, such as: medical technologies; military technologies; agricultural technologies; historical and futuristic (even science-fiction) technologies; material processing technologies; and household technologies (just to name a few.)

Levels of Technology We can also look at various levels (spheres, dimensions) of technology. 
There is a personal level, which is distinct from, say, a corporate level, a national level, or a global level. But they are related; how a nation uses petroleum is clearly related to how an individual uses petroleum, but different strategies are often required to both study and effect changes at these levels.

There may be a tendency in our class to look at "using technology" at the level of the individual, and "technology assessment" at a corporate, regional, national, or international level. But this need not be the case.

Let's just be clear about what we mean. If you are using technology to refer to a piece high-tech hospital equipment and I use it to refer to my computer, and someone else uses it to refer to the global referring to global transportation infrastructure, then communication could be a problem.

Modeling Technology The notion for our class arose out of a model for the study of technology that contains four areas: Design, Produce, Use, and Assess. 
There are many other ways to divide up technological actions. For twenty years the International Technology Education Association (now the International Technology and Engineering Education Association or ITEEA) promoted dividing it into Manufacturing, Construction, Communication, and Transportation. Or we could look at technology as a type of processing, dividing into Information Processing, Energy Processing, and Material Processing. As a materials science teacher, I commonly use Procurement, Transformation, Utilization, and Disposition as organizers for the study of material-related technologies.

But one problem common to traditional views of technology is a lack of attention to the interconnectedness within and extending outside of a system. For example, one typical model that is used to represent any dynamic system has sometimes been called the Universal Systems Model (what an arrogant title.) It involves Input, Process, and Output (IPO), with feedback that flows in the opposite direction. But there is no connection to other systems, and the IPO model is linear, with starting and ending points. That just doesn't seem realistic.

For example, to build a guitar, we need 3 board feet (I'm guessing) of Brazilian Rosewood, among other things. Typical processes are sawing, gluing, and finishing. The outputs include the guitar and wood chips. But this model has no way to look at where the rosewood came from, or if it should have been harvested in the first place. It doesn't look at the history the precedes inputs, nor the consequences that may be distant. Is one of the outputs of Indiana's coal-fired generators dead fish in New York? I wouldn't say so, but I would call it one of the impacts.

But typically, we are more concerned with process than with implications or impacts.  Learning a process might be a short-term need, and we may not have the guts to take a broader view.

Stephen Petrina, at the University of British Columbia, adapted a catch phrase on his web site related to technology:
"Think globally, act locally" was the phrase, adapted to "Think globally, act globally, think locally, act locally."

Issues Concerning the Use of Technology


The content of our class is divided into the study of technological use and the study of technology assessment. The two are closely related, and overlaps will emerge in our class.
The study of technological use - gee, that's a long phrase. Can any of you suggest something more concise?

The study of "using technology" includes historical methods, clinical experiments, surveys of users or potential users, the usability testing of products, the design of environments and devices to promote "user-friendliness," and a host of other areas.

Typical questions one might raise concerning use are:

  • Is this the best product for the task?
  • How do we help people learn how to use this technology?
  • Does it fit the human body?
  • Should we use this technology?
  • What technologies can be used to meet special needs?
  • How durable is the technology?
  • How can this item be redesigned to improve usability?
  • Is the technology supported sufficiently (by technical backing, not by cast iron legs)?
  • Is the technology cost effective?
  • What is the break even period for this technological adoption?
  • What are user's beliefs about this technology?
  • What are the psychological factors involved in the human interface?
  • What are the assumptions and implications of this technological adoption?

Our look at "Using Technology" Our class will involve looking at many aspects of "using technology." 
However, your first major assignment, which will be presented at a later time, will involve your own usability research. This will probably take the form of usability testing, but there are other options. Therefore, if your interests lie in some other area, you should let me know, and we might be able to work out an alternative.

ITEEA's look at "Using Technology" As promised, this class is intended to meet a wide variety of needs. It caters to technology teachers, but also to others with an interest in the field.
Many technology teachers are members of the International Technology and Engineering Education Association (ITEEA), as I am. That association recently published a new standards document. In it are listed twenty content standards for the study of technology. This, and related documents, are available for free download from the ITEEA Website:

ITEA Standards for Technological Literacy

Image and standards can be found at ITEEA's site:

I was pleased when I first learned that "using and assessing" were included. But later, when the document emerged, the first of these two standards left me surprised:

"Standard 12: Students will develop abilities to use and maintain technological products and systems."

"Standard 13: Students will develop abilities to assess the impact of products and systems."

While Standard 13 fits the content of our class like a glove, Standard 12 does not. It does not look at usability testing, user friendliness, design-for-use, "Universal Design," user surveys, or user trends. It, instead, is an attempt to make sure that the students can swing hammers and spell-check a document. That is, the goal is for the learner to use technology, not for them to learn about how technology is used.

Yet, our curriculum related to "using technology" fits well under the umbrella of Standard 13, for the most part.

Another appropriate standard is:

"Standard 5: Students will develop an understanding of the effects of technology on the environment."

Many in our class may have no affiliation with the field of technology education, and should feel free to quickly forget this passage on ITEEA. However, if anyone is interested in continuing the discussion, please respond (either in the module's discussion board or by email.)

Issues related to Technology Assessment Whenever anyone makes a judgment about a technology, that may be called a technology assessment. In the literature, especially that generated by the US Office of Technology Assessment, the term relates to a group of types of studies that look at technological options and policy issues.
Typically, a formal technology assessment is commissioned prior to a government's or corporation's decision to choose one technological path over another. Thus, it is the aim of the team of specialists preparing the technology assessment to objectively present a short list of realistic options or alternate decisions, and to spell out their best predictions about the consequences of each option.

An environmental impact statement may be a type of technology assessment, but there are many other types as well. Technology assessments can use a variety of tools, including benefit/cost analysis, trend extrapolation, opinion measurement, simulation models, and many others.

But even the most informal technology assessment may well be concerned with collecting information, analyzing the information, developing a list of possible scenarios, forecasting, and weighing technological tradeoffs.

A company that uses pneumatic and hydraulic robot may wish to commission a technology assessment or feasibility study on the upgrade to servo robots. Before lawmakers enact legislation, they often use the report of a technology assessment. On the personal level, a car buyer carefully scrutinizes a variety of choices, and often uses the same decision-making as in formal technology assessments.

The purpose of technology assessment is to objectively inform a technological decision so as to minimize unwanted outcomes and maximize desired outcomes.

Humans and Technology In many ways, our class will look at the relationship between humans and technology - what it is and what it should be. 

A Sadistic Game 

One of the mean games I play with students majoring in technology is to ask them to define "technology." After all, they chose to major in it. Invariably, they regurgitate one of the definitions written over twenty years ago, not by philosophers, but by people in the Industrial Arts profession. They might say something like "Technology is the extension of human abilities to meet perceived needs and wants." Well, friends, I have a heyday with that.

Using the Socratic method, they quickly agree that Klingon technology, for example, is technology, and thus their anthropocentric (i.e., human-centered) definition must be changed. Also, sometimes technology is limiting, not extending. Sometimes it is not intended to meet needs or wants, it is just in the way. And just what is the difference between a need and a want.

Well, I stop before tears fall. And you know, they could probably do the same with me if I were foolish enough to say that I knew what "technology" referred to.

Yeah, I know, I'm despicable.

So, how do you define technology? ;-)

By definition Some even define people as the technological animal.
In my classes, I find myself teaching about natural and synthetic materials, but then I begin to wonder about this distinction between what is natural and what is synthetic. The distinction defines human activity as "unnatural," imposing an adversarial relationship between people and their environment. Could there be a different approach - one that looked at humans as a part of the environment rather than the controller of or warrior against the environment?

What do you think?

"The Scope of Technology"
All information is subject to change without notification.
© Jim Flowers
Department of Technology, Ball State University