Stephen T. Kerr, Ph.D.
Professor of Education
Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies
College of Education
University of Washington
Could you briefly describe your educational
Studied Slavic Languages (Russian mostly; bits and pieces of
others) at Princeton (1967); got Masters in Sociology and Russian Studies
at Columbia (1969); Ph.D. in Education from Univ. of Washington (1975)
How did you become interested in researching to
role of technology in education?
Taught 2 years in Alaska, in small college where 75% of students
were Alaskan natives from remote villages; tried to figure out how to
"reach" them, and how to communicate problems of large cities, increasingly
diverse society, psychological problems of current age (was teaching sociology
and psychology mainly). Tried lots of simulations, games, films as available,
video; was impressed by how these media could open kids up, help them
to talk. Later worked for educational publisher in New York, dealing with
everything that couldn't be packaged into traditional book form, became
fascinated with possibilities, lack of idea on part of most publishers
about how to design materials for new media.
It was very interesting to learn that you are involved
in educational reform in Russia. Do you see technology as being a key
component of that reform or do Russia's economic problems prevent widespread
usage of technology in the schools?
It was an important leverage point early on -- "to show parents and citizens
that the schools *can* do something new," according to one pioneer. In
fact, there was a good deal of early enthusiasm among educators that working
with computers would encourage better problem-solving skills (a la Papert's
fascination with LOGO), and it has only been in the last few years that
some have begun to move beyond that, into conceptions of technology's
role that are more like what US educators would recognize. BUT: You're
right -- the very difficult economic conditions in Russia make wide acquisition
of technology very problematic for schools, and many are still working
with extraordinarily unreliable Soviet-made Apple-II clones from the early
In your paper
of Sugarplums", you are critical of systems theory. Could you elaborate
on why you feel systems theory has harmed the relationship between the
technologist and the teacher?
I suppose because it purports to offer a vision of intentional action
that is precise and complete, and that suggests also that teachers could
match the kinds of precision achieved in other domains (the sciences,
engineering, etc.) In fact, it seems to me that teaching is at once messy
(too complicated for us to really "measure" at this point, maybe ever),
and also more properly concerned not with mastering information or even
learning skills but rather with ethical ways of being and doing. This
isn't what systems theory is concerned with.
a Sociology of Educational Technology", you write "there is a common
assumption among educational technologists that their view of the world
is scientific, value-neutral, and therefore easily applicable to a full
array of possible educational problems." Why is that assumption incorrect
and what are the dangers in our field continuing to hold that assumption?
As above. What we need to be working toward is a vision of how technology
fits into the kinds of activities that teachers and students have always
found rewarding in schools (and outside of them), rather than assuming
that the technology itself is the answer, or will provide same.
Also in "Toward a Sociology of Educational Technology",
you write "it seems most likely that the strong organizational and cultural
expectations that bind schools into certain forms will not easily be broken
through the application of technology". That idea really runs counter
to a lot of current rhetoric doesn't it?
Yes, it's part of our national cultural mythology about both
schools and technology -- technology is typically seen as savior, the
solution, the provider of good things and answers to problems. Maybe,
as noted in the NSSE yearbook by Segal, it's got something to do with
our past as a pioneering, Westward-expanding people. Maybe also connected
with typical American anti-intellectualism and the distrust in learning
(thus also teachers) that Americans have always felt.
What are a couple of interesting and useful areas
that someone just beginning in IT research might want to explore?
How do teachers communicate about this stuff among themselves? Are there
ways that their activities can be captured and communicated (maybe a new
"genre" of educational literature)? How do kids and teachers search for
and sift through information on the WWW? (What's involved in "information
connoisseurship"?) How do schools, districts, states make policy around
technology? Who's involved, what claims are made, and how are they supported?
What images of technology's effects are invoked? How are funding cycles
for technology decided upon, and how do school districts adjust to a new
image of what's need to capitalize a student workspace, a la similar calculations
in business and industry? How can technology come to be a part of ordinary
expectations for the work of both teachers and students?
Could you recommend two or three books or articles
that are "must reads" for graduate students or others beginning a career
in IT research?
Noble's Classroom Arsenal Cuban's Teachers and Machines
Travers' chapter in the 2nd Handbook of Research on Teaching
How important is it to have a "research agenda",
in the strictest sense of that term?
Tough question; good contributions are often made by people who try to
focus their work on a small set of questions (Frank Dwyer's work on visual
illustrations would be a good example), but I think it's also true that
the really interesting things come out of some particular personal passion
(note Don Norman's books over the past few years, and his prefatory comment
to The Psychology of Everyday Things -- "this is the book I always
wanted to write, but it never 'fit'," or words to that effect). I'd say,
go with what seems worthier, interesting, and unexplored.
What are your professional goals for the next 2
to 3 years?
Book on the role of technology as mythology and artifact in American education.
Several studies dealing with distance education and its discontents.