Stephen T. Kerr, Ph.D.
Professor of Education
Adjunct Professor
Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies
College of Education
University of Washington
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Could you briefly describe your educational background
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 80s.

In your paper "Visions 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.

In "Toward 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.