Computers in school and the formation of social values

Jan Holmqvist


In Sweden, as in the rest of the industrialized world, IT is becoming an increasingly important part of everyday life. Also in school, IT is gradually growing in importance, soon to be regarded as an integrated tool in the teaching process. There is today research which indicates positive effects of using IT, with regard to the students school-results. For example, students that are disabled in different ways, can be helped and new kind of information, previously not possible to reach, is available through the Internet.

What should be required of IT in order for it to be called good for school was discussed by the author of this abstract in a paper at the International Computer Ethics Conference at the University of Linköping, 1997. The conclusion was that computers must have an instrumental goodness concerning the knowledge requirements in the curriculum and must also be able to be seen as beneficial for men.

At the same time, the Swedish curriculum both for the Compulsory Basic School and the Upper Secondary School, states that school has to teach, or implement, certain social values. The introductions to the two curriculums state (they are identical in this passage):

The sanctity of human life, the freedom and integrity of the individual, all human beings equal value, equality between men and women and solidarity with the weak and needing are values which school must embody and transfer. In accordance with the ethic coming from Christian tradition and western humanism, this is achieved by the upbringing of the individual to a sense of justice, generosity, tolerance and responsibility.

A question, so far not discussed very much in Sweden, is how IT affects school’s ability to reach the goals concerning the implementation of the social values of the curriculum. It is shown, for example by Winner (1986) and Johnson (1997) that technology carries certain values. Winner says for example that technical systems can affect social relations. He also says that certain technical systems require or are strongly compatible with certain kind of values (in his case political relationships). Johnson , talks about three ways in which values can be said to be embedded in technology. They are embedded in a:

  1. Moral / Metaphysical meaning
  2. Material meaning
  3. Symbolic / Expressive meaning

These theories imply that technology in itself is not value-neutral. It is therefore interesting to examine in what way IT can be said to affect the realization of social values in school.

The purpose of this paper can, with reference to the background given, be stated as follows:

In what way does IT affect, positively or negatively, school’s ability to reach its objectives concerning the implementation of certain social values.

The question will be partly answered by an examination of one of these values in the curriculum, and that is freedom. The examination of the notion of freedom will be carried out in the following way. First, there will be a philosophical study of the notion, it’s meaning and how it can be justified from a deontological and/or teleological position. Secondly, there will be a study of how the notion of freedom is used in the Swedish curriculums (the present, but also some of the historical ones from the 1940th’s and forward). Thirdly, there will be a discussion of how IT can be said to affect the implementation of freedom in school. In this discussion both positive and negative affects will be brought up. The empirical data will be taken from literature about IT and how it affects society in general and especially education on different levels and in different subjects. Winner and Johnson’s definition of how values can be embedded in technology will also be used. Finally, the paper will discuss how and from what position freedom can be realized in the actual setting of schools in Sweden, with IT as an integrated tool in everyday school-life.