Engelbart: Technology and How It Gets That Way

Animated gif of Doug Engelbart presenting online in 1968.This is one in a series of postings I am doing as part of the Engelbart annotation project. There will be some randomness to these notes but somehow, given the source document we are annotating, I think that is appropriate.  I am thinking a lot about education technology as I read through Engelbart’s Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework for the Annotating Engelbart project. The vision of where technology and teaching and learning could be is hampered by our lack of vision.

It is refreshing to read this and to touch bases with the origins of much of what we do in education technology: especially after hanging out in Seattle last year consulting with education start-ups. Much of what goes on in education start-up culture is centered around figuring out how to package existing tools into learning experiences. That sounds great in theory but what it means is that the tools quickly begin to shape the learning. And this is what we would expect in a post-McLuhan world. We shape the technologies and the technologies begin to shape us. Engelbart asks us to envision something far greater though. His framework for solving problems asks us to envision shaping better tools in concert with artifacts (tools) language, methodology, and training.

How does he define these? Engelbart defines “artifacts” as physical objects designed to provide for human comfort, for the manipulation of things or materials, and for the manipulation of symbols. He defines language as ” the way in which the individual parcels out the picture of his world into the concepts that his mind uses to model that world, and the symbols that he attaches to those concepts and uses in consciously manipulating the concepts (‘thinking’).” He defines methodology as “the methods, procedures, strategies, etc., with which an individual organizes his goal-centered (problem-solving) activity.”And training as “the conditioning needed by the human being to bring his skills in using Means 1, 2, and 3 to the point where they are operationally effective.” In other words, to really solve problems, all have to be used in concert.

Currently we in edtech tend to take tools, processes, and concepts from the business world (analytics, for instance), tear them out of context and drop them into the schools. We do this often because the technologies are new and different – the feeling that we need to keep up with the latest. But we mostly apply the new technologies to the same problems in the same way we used the old technologies (e.g. treating websites as books or magazines). This is highly problematic as the current adoptions of new technologies seem to be completely divorced from discussions of consequences and ethics. And even more importantly, the tools are divorced from purpose and context. Why are we doing the things that we do around elearning?

One of my favorite comic strips was Hägar the Horrible, a marauding Viking whose vision of himself and the world is often at odds with reality. In one comic strip, Hägar returns from a looting expedition with a present for his wife. He tells her it was ripped off a tub in a palace in Paris. He then turns on the faucet and when nothing happens, he says “That’s funny, when I turned it on in the palace, water came out.” I have the same feeling when “innovators” dump business technology into a classroom without considering student privacy issues, accessibility, or cost.

Engelbart’s vision can help solve this problem because we could ask, how does this new technology enable us to solve problems in a new way? How does this technology increase our capacity to solve problems?

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