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Servant, Master, Double-Edged Sword: Metaphors teachers use to discuss technology.

Although technology and technology access are far from equitably distributed in our societies, technology is progressively pervasive. There is a baseline of technology integration with which the vast majority of our citizens must deal-- telephones and video players, upc scanners and computerized automobile accessories, bank transactions and online merchandise ordering to name but a few. Whether a baseline of technology integration exists in educational environments is more problematic. Communities, teachers, teacher educators, and educational researchers are continuing a 30-year-old debate (Nichols & Allen-Brown, 1996) about not only to what extent applications of technology should be integrated into schools but whether technology belongs in the curriculum at all. Admittedly the substance and tenor of this debate has changed substantially over its lifetime.

The present concern is focused on the influence that teachers display over the degree to which technology and technology-related issues and activities are integrated into curriculum. And more specifically, to look at how the language that teachers use to describe technology influences the choices they make in this area.


Although the focus of this article is not the degree to which curricular technology integration is appropriate, the authors believe that there is substantial evidence that unique and powerful learning can take place when technology is designed to assist learning (Jonassen, 1996). If this is correct, then it is worth understanding how to assist teachers to take better advantage of the availability of technology-based resources.

The use of any technology in the classroom is based primarily on teacher choices. After many years of investigating teacher technology competence and availability of technology-based resources to teachers (U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, 1995) it appears that teacher technology skill training and providing equipment are not the sole answers to changing the way teachers use technology. Teachers still resist even when these resources are available and administrators, if they support technology integration, are loath to order teachers to use technology except in perfunctory ways (intra-building communication, attendance, lunch counts, grade reporting).

Teacher training generally ascribes to the idea that reflection on practice assists teachers in understanding the practical theories that they bring to their work. The devices for reflection are all intended to help teachers eventually improve practice by becoming consciously aware of the beliefs that guide action. Investigation of the metaphors teachers use is being seen as a valuable tool in this pursuit (Bullough & Gitlin, 1995). Philosophically, authors have more strongly indicated the relationship between metaphor and action (Lakoff & Johnson, 1999). Most of that work is not directed toward understanding how teachers approach educational uses of technology and this study was designed to begin that investigation.


A metaphor is a linguistically efficient way to suggest similarities. "Different metaphors do different things--stimulate imagery, prompt comparisons, lend memorable expression to theories, evoke atmospheres, create a mood of conceptual disturbance" (Cooper, 1986 p. 168). Since metaphors are by design logical contradictions (one thing is represented to be something that it is not) at least three interpretations of metaphorical statements always exist--non-sense, literal, metaphorical. Metaphors cannot function in the ways Cooper suggested until they are interpreted by either the creator or receiver as metaphors. Interpretation is bound by culture and experience (Black, 1990). In this sense a metaphor is a context-dependent device. They can be and are interpreted differently based on the context in which they are interpreted. Metaphors of technology and education are strongly bound by the context of teacher work generally and classrooms more specifically.

Black described an interanimation of words within metaphors which he called an implicative complex. Characteristics of the secondary subject of the metaphor are projected onto the primary subject. A new organization of the primary subject allows for further investigation of the secondary subject. The secondary subject continues to provide insights into reorganization of the primary subject and so forth. "Every implication-complex supported by a metaphor's secondary subject ... is a model of the ascriptions imputed to the primary subject: Every metaphor is the tip of a submerged model [Black's metaphor]" (Black. 1990 p. 62). This is a new model for understanding the primary subject of the metaphor. If the metaphor generates an implicative complex then it is assisting in the creation of new meaning. The interpreter of the metaphor now has a new system of concepts by which to understand the primary subject of the metaphor.

Lakoff and Johnson (1980) attributed larger meaning to the submerged portion of the model. If an implicative complex of a metaphor is compelling enough (if the metaphor resonates in Black's term) the entailments (Lakoff & Johnson's term) of the secondary subject are ascribed to the primary subject in a more complete way. In Technology is a Tutor the entailments suggested that technology is a person working one-on-one with a student to help the student master some academic area. The technology understands what must be done for this to occur and will adjust based on the progress the student is making. To investigate the entailments further demonstrates that this metaphor attributes a considerable intelligence and power to technology--an attribution that may not have existed before experiencing the metaphor.

Another example is the often used technology is just a tool. The entailments not only expand on our common understanding of tool--some device designed to extend the capabilities of the human body which is controlled by a person--but also includes connotations of the word just as extending this metaphor to mean that tools are of some lower status.

Lakoff and Johnson's premise was that not only does the interpretation of metaphor include a complex system of entailments but that our actions may be based on the system of concepts that the metaphor provides. "The models generated out of metaphors can be used to sanction actions, justify inferences, and help us set goals" (1980, p. 142). If Lakoff and Johnson are correct we will make some decisions about the use of technology in education based on metaphors. There is significant responsibility in this action. In education if metaphors structure thought and action, it is of great importance that the implications of the metaphors used are understood. (Taylor, 1984).


Interestingly the topic of metaphors among computer scientists has a long history (Johnson, 1997). The discussion has two strands: What metaphors provide the most useful understanding of how to use a computer? To what extent are the accepted metaphors restricting the potential usefulness of computers (Stephenson, 1999). Both of these strands assume that metaphors can affect behavior. Much of the discussion has focused on the computer interface and how the functions of the computer can be presented to the user in an understandable form. Folder, document, desktop, memory, saving, and opening all fit into this category. Interface metaphors are not primarily our concern because they are less likely to affect decisions about adoption of technology into curriculum in the first place. But they serve as a nice starting point. They indicate the utter dependence we have on metaphorical understanding of how the technology works.

Dennett (1998) argued that we attribute intentions to computers. Indeed, Reeves and Nass (1996) have performed a number of experiments showing participants interacting with a computer as if it was another human being. Computer science researchers are investigating whether this attribution of human characteristics can be the basis for more natural interaction with computers (Maes, 1997). Microsoft's Bob, although having met with questionable success, was a commercial attempt in this direction.

Anthropomorphizing technology leaves open the possibility of a full range of human actions and attitudes which may be attributed to technology. Metaphors with positive entailments--playing with the computer, surfing the Net, chaffing--are balanced by those with darker connotations--lurking in chat rooms, constructing firewalls for dealing with spam, sending viruses. Worthington and Zhao (1999), in their study of computer anxiety, argued that because we ascribe intentionality to computers people are likely to believe that computers reflect their own attitudes. Since metaphors are in the final sense personal (Davidson, 1978) we would expect that the interpretation of the metaphors of technology in education are likely to parallel existing attitudes toward technology in general.

Metaphors also assist in providing understanding of our relationship to larger social contexts. Brown and Duguid (2000) examined the language surrounding information, technology, and large corporate and educational institutions. Although their view was generally positive, others argued that the existing metaphors of technology have worked against human identity (Gozzi, 1989) or that at least they have been very misleading (Postman, 1993). Regardless, it is unlikely that an investigation of metaphors related to educational uses of technology can be separated from how those metaphors are interpreted in larger social contexts.


Although the literature surrounding educational technology accepts metaphor as a powerful way to communicate issues related to educational technology, it has been difficult to find work which examines these metaphors. Examples of a kind of denial of the entailments of technology metaphors are worrisome: "The computer can only help with cognitive activities and should be considered a tool, nothing more" (Gantt & Claiborne, 1985. p. 1). But since an inventory of the language surrounding these issues is not available it is difficult to know to what extent teachers are influenced by these sentiments.

Even though the authors believe that metaphor may affect behavior and that changing metaphors may change behaviors, the authors see the initial task as gaining an understanding of the language, which is being used by teachers to describe educational technology and discovering if this language may be meaningfully categorized.


The study was conducted in a small, private, liberal arts university in the Northwest. Participants in the study included 41 teachers enrolled in two sections of an educational technology course which was part of a Master of Education program. A series of open-ended questions was developed intended to provide the opportunity for the participants to discuss their attitudes toward technology in general.

* What do you see as important impacts of technology on society?

* What do you see as the biggest problem with your using technology?

* What do you see as the biggest benefit with your using technology?

* Describe times you have been frustrated while using a computer.

Based on other work in student generated metaphor analysis (KerssenGriep, 2001) two questions were added designed specifically to promote metaphors.

* Being frustrated by my computer is as frustrating as...

* Solving problems with technology is like...

A final open-ended question was added to provide respondents the opportunity to add anything they wished to their responses.

* The purpose of this study is to help understand the language people use to describe their relationship to technology. Is there anything else you would like to add that will help us answer that question?

On the first day of the course, after a brief lesson in using the institutional e-mail system, but before any other instruction occurred each participant was asked to e-mail one of the investigators responses to the above questions. As a guide, participants were told to answer the questions assuming that in general technology meant computers. Participants were instructed that they were participating in a study but that their responses would not be evaluated as part of the course grade.

Toward the end of the course each participant was given a transcript of all of the responses. An assignment was given to review the responses in preparation for small group discussions. On the following day students were gathered in groups of five and one of the investigators led each group in a recorded discussion based on the response transcript.

The responses were grouped by question but no other data were provided to indicate who had generated each response. Language was identified as metaphor if it was a nonliteral description of an object or action. The responses were reviewed by both investigators independently to identify metaphors used. The lists of identified metaphors were combined.

Lakoff and Johnson (1980) proposed that metaphors are either ontological (giving physical form to abstract concepts) or structural (including sufficient entailments to allow elaboration). Because the authors initial interest was in seeing how teachers understood technological constructs, which they believed to be complex the authors imagined that the majority of the metaphors they would discover would be ontological. The list of metaphors was sorted on this criterion.

As previously indicated, the interest was not in identifying metaphors used to describe the operation of computers-windows, crashing, booting, folders. These terms have become standard language and do not necessarily shed more light on how people make sense of their machines. Although these metaphors were initially discarded from the analysis they were later included as a measure of literacy. The list was reviewed by both investigators independently using constant comparative strategies (Strauss & Corbin, 1994) to develop a taxonomy. A collaborative review of the independent work provided the categories in their present state. The tape recorded interview data were transcribed and used predominantly to triangulate the written data.


As described, teacher metaphors for technology often brought form to what the teachers were indicating as very abstract concepts--technology is robbing us of simple pleasures; technology demands literacy; technology is like being outside a glass window. In general, this confirmed the authors' belief that a preponderance of ontological metaphors would be discovered.

In the initial passes through the data, six categories emerged that could hold the majority of the metaphors. These categories work both because they capture the essences of what the respondents described as key in their interactions with technology and because they communicated the clear emotional reactions which were embedded in many responses. Attempts to emphasize points included emoticons, punctuation, words written in all capital letters, and use of bold type denoting strong language in the written responses. Technology is, according to the respondents, all of the following:

A. An entity with capacities, needs, and appetites. In these responses it was most often the subject or active agent of the sentence. People related that technology allows, grants, permits, creates, and makes. Its appetite is voracious as it consumes, time, money, and self-esteem. It sucks my energy.

Technology has allowed society to have just about anything.

* Technology demands literacy.

* The computer has enabled medical and technological breakthroughs.

* Technology has shrunk the global village allowing people to see what others are thinking and doing around the world.

* Technology opens up huge possibilities.

* Technology makes all things seem possible.

B. A tease. While actively engaged in all the verbs above, it was deliberately placing satisfaction just out of the user's grasp, while allowing dazzling visions of possibilities. If only I had more time, more money, more access, compatible platforms, upgraded software, a clue, a kid under 10 who could help me...

The more metaphorical phrases in the same vein included:

* Trying to retrieve a precious jewel.

* Being outside a glass window.

* Being in a foreign country and not speaking the language.

* Wanting to participate in a triathlon with a body cast on.

* Being a five foot high female living in a five foot ten female's world.

* Filling up a whole in the ground with water.

* As if I'm a prisoner in Andy's jail in Mayberry.

C. A specific kind of butler. While our existing lexicon gives us the metaphor server, respondents gave us nuances to that conception. Technology may, like a butler, make life easier for me by taking care of tedious tasks, but like P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves, technology as butler is infinitely smarter than the user. A number of respondents posed the question does technology serve me or do I serve technology?

* Technology simply makes life easier.

* [Technology's] ability to help the handicapped with a myriad of useful devices.

* One need not leave home.

* Technology has assisted people in seeing the need.

D. A tool. This category included statements about the efficiency afforded by computers and fitting software to very specific tasks. Respondents using the tool metaphor indicated that using technology for a range of tedious tasks enabled them to focus on the teacher's work of creating. This category contained metaphors which were generally positively oriented.

* Accessibility of information is neatly packaged and ready for my use.

* Opening numerous channels to extend my learning.

* Access to tons of information.

* Solving problems with computers is not my territory.

* Technology is but a tool.

E. A power without form. In the lyrics of Buffalo Springfield, what it is ain't exactly clear. Respondents described technology as hovering, changing the world in ways I can't put into words, having an ineffable impact, being Big Brother, stealing my privacy, inevitable.

Related, respondents often described isolation or reduction in human interaction metaphorically.

* No man is an island but it must seem that way for many people as children overtake their elders in the use of technology.

* Technology could eradicate the need for any human face-to-face contact.

* Technology contributes to isolation.

* We may be losing the personal touch for the sake of convenience.

* I spend time...closeted with my computer.

* The biggest problem is lack of human contact.

* [When I am using the computer] I become unavailable to meet their needs.

* It feels ...kind of like we are caged mice.

* Technology is distancing us from one another.

* I do not want to be the machine in motion.

F. Statement One statement seemed to provide an overview of many of the comments. The respondent described computers as a demi-techno-god-monster. Throughout the data there was an almost zen-like return to discussing technology as both a savior and destroyer--opposing truths which exist simultaneously.

* [There is a] horrendous increase in the information available to the average Joe.

* [Technology is] in some ways allowing us more leisure time and in other ways robbing us ... of simple pleasures.

* In the hands of the experienced technology is a dream-come-true. In the hands of the unexperienced it is a nightmare.

* I have a love/hate relationship with technology.

* Technology is creating both an isolated and more connected society.

* Technology has both improved and burdened our lives.

* I think computers are awesome but way overwhelming.

It was interesting to see the fluency these teachers had with operation oriented metaphors.

Locks up, illegal operation, crashes, cyber-bind, freeze, corrupted disks, server, hard drive, files, back-up disks, error messages, loaded software, software compatibility, internet provider, download, broken site, configuration problems, shut down, system related problems, conflicts, keyboarding, word processing, hardware, programs, stored information, memory, voice activated computers, import, command, cutting and pasting, upgrade, troubleshooting, cyber-spelling, application, clicked, information retrieval, chat, digital video, scanner, graphics, e-commerce, mail merge, database

Although many of these terms have more literal meanings with which respondents would have been familiar they also have technology specific metaphorical meanings. Frequently participants indicated a frustration over the lingo of technology but then displayed a comfortable facility with a fairly large specialize technology vocabulary.


As anticipated, teachers do use many metaphors to describe technology. In a sense computers can be viewed as machines performing mathematical functions. It was a bit surprising the degree to which the respondents attributed vast amounts of power over their lives to the computer. The language that these teachers used was more often than not emotionally charged. And, the double-edged nature of technology was Perhaps the most recurrent theme.

This work is clearly an initial foray into the language teachers use to understand technology. As the authors continue to review these data and to talk more with teachers, other more meaningful categories may appear. A next important step will be to begin to unravel the entailments of many of these metaphors to get a more expanded picture of what these teachers may be expressing about technology. In the future they hope to examine language used in more focused technology based problem solving settings to see how these metaphors affect actual use of computers. Eventually they hope to examine the effects of changing the language teachers use to describe technology.

For the moment the most striking result of this work is that helping teachers to take advantage of the possibilities of technology in curriculum is going to require a substantial amount of attention to the attitudes teachers have about technology. It appears unlikely that letting teachers use a new language arts computer program is going to make much difference if they believe that computers are the demi-techno-god-monster. Attention to that belief is going to have to precede implementation of any technology-based innovation in the classroom.

The authors also believe that this work is a clear demonstration that describing the computer as just a tool misses the enormous affect it has on the way we think and possibly make decisions about our work in schools. If the respondents are to be believed, technology is an entity with capacities, needs, and appetites. We know of few other tools described in those terms.


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Author:Eifler, Karen E.
Publication:Journal of Technology and Teacher Education
Date:Jun 22, 2002
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