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Information society and instrumental rationality

Sami Hautakangas and Tomi Kiilakoski
University of Tampere, Finland

Revised version of a paper presented at the European Conference on Educational Research, University of Hamburg, 17-20 September 2003

When describing his past work Michel Foucault (1988, 59) stated: "The main problem when people try to rationalize something is not to investigate whether or not they conform to principles of rationality, but to discover which kind of rationality they are using." We claim that instrumental rationality may become an even more dominant form of rationality in education if centralized control as an influential model of curriculum planning continues to have a considerable effect on the development of e-learning.

To clarify what is meant by 'e-learning' one can attempt to give an analytical definition. What we mean by the concept is 'the use of information and communication technologies in education in a broad sense, including the activities of teaching and studying, related administration, production and handling of educational content, maintenance and development of technical infrastructure, technical and pedagogical support and integration of the practices in the organisational culture.' An essential concept for our topic is educational technology, which subsumes both material devices, such as computers, video-conferencing units and data/video projectors, and the software (web-based tools as well as the embedded software of the devices). The essential feature of educational technology in relation to the topic of the paper is the underlying logical framework in which every feature that is to be supported by technology must be given a quantifiable description. While the main focus of the analysis is geared towards the use of technology in teaching and studying, it is to be seen against this broader background.

What is technology?

Technology is often seen as an autonomous process which is likely to evolve regardless of human intentions and motivations. The moral consequences of technological innovations are not a proper reason for not using technology. Technology, according to this view, is seen as an autonomous process evolving independently of human interventions. Political solutions are not seen to be capable of stopping the technological evolution. The well-known proponent of the autonomy of technology, Jacques Ellull, states this point: "Technology obeys its own determination, it realizes itself." (Ellull 2003, 392.) Ellull means that technology is relatively independent both of political ideologies and the economic system. Decontextualized technology is seen as a universal force affecting societies in a similar manner. If the autonomy thesis is correct those technological innovations which are executable are also executed.

One of the main problems with the determinism thesis, especially in education, is that it does not sufficiently take into account the different variations in technology caused by social practices and values. When examining the case of educational technology it seems obvious that it can be molded into different forms depending on the social and cultural factors. While it is clear that technological innovations evolve because of the events in the technological sphere one should also note the impact of the social world.

In shaping the world technology creates a framework in which to interpret things. This changing way of relating to the world changes the way things are interpreted. This changing may change the purposes of the processes in a manner not foreseeable. Technology has social consequences which are hard to point out at the moment technology is taken into use. The unintended consequences of technology may function against the purposes set out beforehand. For example, automatisation due to technology has profoundly changed the working situation of many professions. Dehumanised and standardised work has deprived many workers of meaning and dignity. When linking the emerging economic investments made in the pedagogical field with the events in the other fields it is clear that technology can mean dehumanizing working conditions for teachers and pupils alike.

Heidegger sees technology as a way of approaching being. The technological conception of being sees everything as standing reserve. Heidegger thinks that by using technology people view being in a way that is affected by technology. Technology causes its objects to appear as a standing reserve. Everything should be clearly analysed. Technology has no mystery. Heidegger things that technology as a last stage of Western metaphysics has a certain way of revealing Being. This way of revealing he calls Enframing (Gestell).

" What Enframing itself actually is? It is nothing technological, nothing on the order of the machine. It is the way in which the real reveals itself as a standing reserve." (Heidegger 1977, 23.)

Technological understanding of being sees everything as reserve. All objects are viewed as an object. Heidegger perceives as a danger that the only way of understanding nature and human beings comes to be the technological viewpoint. Since Heidegger is in favour of plurality of view points, the plurality of possible life worlds, this seems a real danger. It is indeed threatening if everything comes to be judged by the way technology reveals its objects. In the case of education this means that human motivation and learning come to be seen as quantifiable products. This viewpoint can of course have some beneficial consequences. However, one should not be easily assume that this the only possible way of understanding being.

Technology in education

If technology is understood to include different procedures, rules, regulations and human techniques in addition to tools and machines, it becomes obvious that educational institutions have relied on technology for a long time. Schools are modern institutions based largely on instrumental rationality. The goal is to find efficient means for goals considered valuable. Disciplinary societies analysed by Michel Foucault relied largely on isolating people into one single confinement, be it an asylum, a factory or a school. Each institution had technological programmes that helped to reduce the costs and make the process more effective.

The old disciplinary mechanisms which directed the organization of schooling are no longer as so easy to execute. The aura of the school system has vanished and the young do not consider schools as important as before. Something new needs to be done. It is often thought that educational technology could be the answer to this challenge. On the opposite side it has been noted that the changed way of understanding the human condition through technology can mean regress instead of pedagogical progress (Shutkin 1998, 220). By focusing on the measured rational capasities educational technology can take pedagogy back to the era of Tylerism. It should be clear that a piece of equipment does not itself solve pedagogical problems. Our claim is that technologies can cause increased control and a diminished view of human possibilities if educational technology is engineered according to common curricular models.

One of the most influential curricular models has been the rationale created by Ralph W. Tyler. Tyler's rationale combines some of the tendencies already implicit in the curricular thought preceding him. Tyler's model fits exceptionally well within the framework of instrumental rationality. The rationale identifies four fundamental questions, which, according to Tyler, must be answered if one wishes to create an efficient curriculum. The rationale begins with determining the educational purposes which the school pursues. After this question is answered one should find educational experiences leading to a desired goal, to organise the educational experiences and find means of evaluating if the desired outcomes have been achieved. (Tyler 1969) This same method could be applicable to all situations. Rationale and the tradition represented by rationale can thus be interpreted as a prime example of the instrumental rationality. Tyler offers a neutral procedure which appeals to common sense.

Tyler offers a neutral procedure which appeals to common sense and which is easily used a managerial tool. Within the moral framework of modernity the control over the whole process is thought to be valuable as such (Taylor 2000). By using systematic quality assurance and standardized evaluation for the measurable processes in studying, teaching and learning it is possible to increase the predictability of the processes. This entails a promise of learning products that can be used as commodities.

Implications for pedagogical practices

Concerning educational technology one can distinguish four main perspectives that have a combined effect on actual practices where technology is used: 1) the societal and economic perspective on work and education (education in the emerging information society, socialisation for the existing modes of work or teaching for social change) 2) the organisational decision-making enabling and constraining what is possible in the practices 3) the design approaches of the software engineering 4) the pedagogical approach to the educational process. In this paper we concentrate on the last two discourses.

The basic alternative approaches in the technical development of educational technology are the technology-driven approach and user-centred design. In software engineering the corresponding conceptual software process models are the waterfall model and prototyping.

Waterfall model


Complete specification of requirements in the beginning requires complete knowledge.

The complexity of human activity means that not all the requirements can be known beforehand, no complete knowledge exists.

The interpretation of requirements and implementation done by engineering staff.

The interpretation of requirements done in collaboration with experts and users.

The system has an optimal algorithmic solution: the simplest unambiguous conceptual model with a minimum of functions to meet the requirements (also fastest to implement) -> 'straight-forward', if it is functional, it is correct and ready.

The system has better and worse solutions. To meet the functionality and usability requirements of different users the system may need more complex models, implementation phase slower -> if it is functional and usable, it is good enough (for the time being).

Implication: It is the user's fault if he cannot use the system that functions.

Implication: If the user cannot use the system, there is something wrong with the system, which needs revising in the next iteration.

What both design approaches have in common is that regardless of the process of creating the specifications, they have to be translated into computer programs. This means that at some point in the process the conceptual model of the system (in the broad sense) must become explicit and unambiguous or it is defective and causes errors in running the program. This means a projection of the phenomena, the human condition, into the conceptual framework with a specific structure and form of calculative rationality. The logical structure of computer programming languages follows in essentials an atomistic model of language, which can be traced back to an influential current in the history of western philosophy including such thinkers as Descartes, Leibniz, Frege, Russell and early Wittgenstein.

In the history of educational sciences the 1960's and the 1970's were a period when a considerable effort was made to reach a general theory of teaching concentrating on the detailed analysis of classroom activities. The outcome of this combined effort was that there are no regularities in the teaching acts or their patterns that could be generalised and used to predict the learning outcomes of students. The actual finding was that were many contextual and situational factors significantly affecting the processes that could not be controlled to provide a scientific explanation on the phenomenon. Following example contains the basic idea. A.G. Greenwald's article on the problems of validity in evalutation in Amerian Psychologist was partly based on his own expereinces at the University of Washington.. In 1989, he received the highest student ratings he ever received for one of his courses. Only a year later, teaching the same course with only slight modifications to the syllabus, he received his lowest ratings ever. (Greenwald 1997). This spurred Greenwald to do research on evaluation methodologies, and shows that the aim to control the learning outcomes by methodological and technological means is quite vain. If similar teaching procedures do not work even in the similar situations there is no basis for generalisation.

In teaching, studying and learning processes this means that they can be preplanned only to a certain extent and to the responses to the unexpected events emerging is the responsibility of the teacher (and to a certain extent the students). For educational technology this means a tough requirement, one should be able to cover all the possible and imaginable specific ways in which teachers and students handle the emergent part of the process. This is a particularly tough requirement if one attempts to cover the totality of the processes with one system, which is the case with LMSs. Another possibility would be to have a wide selection of tools that the teacher could invoke when needed. In both cases the complexity of the whole system increases, which is contrary to the underlying principle of simplicity. Thus, if the Occam's razor is to be used as one principle, one should pay attention to how it is interpreted. Einstein warned against carelessness in this respect in his famous remark: "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler." This means that the concept 'possible' has a relation to the empirical findings, and considering the empirical findings on human activity the models are not very simple. This is also a warning against a simplified interpretation of Occam's principle itself. It is important to note that Einstein is referring to the complexity of the phenomenon by the term 'possible', not to the restricted capacity of human beings to grasp things. If the concept of 'possible' is (mis)understood as 'practically possible to control' or 'manageable' the outcomes of the applications of technology are well described by Heidegger's notion that we do not understand the nature of technology (Heidegger 1977).

At one extreme the waterfall model entails a tacit assumption that the users will adapt their behaviour according to the functionality of the system, i.e. will in effect become parts of the technologically organised system. On the other hand, user-centred design still has two basic alternatives. Either one treats the particular context as a "small atomic world" and attempts to explicate the particular activities completely in order to manage the processes as much as possible, or one distinguishes between the human activities that can and cannot be controlled and applies the technology where it works best, leaving the rest to rely on human judgment. To advocate pluralism in the approaches to educational technology means to recommend that decisions on the appropriate approach to solve individual problems and the related choices of technology are not made blindly, even if there is a tendency to use the control approach by default. One has to choose, not only the problem-solving method, but also the type of rationality to be used to approach and frame the problem.


Educational technology, so called e-learning, is often seen as one of the most essential tools for creating information society. The technological perspective entails a particular way of framing how learning is understood. The use of technology seems to make the educational processes more manageable by increasing the predictability, measurability and controllability. However, the inherent view of instrumental rationality does not encompass all of the education, even if it easily excludes alternative types of rationality.

Because of the complexity of the contextual and situational factors in learning, instruction and studying cannot be preplanned adequately and exhaustively. Educational technology, however, must be designed in unambiguous and explicit terms. As the perspective of centralized control offers readily applicable explicit models, this perspective may dominate the development of education without rendering itself under critical evaluation.


Ellull, Jacques (2003): The "Autonomy" of the Technological Phenomenon. p.386-404 in Robert A. Scharff & Val Dusek (ed.): Philosophy of Technology. Oxford: Blackwell.

Foucault, Michel (1988): Politics, Philosophy, Culture. New York: Routledge.

Greenwald, A. G. (1997) Validity concerns and usefulness of student ratings of instruction, American Psychologist, 52, pp. 1182-1186.

Heidegger, Martin (1977): The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. Translated by William Lovitt. New York: Harper & Row.

Shutkin, David (1998): The deployment of Information Technology in the Field of Education and the Augmentation of the Child. pages 205-230 in Thomas S. Popkewitz and Marie Brennan (ed.): Foucault's Challenge. New York: Teachers College Press.

Taylor, Charles (2000): Sources of Self. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Tyler, R. W. (1969) Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

This document was added to the Education-line database on 19 February 2004