Defining technology

By Heather King - April 2013


DiGironimo, N. (2011). What is technology? Investigating student conceptions about the nature of technology. International Journal of Science Education, 33(10), 1337–1352.

The nature of science—not only what science involves, but also how it is understood by students—is a well-established area of research. Findings have long informed policy directives and the design of teaching and learning materials. Students’ understanding of the nature of technology, meanwhile, is less widely studied, yet such an understanding is arguably essential for active participation in a technology-rich and information-driven society. In order to examine students’ understanding of technology and thereafter to develop effective approaches to supporting engagement, educators need a functional definition of technology.

To develop a definition of technology, DiGironimo examined the history and philosophy of technology and the literature on science education research. She notes that our present notions of technology have developed against a historical backdrop of class and gender struggles. Technology has been used as a term to describe either male-oriented work with machines or the mechanism through which the work of artisans is lifted into the world of business. Today, the notion of technology is generally associated with artifacts that in some way extend human capabilities.

In developing a multifaceted definition of technology, DiGironimo uses a diagram of a three-sided prism. On the three side faces, technology is described as “artifacts,” as a “human practice,” and as a “creation practice.” On the base of the prism is the history of technology, and on the top is the current role of technology in society.

Artifacts are the objects and process that most people first think of when asked to define technology.
• As human practice, technology is not immune to sociological distinctions. Indeed, DiGironimo argues that technology is a value-laden social enterprise closely intertwined with society’s views.
• As a creation process, technology encompasses a range of skills, methods, and materials.
• The history of technology acknowledges not only cumulative progression, but also the errors, mistakes, and failures that have occurred in the process.
• The current role refers to the way in which technology changes and indeed is constantly changing. As a result, different people have different experiences, which colour their perceptions.

Having developed this framework, DiGironimo then tested its robustness as a tool to assess student understanding of the nature of technology by examining the responses of 20 middle school students to the question, “What, in your opinion, is technology?” Each response was coded with reference to the prism definition. Thus, if a student mentioned an object, such as a computer, the comment was coded as “technology as artifact.”

DiGironimo found that half of the responses referred to objects. This finding is hardly surprising, given that most people regularly interact with technological objects. More interesting, however, was the low occurrence of responses that referred to technology as a creation process. Only one student mentioned any human involvement.

This study admittedly relies on a very small sample of responses to a single decontextualised question. A probing interview seeded with examples of technology may have garnered richer insight into the depths of student understanding. Nevertheless, this study offers a useful framework and analytical lens for exploring student conceptions of technology. It also provides a useful reference tool for informal science education practitioners seeking to engage learners in exploring conceptions of technology.

For example, by emphasising the story of technology, the creation process, and human involvement, DiGironimo’s definition of technology highlights social issues that may include notions of race, gender, and equity. These topics should, arguably, be addressed in any exhibit or program exploring technology.