Perspectives: Technology as Content in
Social Studies Curricula for Young Learners

The Growing Presence of Technology in Society

Educators of young children who wish to engage those children in the social studies must necessarily come to terms with the emerging roles of technologies in the development of society, and in the activities of contemporary teaching and learning. Perhaps to a greater extent than has ever been true, technologies are both content and tools in the social studies curriculum. In fact, some would argue that an increasing amount of social studies is the study of technologies in society, for technologies are more pervasive in the workings of society than has been true in the past.
Our individual and collective lives are influenced daily by the presence of new and different applications of technologies in the organizations and institutions that surround us. Additionally, more complex technologies are becoming available as instructional and learning tools, altering many of our historical understandings about how teaching and learning takes place both in and outside of formal educational institutions.

Taken independently, technological developments or applications are often transparent or seem relatively unimportant to us. For example: most adults now regularly use ATM cards; in fact, for many adults, banking through ATM machines is the only way banking gets done, whereas a decade ago, few people were using this technology. Walk down the street of any American city today, and you observe scores of people using cellular telephones. In medicine, organ transplants are now thought to be routine. Space travel is routine. Incredible computing power at the desktop of ordinary citizens is routine. Hundreds of channels of video, available in the home, are routine. Workplaces have been transformed, and thus the nature of work itself has undergone significant change.
These are but a few relatively simple examples of ways in which technologies have pervaded our
society at the most basic levels of our lives. As educators, we are also familiar with calls for more technologies to be used in our instructional programs. We hear daily of the wonders of computer-based instruction, of telecommunications, of the information superhighway. We are told that technology is (or should be) transforming how we as teachers do our jobs. In education, as in most other workplaces, technologies are being said to be changing the very nature of work, through changes in the ways people teach and learn.

Technology as Content in the Social Studies

It appears that technological development and applications may be of particular interest in the social studies, for in that domain technologies are both content and instructional tools. The literature is replete with descriptions of how technologies may be used as curricular tools.

For example, in a previous issue of Social Studies and the Young Learner (January/February 1994), Terry Kuseske described several technology-based programs (e.g., the National Geographic KIDS NETWORK) that “lead to motivating and worthwhile learning experiences for students.” Indeed, the National Council for the Social Studies has made services available to its membership on the America Online information service. The journal The Computing Teacher provides descriptions and analyses of many technology-based programs useful in education. More and more information about technology as tools is being made available to teachers. While using technologies with young learners may present some interesting challenges for the teacher, it is evident that the advocates for technology use as instructional tools have strong arguments for why such technologies should be used.

In this article, however, I would like to focus not on the use of technologies for instruction in the social studies, but rather on technology as content in the social studies. That is, what information about technology in society should be included in the social studies curriculum for young learners? In many respects, the question is mirrored by the question of what to include about any of the other topics in the social studies: what should we teach young learners about multiculturalism, the environment, politics, equity, social justice, or community? My argument is that the development and uses of technologies in contemporary society is such a powerful force in the lives of citizens that, unlike any previous time in our history, we must treat seriously the question of what happens as we create and implement technologies.

Having stated the question, I have no hope of providing a comprehensive answer in this article. Instead, I would like to suggest some characteristics of technologies, or some possible consequences of technology use, that perhaps ought to be reflected in some form in contemporary social studies curriculum. Precisely what form teachings about these matters ought to take in the curriculum, and the “goodness of fit” of these ideas with emerging standards for social studies, is open to discussion. It is likely that the issues described below can be treated in a number of ways at the local school or classroom level.

Some Characteristics of Emerging Technologies

The complex and pervasive presence of current and emerging technologies in American society (and in the societies of most nations of the world) defies simple analyses of issues, or even comprehensive cataloging of characteristics of technologies. Following are a few characteristics of technology that may be of particular relevance to social studies educators considering the implications of technology as curriculum content.

Emergent Moral and Ethical Issues

The emergence of some technologies is resulting in the need to deal with certain moral or ethical issues with which we as a society have not been forced to face. An example of such technologies are those related to genetic engineering. As more is understood about human genes, technologies to directly act on those genes will become more common. Questions have already been raised about actions which may become technically feasible, but which raise serious ethical issues.

Should human behavior be modified through genetic manipulation? Which behaviors? Who will decide? These kinds of questions have been raised in the past, but at a much more theoretical (even science fiction) level. New technologies, however, move matters out of the theoretical and into the feasible arena.
Questions pertaining to acts which so profoundly impact on individual and collective society lives, as in genetic manipulation, organ transplant, or similar activities, may form much of the substance of social studies education in the future. It is clear that many of these questions are driven by the emergence of technologies, and that the development of social policy to address the questions will require a citizenry informed and capable of considering options and consequences. The social studies curriculum for young learners may well be the starting point for development of citizen knowledge in these critical areas.

Developments in Human Communication and Community

New technologies may alter in significant ways how human beings communicate with each other.
At issue here is not only the tools humans have with which to communicate (e.g., cellular telephones, instantaneous translations of language across national boundaries, vast networks of computers), but also the patterns and purposes of communications. An excellent example of some of these developments can be found in Rheingold’s (1993) The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier, in which the author describes whole new communities formed electronically, with very different communications patterns developing among participants. Who we communicate with, when, about what, and how may be changing. To the extent that communications is an important subject of study in the social studies, it is vital that curricula in the social studies reflect the fundamental changes in communications patterns beginning to surface. It should be noted that the kinds of communications patterns made possible with emerging technologies is especially relevant to the introduction of global perspectives in the social studies curriculum, the primary theme of the March/April 1994 issue of Social Studies and the Young Learner.

The global communications possibilities inherent in new technology systems simply cannot be ignored when considering the appropriate nature of social studies education for the future.

Technological Avenues for Learning and Information Access

In a similar vein, new technologies may influence how people learn or, perhaps more specifically, how they gather and analyze information. Technologies are providing access to more information, in forms that individual learners control. Just as the advent of the video recorder and local video store broke the monopoly and control network television companies had on who watched what programming, and when, new technologies allow individual learners to decide what information they need, will use, and in what form they will use it. Further, new multimedia technologies offer tools for analyzing information that simply have not been available to most learners. In the formal educational system, textbooks may no longer be the primary shapers of curriculum, as learners will be able to take advantage of a wide range of kinds of information resources, irrespective of where the learner may live. For example, technologies are providing electronic access to the holdings of the world’s libraries and museums, so that people living at a great distance from those institutions will no longer be denied access. Video-on-demand systems offer opportunities for learners to access enormous video resources, at the learner’s convenience and location. Emerging technologies such as virtual reality systems give learners a chance to interact with information resources in ways never before possible.

There are many possible implications of changes in how people gather and use information. Traditional structures for formal education may undergo change, with ripple effects throughout society. Certainly, issues of who controls or determines the learning objectives for individual
citizens are raised, with subsequent questions about traditional notions of local control of education, and the role of government in the educational lives of individuals. These issues, and related ones, are surely grist for the social studies curricula, as the issues touch on deeply held historical tradition.
Some speculate that the advent of new technologies will alter our most basic understandings about how people learn—that theories of learning and human development may need to be revised.

Equity in the Information Age

If we are entering a new phase of human and social development, called by some the Age of Information, and if information will be the “coin of the realm” as some have argued, then we face continuing questions about the meaning of equity and social justice in contemporary society. If being in possession of information resources, and the tools and knowledge of how to create and manipulate information, represents social and economic power in the coming society, it is likely that a new generation of have and have nots will be created, defined by possession of or ready access to information. Who will have access to information technologies, and who will not? We already see the roots of separation, as, for example, some schools offer much technology to their students, while others do not. How shall we as a society ensure equity of access to information technologies for all citizens?

Effects of Technology on Cultural Unity and Diversity

What will be the impact of widespread infusion of technologies on the diversity and integrity of
separate cultures in world society? As information technology makes it possible for ordinary people throughout the world to communicate with each other, to share knowledge and information resources, to bring each other’s culture into the daily lives of individual people everywhere, what happens to those cultures? Are we likely to experience what some have called the “McDonald’s Effect,” a homogenization of disparate cultures into a single culture? As technologies render language differences meaningless, distance irrelevant, and governments as we know them less powerful as controllers of what citizens have access to, what happens to diversity? These questions are significant as one considers the global village, but are also of importance within United States society, particularly at a time when tensions about its diversity are running high.

Numerous other characteristics or consequences of technology development and application could and must be raised. The teacher concerned about social studies for young learners faces two challenges: becoming aware him or herself of the complex nature of technology development and what those developments might mean; and deciding what about these issues must be taught to (or learned by) young people. Ideally, teachers will help young learners become aware of the presence of technologies, and might help those learners consider how to think about technologies and their consequences. Most young people harbor no fears of technologies, and stand ready and eager to explore uses for those technologies. Yet it is vital that our young people begin to consider technologies from a social studies perspective, that is, technology as content.

What I am arguing for is that, through the social studies, young learners become technologically
literate, in a manner similar to becoming literate in science or civics. Hard choices will need to
be made in the future about new technologies, in terms of what new technologies to create, how to apply them, and how to assess their implications and consequences.

We will need an informed electorate to make those difficult choices.
By attending to technology as content in the social studies curricula for young learners, we make a beginning to create that informed electorate. Just what ought to be taught about emerging technologies, and just what kinds of attitudes toward these technologies is most desirable is still open to discussion. Of one thing I am certain: we as educators cannot afford to be ignorant of the issues surrounding technology applications, nor can our students.

A Short Reference List for Further Study
Brand, S. (1987). The media lab: Inventing the future at MIT.
New York: Viking.
Hardison, O. B. (1988). Disappearing through the skylight: Culture and technology in the twentieth century. New York: The Penguin Group.
Mander, J. (1991). In the absence of the sacred: The failure of technology and the survival of the Indian nations. San Francisco: The Sierra Club Books.
Perelman, L. (1992). Schoo#146;s out: Hyperlearning, the new technology, and the end of education.
New York: William Morrow.
Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Ramirez, R., & Bell, R. (1994). Byting back: Policies to support the use of technology in education. Oak Brook, IL: North Central Regional Educational Laboratory.
Rheingold, H. (1993). The virtual community: Homesteading on the electronic frontier. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
Roszak, T. (1986). The cult of information: The folklore of computers and the true art of thinking.
New York: Pantheon Books.
Stock, G. (1993). Metaman: The merging of humans and machines into a global superorganism.
New York: Simon & Schuster.
Wurman, R. S. (1989). Information anxiety. New York: Doubleday.

About the Author
Dennis D. Gooler is Professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction and former Dean of the College of Education at Northern Illinois University, DeKalb. He has been involved in numerous technology policy and evaluation projects.