Journal of Technology Education

Journal of Technology Education

Current Editor: Chris Merrill, cpmerri@ilstu.edu
Previous Editors: Mark Sanders 1989-1997; James LaPorte: 1997-2010

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Volume 3, Number 1
Fall 1991

               Technological Impacts and Determinism in Technology Education:
               Alternate Metaphors from Social Constructivism
                
                                      John R. Pannabecker
                
                              In technology education, teaching about
                         technology and society has usually been em-
                         bedded in the notion of technological impacts
                         on society.  References to the impacts of
                         technology on society are pervasive in the
                         literature of technology education.  The
                         notion of technological impacts is simple to
                         comprehend and has permitted the field to in-
                         terpret technology in the context of society
                         and culture, but it has also contributed to a
                         simplistic and inflexible view of the re-
                         lationship between technology and society.
                              The expression "technological impacts"
                         is a metaphor that implies that technology is
                         a discrete force with a discernible direction
                         and influence.  Metaphors are figures of
                         speech widely used in all disciplines and es-
                         sentially involve the transfer of descriptive
                         terms from primary usage to different, but
                         analogous, situations (e.g., Joerges, 1990;
                         Ortony, 1979; Sacks, 1979; Simpson & Weiner,
                         1989, Vol. IX, p. 676; Winner, 1986).  Tech-
                         nology is cast in a perspective of cause and
                         effect relationships in which technology is
                         the cause of impacts on society.  In technol-
                         ogy education, this perspective has become
                         the dominant metaphor for conceptualizing the
                         relationship between technology and society
                         (e.g., Bame and Cummings, 1988; DeVore, 1980;
                         Hacker & Barden, 1988; Hales & Snyder, 1981;
                         "Resources in Technology," 1989, 1990; Savage
                         & Sterry, 1990; Schwaller, 1989; STANDARDS,
                         1985; Wiens, 1989, 1990; Wright & Smith,
                         1989).  There are, however, other metaphors
                         that emphasize the role of humans in direct-
                         ing technology.  Some of these metaphors may
                         be more appropriate for technology education
                         than technological impacts.
                              The first part of this study examines
                         the implications for technology education of
                         a perspective committed to technological im-
                         pacts.  The metaphor of technological impacts
                         only too easily can become the cornerstone
                         for a philosophy of technological determinism
                         as described in the second part.  The third
                         part introduces the work of social
                         constructivists and several alternate per-
                         spectives for interpreting technology and so-
                         ciety.  Finally, implications for technology
                         education are reviewed including suggestions
                         for modifying current curricula, instruc-
                         tional patterns, and research.
                
                                     TECHNOLOGICAL IMPACTS
                              The term impact is at the heart of the
                         issue because of its primary meaning and
                         connotations.  Impact suggests a striking to-
                         gether, collision, or shock.  (See Simpson &
                         Weiner, 1989, Vol.  VII, pp. 694-695 for ex-
                         tensive illustrations of etymological founda-
                         tion and usage, especially in dynamics and
                         momentum.)  Consequently, technology is
                         viewed as a dynamic force causing collisions
                         or impacts on society.  Interpretations of
                         social change are framed in a mechanistic
                         perspective dominated by technology as pri-
                         mary cause.  The impact of technology on so-
                         ciety is likened to the impact of a hammer on
                         a nail.  This metaphor does not necessarily
                         imply that technology is the only cause of
                         impacts, but it does promote a conceptual
                         framework that emphasizes:  (a) cause and ef-
                         fect relationships with resulting collisions
                         or impacts; (b) a mechanistic world; (c)
                         technology as dominant force; and (d) impor-
                         tance of distinctions between society and
                         technology.  The metaphor of technological
                         impacts is attractive because of its simplic-
                         ity but it is inadequate as a means of teach-
                         ing about the complexity of technology and
                         society.
                              In contrast, one might focus primarily
                         on the people or social groups who develop
                         and direct technology.  For example, instead
                         of focusing on changes in automotive design
                         and production techniques, one would empha-
                         size the interaction of relevant social
                         groups in directing such changes.  This ap-
                         proach shifts the emphasis to social groups
                         with less importance on technology.  In the
                         extreme form, this perspective would be char-
                         acterized by a study of the impacts of soci-
                         ety on technology.  Such a metaphor risks,
                         however, to lead to just the opposite
                         mechanistic perspective in which technology
                         is fully controlled by society.
                              These two perspectives have been con-
                         trasted to identify some of the key problems
                         for technology education in teaching about
                         technology and society.  Alternative perspec-
                         tives need to provide a more satisfying
                         understanding of the technology/society re-
                         lationship.  What if, for example, society
                         and technology were not viewed as distinct
                         categories?  Then the notion of technological
                         impacts on society would dissolve.  What if
                         the term impact were eliminated?  Then the
                         notion of technology and society as opposing
                         forces would need to be reexamined.
                              The mechanical view of technology and
                         its impacts on society reinforces the idea
                         that technical systems have an independent
                         existence, ordered according to materials,
                         processes, and laws that can be fully under-
                         stood from an objective standpoint.  It fol-
                         lows that technology appears to have a mass,
                         velocity, and momentum of its own which can
                         be objectively studied.  Hence, the focus of
                         study and interpretations are subordinate to
                         these principles of technology rather than to
                         individuals and groups who develop the
                         artifacts and knowledge.
                
                                   TECHNOLOGICAL DETERMINISM
                              This particular view of technological
                         impacts often leads to technological
                         determinism of which there are various forms,
                         all related to traditional notions of
                         determinism.  (See Trusted, 1984, for a sys-
                         tematic and historical introduction to the
                         implications of determinism.)  Determinism
                         holds that everything is caused (determined)
                         by a sequence of previous conditions and
                         events, operating with regularity and, in
                         principle, predictability.  In its most ex-
                         treme form, technological determinism main-
                         tains that materials and physical laws are
                         such that technology is determined to develop
                         in a particular way or pattern.  There are
                         variations of determinism and technological
                         determinism, often distinguished by the ex-
                         tent of human intervention considered possi-
                         ble, the importance of technical constraints,
                         the relative autonomy of technology, and
                         questions of the historical development of
                         technology (e.g., Constant 1989; Ellul,
                         1954/1964; Gille, 1978/1986b; Hickman, 1990a,
                         1990b; Ropohl, 1983; Wilkinson, 1964; Winner,
                         1977).
                              Determinism is inherently related to
                         questions of free will and human responsibil-
                         ity.  For example, if everything is deter-
                         mined by previous events and conditions, then
                         humans could have little choice or responsi-
                         bility for what happens.  Such thinking is
                         generally offensive to those who believe
                         firmly in human freedom and liberty.  Simi-
                         larly, technological determinism implies di-
                         minished human choice and responsibility in
                         controlling technology.  When pressed, few
                         people would claim unadulterated determinism
                         and most would assert that humans have some
                         degree of freedom to influence the direction
                         of technology.
                              Nevertheless, the current curriculum and
                         standards of technology education suggest
                         that technology is a phenomenon with a par-
                         ticular form, content, and direction result-
                         ing in impacts that can be studied
                         objectively.  For example, the notion of
                         "universal technical systems" such as commu-
                         nications, construction, manufacturing, and
                         transportation implies a particular form and
                         content.  Similarly, the notion of a uni-
                         versal system such as "input, processes, out-
                         put, and feedback" (Hales & Snyder, 1981)
                         implies a unilinear direction.  (See
                         Schwaller, 1989 and Wiens, 1989 for a dis-
                         cussion of these standards in technology edu-
                         cation.)  Technology is thus viewed as a
                         discrete system with its relationship to so-
                         ciety expressed metaphorically and pedagog-
                         ically in terms of impacts.
                              It may well be that the curricular model
                         in technology education has surpassed its
                         role as a content organizer and become an id-
                         eological model for technology.  In this
                         case, however, the model reinforces techno-
                         logical determinism because of its fixed
                         form, content, sequential nature, and result-
                         ing impacts.  The more established the model
                         becomes, the more it is taken for granted as
                         THE form and content of technology.  The ad-
                         dition of another category such as
                         biotechnology only expands the breadth with
                         little effect on the ideology unless it
                         serves to reopen the issue of human inter-
                         action in technology and society.
                              The problematic nature of the relation-
                         ship between social groups and technology has
                         not received adequate attention.  Technology
                         education models establish a firm distinction
                         between the knowers (people) and the known
                         (technology) by emulating the natural sci-
                         ences, where the knowers are the scientists
                         and the known is the natural world.  This
                         traditional view of the natural sciences has
                         also come under criticism, although science
                         as taught in schools has not yet changed sig-
                         nificantly (e.g., Engelhardt & Caplan, 1987;
                         Suppe, 1977; Ziman, 1978).  Note that empha-
                         sizing the objective knower is especially
                         strong in industrial technology programs, and
                         its influence on technology education is ex-
                         cessive.
                              It can be argued that a comprehensive
                         study of technology must emphasize that the
                         knower or student of technology is simultane-
                         ously the author of technology.  In fact,
                         both scientists and technologists study AND
                         construct science and technology, thus form-
                         ing a complex relationship between knowers
                         and the known.  There is not necessarily a
                         unilinear cause and effect sequence of tech-
                         nology followed by impacts as in the case of
                         two colliding inanimate entities.  (See Pinch
                         & Bijker, 1987, p. 22, Ellul, 1977/1980, p.
                         4, and Pacey, 1983 for critiques of linear-
                         ity.)  There are, of course, specific phenom-
                         ena such as the destruction of the ozone
                         layer or traffic accidents, but their trau-
                         matic nature and sensationalist media con-
                         verge to emphasize the ideology of impacts.
                         Even more pervasive, however, are the
                         humdrum, daily interactions of people with
                         other people, artifacts, processes, and know-
                         ledge that gradually orient technological
                         change.
                              What then are the alternatives?  How can
                         the notion of technological impacts be elimi-
                         nated while retaining the importance of the
                         social and cultural context?  What ap-
                         proaches, models, or systems avoid the philo-
                         sophical problems of determinism?  How can
                         philosophical metaphors be more fully inte-
                         grated with mission and curriculum?  Lest
                         these questions be shrugged off as minor con-
                         cerns, virtually half of the 11 most commonly
                         noted weaknesses in NCATE technology educa-
                         tion program evaluations as noted by Wiens
                         (1989, pp. 3-4) are related to the issues
                         raised in this study.  These items include:
                         (a) the four curriculum organizers, (b) tech-
                         nological systems, (c)
                         socio/cultural/environmental impacts, (d)
                         multicultural and global perspectives, (e)
                         ethics and values, and (f) excessive influ-
                         ence of technical programs.
                
                                    TECHNOLOGY AND SOCIETY
                              Abandoning the emphasis on impacts im-
                         plies a shift away from traumatic events and
                         the rigidity of cause and effect sequences
                         typical of technological determinism.  Simi-
                         larly, abandoning universal systems implies
                         greater flexibility in conceptualizing tech-
                         nology and change.
                              Instead of focusing on the trauma of im-
                         pacts, one can focus on the day-to-day
                         decision-making of human beings in any tech-
                         nological environment.  In addition to pre-
                         senting linear cause-and-effect sequences
                         such as input-process-output-feedback, one
                         can emphasize the multi-directional inter-
                         action of all groups affecting technological
                         decisions.  Instead of emphasizing
                         mechanistic metaphors of change, one can ex-
                         amine the social conflicts, compromises, suc-
                         cesses, and failures of the technological
                         enterprise.  Rather than assuming universal
                         systems, one acknowledges alternate systems
                         and models.
                              Thus far, the issues raised in this
                         study have been organized and described in
                         relation to dominant trends in technology ed-
                         ucation.  The most concise yet comprehensive
                         recent source on alternate concepts and mod-
                         els is a volume of international scope and
                         authorship edited by Bijker, Hughes, and
                         Pinch (1987) called THE SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION
                         OF TECHNOLOGICAL SYSTEMS.  This work includes
                         topics ranging from domestic technology to
                         biotechnology, and from maritime navigation
                         systems to expert systems.  It is a synthesis
                         of recent research and is readily accessible.
                         For these reasons, it is used here as a major
                         source of examples, although the reader is
                         encouraged to consult the extensive bibli-
                         ography included in the book.  Despite the
                         variety of topics and interpretive models in
                         this volume, the approaches converge in three
                         important ways:  (a) emphasis on groups
                         rather than individual inventors; (b) oppo-
                         sition to technological determinism; and (c)
                         deemphasis on technical, social, economic,
                         and political distinctions (Bijker et al.,
                         1987, p. 3).
                              The latter issue seems to be the major
                         point of contention between social
                         constructivism and its critics.  Many histo-
                         rians, for example, do not necessarily empha-
                         size individual inventors or adopt
                         deterministic approaches but do maintain
                         clear distinctions among technical, social,
                         political, and economic factors.  In so do-
                         ing, they avoid one of the major weaknesses
                         of some social constructivists who neglect
                         the material and structural constraints of
                         technology (e.g., Cutcliffe & Post, 1989;
                         Hounshell, 1984).  Other perspectives also
                         question technological determinism and need
                         to be considered along with social
                         constructivism in developing research in
                         technology education (e.g., Bernard & Pelto,
                         1987,/a>; Chubin, 1990; Durbin & Rapp, 1983;
                         Rothschild, 1988).
                              Bijker et al. (1987, p. 4) have at-
                         tempted to achieve a degree of simplicity by
                         delineating three methodological categories:
                         (a) social constructivism, (b) systems meta-
                         phors, and (c) actor networks, all of which
                         are critical to the continuing development of
                         technology education.  In the interests of
                         simplicity, these three expressions are used
                         as headings in the following analysis, al-
                         though all three categories are part of the
                         broad social constructivist research empha-
                         sis.  In addition, critiques and supplemen-
                         tary references are included to promote
                         integration in technology education programs.
                
                         SOCIAL CONSTRUCTIVISM
                              In general, social constructivists em-
                         phasize the centrality of "relevant social
                         groups" and "interpretive flexibility" in
                         technological artifacts and change.  They
                         maintain that there is really more flexibil-
                         ity in the design of artifacts than technical
                         and linear analyses would suggest.  In par-
                         ticular, diverse social groups all contribute
                         their own values and concerns to the design
                         process.  For example, Pinch and Bijker
                         (1987) focus on the social groups most rele-
                         vant to the design and evolution of the bicy-
                         cle from the high-wheeler to the safety
                         bicycle.  They show how, in the late 19th
                         century, diverse groups interacted through
                         conflict, compromise, and agreement.  The
                         concerns of women cyclists (dress, social
                         disapproval), young men (macho image), the
                         elderly (safety), sports cyclists (speed),
                         manufacturers (economics), and technologists
                         (materials, processes, traditions) finally
                         resulted in the stabilization of the safety
                         bicycle design.  Bicycle design could have
                         gone in different directions depending upon
                         varying degrees of influence or power of the
                         relevant social groups.  Pinch and Bijker
                         provide a simple yet effective multi-
                         directional graphic model as an alternative
                         to linear process models.  Their model inte-
                         grates technological artifacts, social
                         groups, problems, and solutions.
                              In contrast to this approach, technology
                         education usually emphasizes the technical
                         processes of change FOLLOWED by an examina-
                         tion of their impacts on society.  Attention
                         is focused on the effects or impacts of the
                         successful artifact, often after it has been
                         established.  Such models are based on a dis-
                         continuous, sequential, and success-oriented
                         view of production and social assessment.
                         How then can one integrate the social
                         constructivist approach with technology edu-
                         cation as an educational process?
                              To demonstrate a social constructivist
                         approach, students could be divided into
                         groups representing relevant social groups
                         associated with a given technology or its en-
                         vironment.  They would then develop competing
                         designs based on the groups' dominant values
                         or concerns (as found through interviews with
                         relevant social groups).  The competing de-
                         signs would then be debated in large group
                         sessions.  Naturally, such a process would
                         not replicate social behavior and its com-
                         plexity but would emphasize how widely dif-
                         ferent variables, conflict, resolution,
                         success, and failure interact in the design
                         and the development of technology.
                              Perhaps the best-known example in tech-
                         nology education of a form of social
                         constructivism is found in manufacturing
                         classes organized around a student corpo-
                         ration.  The importance of relevant social
                         groups, the multidirectional nature of de-
                         sign, and social conflict with varying de-
                         grees of power and influence would need to be
                         emphasized, however, to achieve an under-
                         standing of the social constructivist ap-
                         proach.  Nevertheless, such a shift in
                         emphasis should meet technology education
                         standards and, at the same time, eliminate
                         the limitations of the metaphor of technolog-
                         ical impacts.
                
                         SYSTEMS METAPHORS
                              Systems metaphors, as presented by
                         Bijker et al. (1987), stem largely from the
                         work of Hughes (1983), a historian of tech-
                         nology best known for his systemic approach
                         to analyzing the development of
                         electrification networks in Western society.
                         In brief, Hughes examines technological
                         change as a system of interrelated factors in
                         the context of artifacts, institutions, and
                         their environment.  Two key concepts called
                         "reverse salients" and "critical problems"
                         are used to identify and analyze the dynamics
                         of innovative energy in technological sys-
                         tems.  Hughes' analysis could find wide ap-
                         plications in technology education, though
                         most likely at the graduate level.  His sys-
                         tems approach does not have the graphic and
                         conceptual simplicity of Pinch and Bijker
                         (1987), but his work is essential for any re-
                         searcher on systems approaches for technology
                         education.  Hughes' interests in innovation
                         and development coincide with the emphasis
                         often given to these aspects of technology
                         education programs.
                              The notion of systems metaphors is, how-
                         ever, much broader than Hughes' approach, for
                         example, as illustrated by Gille (1978/1986a)
                         and Ropohl (1983).  Gille began his work on
                         the history of technology and systems prior
                         to Hughes.  His most comprehensive work on
                         technology (1978/1986a) contains detailed
                         graphic descriptions of technical systems for
                         different historical periods.  The scope of
                         his topics is much broader than Hughes'.  In
                         brief, Gille seeks to understand the interre-
                         lationships among elements in entire techni-
                         cal systems of a particular country or
                         Western civilization and how they changed
                         over the centuries.  To do so, he shows how
                         mutations of subsystems occurred (e.g., iron
                         production or transportation), thus stimulat-
                         ing changes, imbalance, and eventually, a new
                         technical system.  Although Gille focuses
                         more on the internal dynamics of technolog-
                         ical systems, he is sensitive to the highly
                         complex interaction of society and technol-
                         ogy.  While Hughes presents a very detailed
                         analysis of the growth of electrification
                         systems, including contrasting styles in the
                         United States, England, and Germany, Gille
                         tries to integrate major subsystems and
                         shifts in the systems as they changed.  (For
                         a brief review by Hughes of Gille's systems
                         approach, see Hughes, 1988.)
                              A third approach to technological sys-
                         tems is illustrated by Ropohl (1983), which
                         has the additional advantage of being pre-
                         sented as part of a critique of technological
                         determinism.  Ropohl's "action system" con-
                         sists of three subsystems:  (a) goal-setting;
                         (b) information processing; and (c) exe-
                         cution.  In order to include social concerns,
                         Ropohl assumes several levels of action sys-
                         tems:  (a) micro-level of individuals; (b)
                         meso-level of organizations; and (c) macro-
                         level of national society (and eventually a
                         fourth level of world society).  The meso-
                         level includes the production of technolog-
                         ical knowledge and technical goods and the
                         application of technical goods.  Because of
                         its sequential and matrix graphic form,
                         Ropohl's system has some conceptual similari-
                         ties with matrices used in technology educa-
                         tion, although the subsystem categories are
                         very different.  For Ropohl, technological
                         determinism does apply to the systemic qual-
                         ity of technical development as perceived by
                         the individual but not to the controllability
                         of technical development.
                              Most systems metaphors reflect an empha-
                         sis on technical process and development with
                         variable degrees of integration of social
                         factors.  Such systems tend to promote a mit-
                         igated form of determinism in which technical
                         systems have an inherent systemic quality,
                         though allowing for a certain degree of human
                         choice (e.g., Ellul, 1977/1980).  Differences
                         in systems approaches suggest differences in
                         intent, philosophy, scope, and disciplinary
                         background of their authors.
                
                         ACTOR NETWORKS
                              Actor networks are characterized by the
                         elimination of distinctions between techni-
                         cal, social, political, and economic factors,
                         even to the point of "breaking down the dis-
                         tinctions between human actors and natural
                         phenomena" (Bijker et al., 1987, p. 4).
                         Technologists build networks but these net-
                         works are not viewed as systems of discrete,
                         well-defined elements connected in ways that
                         are always predictable.  Uncontrollable fac-
                         tors, chance, and accidents are too pervasive
                         in the concept of networks to justify the
                         term "system."
                              For example, Callon (1987) casts engi-
                         neers in the role of sociologists as they
                         built networks to introduce the electric car
                         in France during the 1970s.  Elements are
                         heterogeneous, ranging from electrons,
                         electrodes, and lead batteries to auto man-
                         ufacturers, governmental offices, and noise
                         pollution, all combined in the actor network.
                         Law (1987) also uses the concept of actor
                         networks, but to show how the Portuguese were
                         able to integrate people, ocean currents,
                         winds, ships, money, knowledge, and a multi-
                         tude of other elements to round Cape Bojador
                         and thus sail around Africa to India by the
                         15th century.  Cowan (1987) examines the de-
                         velopment of domestic heating and cooling
                         systems from an actor network perspective;
                         however, she emphasizes the importance of
                         consumers in influencing technological
                         change.  The simplicity of her graphic illus-
                         trations are comparable to those of Pinch and
                         Bijker (1987) and can be easily adapted in
                         technology education to teach about the actor
                         networks approach.
                              A major advantage of the actor networks
                         approach is the elimination of arbitrary dis-
                         tinctions and categories that often oversim-
                         plify technological complexity and reinforce
                         disciplinary boundaries.  Actor networks can
                         be used to critique systems approaches which
                         are based on the assumption that the system
                         can be distinguished from its larger environ-
                         ment.  On the other hand, actor networks may
                         tend to reflect more explicitly the preoccup-
                         ations of the researcher.  Actor networks are
                         very effective in analyzing the role of con-
                         troversy and conflict in the development of
                         technology, thus shifting the emphasis away
                         from a preoccupation with technology as suc-
                         cess.
                
                             IMPLICATIONS FOR TECHNOLOGY EDUCATION
                              The expression technological impacts
                         needs to be abandoned as the primary metaphor
                         for conceptualizing relationships between
                         technology and society.  These relationships
                         are too complex to be understood solely as a
                         set of causes and effects in which technology
                         is the source of the causes and society the
                         context of impacts.  The immediate task is
                         not, however, to find a single alternate met-
                         aphor but to recognize that there are differ-
                         ent ways of approaching the study of
                         technology and society.  This diversity
                         should be reflected in technology education
                         programs, standards, and in the evaluation of
                         programs.  The current state of research and
                         knowledge of the issues demand flexibility in
                         the interpretation of the current technology
                         education standards that address technology
                         and society.
                              Nevertheless, flexibility of interpreta-
                         tion should not be construed to mean lack of
                         rigor or "anything goes." Technology educa-
                         tion has a mission with which its instruc-
                         tional and conceptual metaphors need to be
                         integrated.  For example, the emphasis on
                         technology education for all students implies
                         that women as well as men, non-experts and
                         experts, and persons from all disciplines
                         take an active part in decision-making.  This
                         inclusivity suggests the need for curricular
                         research and critiques of technology assess-
                         ment models, gender bias in technology, and
                         the distribution of power (e.g., Carpenter,
                         1983; Noble, 1984; Rothschild, 1988).
                              Furthermore, technology education empha-
                         sizes the importance of DOING technology as a
                         continuous and necessary part of the learning
                         process.  And it is in doing technology that
                         students socially construct technology.  Stu-
                         dents direct, order, and influence technology
                         and in so doing, belie the most extreme forms
                         of technological determinism.  Even a brief
                         observation of this learning process demon-
                         strates the existence of the indeterminant
                         and aleatoric, laziness and concentration,
                         social distribution and acquisition of power,
                         failures and marginal successes typical of
                         all social processes.
                              Studying impacts places the emphasis on
                         a restricted and traumatic point in a se-
                         quence, in a sense, after the fact.  Studying
                         the social construction of technology places
                         greater emphasis on the learning process of
                         doing technology.  Social constructivism, in-
                         cluding systems metaphors and actor networks,
                         as well as other models (e.g., historical and
                         philosophical analyses) provide frameworks
                         for conscious reflection and extend our
                         understanding of technological complexity.
                
                
                         ----------------
                         John R. Pannabecker is Professor, Department
                         of Technology, McPherson College, McPherson,
                         Kansas.  The author thanks Rodney Frey and
                         JTE reviewers for comments on an earlier
                         draft.
                
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               Journal of Technology Education   Volume 3, Number 1       Fall 1991