Social Education 64(1), ©2000 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.

The Changing Face of Knowledge


Simon Hooper and Brad Hokanson

Converging at the turn of the millennium are two phenomena many believe will radically change the way we conduct education. The first is our understanding of how learning occurs. The second is the introduction and ubiquitous use of technology in education. To date, little has been done to connect the two ideas by way of research that applies contemporary learning theory to the use of technology. Moreover, few have recognized how technology can actually change the way we generate knowledge.

Our understanding of the learning process has evolved over the past century. Mayer describes this as a shift from response strengthening, to knowledge acquisition, to knowledge construction.1 Although constructivist theories have yet to be universally accepted in schools, classroom practice is changing to include activities that focus more on knowledge building than on information transmission. Active learning, cooperative group work, project-based instruction, and writing journals are activities teachers often use to build on students’ personal knowledge and cognitive skills.

For the past twenty years, computers have been steadily infused into public schools. By 1997, annual expenditure in K-12 schools exceeded $3.5 billion.2 Yet the benefits accrued through computer use have proven difficult to quantify. Indeed, two of the primary criticisms of technology use in schools are, alternatively, that computing has become a separate subject and that when it is used in traditional content areas, it merely reinforces “old” ways of teaching. Computers are rarely used to improve learning in ways that reflect the contemporary understanding of effective teaching.

This article explores the implications for effective use of technology in schools. First, it examines what knowledge is and the processes that mediate knowledge production. Next, it considers the role of technology in the generation of knowledge. Finally, it addresses the broad implications for using technology in educational settings.

What is Knowledge?

The word “knowledge” has many meanings. To some, it is synonymous with the word “information.” In this understanding of the word, a library represents a source of knowledge.

To others, the word knowledge is used to describe a learning outcome, and thus represents an artifact of learning. From this perspective, knowledge refers to what an individual knows (which obviously may include large amounts of information). Benjamin Bloom described knowledge as the first in a hierarchy of six levels (the others being comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation) in his “Taxonomy of Cognitive Development.”3 Here, knowledge refers to any ideas or information an individual may recall or recognize.

Others have developed more sophisticated conceptualizations of knowledge. John Anderson distinguished between declarative and procedural knowledge.4 Declarative knowledge, similar to Bloom’s first level, refers to specific information about a topic. In contrast, procedural knowledge involves processes that transform information. Whereas declarative knowledge is static, procedural knowledge is dynamic. For example, knowing how many computers were produced in Ireland in the past year is an example of declarative knowledge, whereas using that information to help understand how Ireland has become a major computer manufacturing center represents procedural knowledge.

A third class of knowledge is metacognitive, and refers to the monitoring of one’s own learning. Metacognition involves the ability to mentally observe and control one’s own progress in acquiring knowledge.5

In this article, we use “knowledge” to refer to any product of new learning, whether declarative, procedural, or metacognitive.


How Does Learning Occur?

Changes in learning theory have important implications for how we should teach. Explanations of learning early in this century focused on response reinforcement. This behavioral approach, an extension of Pavlovian conditioning, considers the factors that strengthen or weaken relationships between stimuli and responses. The role of technology, from this perspective, involves using feedback to develop strong bonds between related ideas. Typical uses include drill and practice software to create links between stimuli and responses.

Knowledge acquisition, or the transmission model of teaching, was dominant from mid-century through at least the 1970s. This approach focuses on the transfer of information from teacher to student, and involves organizing information in an optimal sequence to assure predictable learning outcomes. The role of technology from this perspective is to develop instructional materials that teach optimally. The use of programmed instruction and computer tutorials typify this approach.

Knowledge construction, which gained popularity in the 1980s and ‘90s, assumes that learning involves the active construction of knowledge, which occurs from the association of new information with existing knowledge in the mind. As such, knowledge is highly personalized in that no one knows for sure how it is represented mentally. From this perspective, the role of technology is not to focus on a sequence inherent in learning materials, but to provide the resources for students to use in solving problems through knowledge construction.

Whatever the mode of learning, when difficulties occur, learners employ cognitive strategies that have the effect of “fusing” new information to previous knowledge (although little is known about exactly how this occurs). According to Mayer, such strategies influence how information is selected, organized, or integrated.6 Successful learners have deeper, and more flexible, supplies of strategies than do less able learners. When students cannot generate these strategies on their own, teachers offer them in the form of varying instructional methods, which can be replicated with technology. At issue, however, is whether different technologies can supplement this process in order to enhance the growth of knowledge.


What is Technology?

In education, the word “technology” is synonymous with communications equipment (and, more recently, with computers specifically). However, the etymology of the word has little to do with machinery. The word “technology” is derived from the Greek word techne, meaning the structured and organized information that provides the basis for intelligent human action.7 More recently, economist John Kenneth Galbraith defined technology as “the systematic application of scientific and other organized knowledge to practical tasks.”8 Technology can thus be thought of as the embodiment of problem solving processes.

As Hutchins described it , the achievements we make today are not the result of possessing brains smarter than those of our forefathers.9 Rather, technology enhances our mental abilities, providing us with more strategies to understand and examine phenomena and to create new ideas.

In McLuhan’s phrase, technology is literally an extension of man, as the ax is an extension of the hand, the wheel of the foot. Most instruments are attempts to extend man’s physical capacity, a capacity shared with their animals. Communications technology, on the other hand, is an extension of thought, of consciousness, of man’s unique perceptual capacities. Thus communication media, broadly used to include all modes all symbolic representation, are literally extensions of mind.10

For the purposes of this discussion, “technology” is used to refer only to the electronic communications equipment used in educational settings. From this perspective, technology performs two primary educational roles. First, it joins traditional forms of the written word in delivering educational messages. Clearly, technology such as television and the Internet have enormous potential to convey educational materials to diverse groups. However, the delivery role is not the focus of this article, in part because our interests concern how technology can improve the overall quality of education, rather than simply reach larger audiences.

The second role of technology is to manipulate information. Technologies vary in this capacity. Donald Norman refers to these varying capacities as “affordances.”11 Different affordances allow different types of mental activity to be performed. For example, writing and talking produce different cognitive outcomes because writing affords contemplation, but conversation generally does not. Different affordances also help to distinguish between the potential of diverse technologies. Slow motion is an affordance of television, but not of the radio. Volume control is an affordance of radio, but not of the photograph.

Affordances can also be thought of as cognitive strategies that supplement learning. Moreover, evidence exists to suggest that learners can incorporate affordances into their personal repertoires of learning strategies by interacting with technologies. For example, Salomon showed how the attributes of different media can be learned through continued use.12 He demonstrated that low-ability students who were exposed to a “zooming” strategy while watching a film performed better on a related test of knowledge than students who had not been exposed to this technique. Apparently, students learned zooming—the film technique of focusing on one important element—by working with a technology that employed the strategy. They were able to “zoom in” on important concepts after seeing this mental strategy presented visually.


Does Technology Influence Learning?

Although abundant research has compared the effects of different technologies on learning, much of this research has been criticized on methodological grounds. A class of research known as “media comparison studies” typically compares the effects of two or more technologies on students’ achievement. However, differences emerging from such studies have been discounted for failing to compare equivalent treatments. Whereas results from these studies have been used to demonstrate the efficacy of one technology over another, critics claim the only valid differences from such studies are differences in efficiency.

Consider, for example, a media comparison research study designed to examine the effects of different technologies on learning how to assemble equipment. The study might compare the effects of learning from an instructional manual versus an audiotape. According to critics, the only valid difference emerging from the study would be efficiency: that is, subjects would learn to assemble the equipment faster from one treatment than from the other. In this case, of course, the media comparison critics are correct: given sufficient time, the final outcome would not vary.

However, new technologies also act as catalysts for change, enabling new patterns of behavior. For example, Meyrowitz noted the initial impact of the printing press on European society.13 Mass printing had a major effect on society and education, resulting in a rejection of traditional authority and the development of intellectual growth. Printing stimulated the distribution of books that expanded Western civilization by making the printed word available to the masses. Although the Bible had been available for hundreds of years, the printing press made the content of the Bible available for general consumption. Intellectual development was increased by the efficient and economic distribution of text.

New technologies also enable strategies that were previously possible, but impractical. Imagine, for example, the logistical problems that would be associated with asking geometry students to draw and measure one hundred constructions by hand in order to understand the relationship between a circumference and its radius. In contrast, consider the impact of a computer affordance, repeatability, on a similar activity. Computer software, such as Geometer’s Sketchpad, can be used to create and manipulate shapes and to generate insights similar to those associated with hand constructions, but in a fraction of the time. Technology thus enables a strategy that would be impractical to complete by hand; cognitive efficiency has its own quality.14

In the social studies, computer software can be used to create and manipulate numerical relationships that help students to gain insights into complex issues. For example, students could examine the possible impacts of raising voter turnout among traditionally low-voting groups on the outcome of political races.

Technology stimulates knowledge generation by enabling, enhancing, or extending cognitive strategies. It enhances declarative knowledge by vastly increasing storage capacity. It extends procedural knowledge by off-loading complex computational events. And, it enables metacognitive knowledge by allowing people to use strategies that would otherwise be impractical.


Implications for Education

In addition to changing how we learn, technology has implications for how we teach. Considerable evidence exists to suggest that written language developments and mass distribution of printed texts significantly changed education. In fact, some argue that the need to understand the technology of text and numbers led to the development of formal education.15 Presumably, the changes enabled by contemporary technologies will have similar educational implications. It is interesting to consider this potential.

Teaching as information delivery (or, a representative activity) will be threatened. It is important to distinguish between representative and generative uses of technology. Representative uses focus on information delivery, while generative uses transform ideas and provide strategies that supplement learning. For years, educators have expressed concern that technology will replace teachers. We believe that any teacher who can be replaced by technology should be. We recognize that good teachers impart information, but believe their focus should be on employing instructional methods that lead to knowledge generation. The teachers most threatened by technology will be those who view teaching as content transmission only.

The value of distance education approaches will be limited. Many schools and universities are experiencing considerable pressures to develop distance learning courses. Using computers for content transmission is simple and cost effective. In contrast, creating generative learning environments on a computer is difficult, and remains the strength of effective teachers, who can adapt to dynamic classroom conditions and act flexibly in response to differing student needs.

Technology will increase pressures on the need for alternative assessment approaches. Traditional assessment measures often assume knowledge is limited to the biological brain, and do not allow the use of enabling technologies. The closed book test with a piece of scrap paper provides only limited access to technological resources. It is important to recognize the role played by other technologies in our assessment processes. For example, business students are often given access to spreadsheets to analyze and interpret financial data.

Social students can likewise make use of spreadsheets to investigate information by posing “what-if” scenarios and outcomes. As students are given more access to information retrieval tools, the current focus on testing declarative knowledge may decrease and be replaced by new forms of project-based learning and assessment.

Technology will continue to challenge our understanding of what knowledge is and how it is generated. Knowledge was once assumed to exist only within the human mind. Technology disperses knowledge from a biological center. People know more when supported by tools, when enhanced by media, and when empowered by computers. As human thought changes in the process of writing,16 so too will our thinking processes, and hence our generation of knowledge, change through computer use. Education, the formalized means of knowledge generation, must adapt to the use of technology and computers.



This article has looked at how technology can provide students with cognitive tools that can be used to create knowledge. Will technology change education? If teaching is only about disseminating information, technology will surely enhance education, for technology has the potential to deliver and create voluminous information. Yet, as we have noted, creating information is very different from building knowledge. For technology to change knowledge, it must modify the way that humans learn.

The challenge for teachers in the new millennium will be to help students to learn with technology. This challenge has two dimensions. First, teachers will need to establish methodologies that may conflict with their own personal experience as learners. This may be difficult for many, because we know teachers tend to teach as they were taught. Second, teachers will need to understand the potential of computers without the benefit of having learned with computer technology.

Teachers, both in schools and in-service, need to experience firsthand how computers can support knowledge development. Beyond learning how to operate computers, it is essential for them to experience effective models for using technology to generate knowledge. What counts is not simply using computers, but using them to think and learn.

As teachers learn to integrate technology into the classrooms they will face different questions involving computer use. At first they may question how computers can be used to improve existing classroom practice. Later, they may seek new learning experiences that can only be provided through computer use. Eventually, teachers may address how the curriculum and their teaching practices should be modified to take advantage of computers.

Questioning the role of technology in education leads naturally to questions about human cognition. For example, the question, “What does an individual know?” raises additional problems such as: “Where is knowledge stored?”,” What is the border between technology and the human mind?”, and “At what point do the affordances of a technology become internalized to change the way people think?”.

Will technology make humans more intelligent? We hope that raising this and similar questions will stimulate further discussion about the nature of knowledge, intelligence, and how people think.



1. R. E. Mayer, “Cognition and Instruction: On Their Historic Meeting Within Educational Psychology,” Journal of Educational Psychology 84 (1992): 405-412.

2. President’s Panel on Educational Technology, Report to the President on the Use of Technology to Strengthen K-12 Education in the United States (Washington, D. C.: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1997).

3. Benjamin S. Bloom, Taxonomy of Educational Objectives: The Classification of Educational Goals. Handbook 1: Cognitive Domain (New York. David McKay Company, 1956).

4. J. R. Anderson, Language, Memory, and Thought (Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum, 1976).

5. J. H. Flavell, “Metacognitive Aspects of Problem Solving,” in L. B. Resnick, ed., The Nature of Intelligence (Hillsdale, N. J.: Erlbaum, 1796).

6. Mayer.

7. P. Saettler, The Evolution of American Educational Technology (Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited, 1990).

8. In R. Heinich, “The Proper Study of Instructional Technology,” Educational Communication and Technology Journal 33, No. 1 (1984): 9-15.

9. In A. Clark, Being There: Putting Brain, Body, and World Together Again (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997).

10. J. W. Carey, Harold Adams Innis and Marshall McLuhan. (Yellow Springs, OH: Antioch Press: 1967).

11. D. A. Norman, The Invisible Computer (Cambridge, MA. MIT Press, 1998).

12. G. Salomon, Interaction of Media, Cognition, and Learning (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1979).

13. J. Meyrowitz, “Taking McLuhan and ‘Medium Theory’ Seriously: Technological Change and the Evolution of Education” in S. T. Kerr, ed., Technology and the Future of Schooling (Chicago: NSSE, 1996), 73-110.

14. T. Cobb, “Cognitive Efficiency: Toward a Revised Theory of Media,” Educational Technology Research and Development 45, No. 4 (1997): 21-35.

15. H. A. Innis, The Bias of Communication (Toronto: University of Toronto, 1995); R. K. Logan, The Fifth Language: Learning a Living in the Computer Age (Toronto: Stoddard, 1995); Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, the Extensions of Man (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1964); W. J. Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (New York: Routledge, 1982).

16. Ong.


Simon Hooper is associate professor in the Instructional Systems and Technology program, College of Education and Human Development, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.

Brad Hokanson is university college coordinator in the Department of Design, Housing and Apparel, College of Human Ecology, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.