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Aurora Institute

Guest blogger Tom Lynch reviews Software Takes Command by Lev Manovich

Education Domain Blog

Author(s): Tom Liam Lynch

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Rethink Instruction

Tom Liam Lynch of Pace University is today’s guest blogger. He reviewed Lev Manovich’s book Software Takes Command.

The more we teach and learn with online technologies, the more we rely on software.  From full immersion in online learning environments to new blended learning models to the discreet use of a web-based tool for a lesson, when we talk about 21st century teaching and learning we are talking about software.  As many states race to the top and implement common standards, it becomes clear that software has been positioned as not just a peripheral add-on in education but necessary.  It is with this in mind that media theorist Lev Manovich’s new book Software Takes Command (Bloomsbury Academics, $29.95) might be picked up and read with deep interest and relevance to those of us in education, from educators to administrators to policy makers and researchers.

Manovich builds a theory that posits software as a producer of culture with a rich history of its own, a field he dubbed “software studies” over a decade ago.  While his groundbreaking work The Language of New Media was written in a style and at a pace often suited for other theorists, Manovich’s new work is written in a way that goes further to make his important perspective accessible to a broader audience.  For instance, to speak of software can be to speak of obscure programming languages.  Manovich disclaims at the work’s commencement that his focus is on the uses of software broadly defined.  He apologizes to programmers and code theorists, unabashedly continuing on his way to convey the importance of the history and culture of software to the rest of us.

While the author does not discuss software’s use in education, his premise that understanding how software affects our creativity and behavior on a massive cultural scale has pressing implications for educators.  At the heart of Manovich’s work is the belief that if software has become a constant mediator of human experience and expression, we must have a deeper and more nuanced understanding of what software is and how its nature impacts the ways we experience the world.  However, because software often works in hidden and subtle ways, we have to create approaches to explicate its very active presence.  It is with this in mind that I have used the term “software-powered technologies” elsewhere when applying Manovich’s ideas to education.  Each time we click to submit, we ourselves submit to the power of software.

Readers of his book have to come prepared with their own experiences in education on call and do the work of asking: How does this concept apply to my own use of software-powered technologies?  His discussion of the role of user interfaces serves as a case in point. User interfaces (UIs) refer to what we see when we interact with software: the design of the screen and web page, where we click, the video and audio that plays, and more.  For Manovich, the UI represents a key space in which various “layers” converge, most notably the worlds of software and human beings.  As he does throughout the book, Manovich traces key concepts through a historical-philosophical study of important figures in computer science.  When Manovich examines the UI of the popular design product Adobe Photoshop, he unpacks how in this ubiquitous product we see both the residue of media tools that came before it (i.e. the use of a paintbrush or text tool) as well as tools and techniques that don’t have a clear ancestor (i.e. the use of infinite layers and filters with thousands of settings).  The new media we encounter today, which are created and powered by software, are increasingly more than mere digital simulations of analog predecessors.  These new media often make unique forms of expression possible and, because software is by its nature infinitely extendable (that is, developers can always tweak algorithms, build new blocks of code, etc.) we are entering a period of history where there is only software.  Borrowing from a question Manovich himself raises, we must ask: What is teaching and learning after software?

Online learning environments provide a useful example.  In an online course, the kinds of learning experiences that software alone can facilitate are limited by the ontology of software.  That is, software must be programmed to accept inputs it will receive.  This means that if I want to offer students a short-answer quiz in my course, I have to not only tell software to accept the key words irony, Ahab, and whale as correct answers but also forgivable misspellings like irny, abah, and whlae.  In a study I conducted recently, I was shocked to see that in an online English course made available to students in a major urban district, students received a prompt that asked them for an open-ended response, and yet no matter what students entered, brilliance or gibberish, they received the same automated feedback from the system.  In these cases, what we see emerge is the tension between the worlds of software and pedagogy.  It takes a great deal of skill for educators to use software for what it is good at while taking responsibility for that which only human beings can do well.  While many of us know about this tension intuitively, we largely lack a shared language and theoretical framing to articulate and examine it.

Manovich’s perspective is especially important as education continues to undergo reforms that have a momentum unlike anything in recent memory.  While the word software doesn’t appear often in speeches by policy makers unless it is to trumpet the importance of creating programs in computer science for students to meet a perceived economic need, it is the case that software itself powers the Obama Administration’s reform agenda behind the scenes.  In K-12 schools, the testing implementation tied to the Common Core Standards relies heavily on computerized assessments.  In addition, the new teacher evaluation metrics being rolled out in many states are fed into district-level databases that link up with state and national ones.  Further, many teacher certification requirements in states that applied for or won Race to the Top money are changing.  In New York State, our teacher candidates have to write lengthy reflections in response to artifacts from their teaching–a lesson plan, a video of their instruction, and a sample of their assessment feedback–all of which are uploaded to software-powered information systems.  Over time, the performance of those teachers will be looped back to their education programs as a sign of the programs’ effectiveness.  Software, software, software.

Currently, too many of us in education lack sophisticated and critical ways to think and talk about the role of software in our lives.  Unlike previous technologies, software can push back into our worlds in unprecedented ways.  In education, the danger is that software will begin to dictate pedagogy rather than the other way around.  Manovich’s book can help us avoid this pitfall.  The greatest value of Software Takes Command is that it helps frame the history and nature of software in a way that makes me more confident in identifying how and when to take command of software myself.

Tom Liam Lynch is a former English teacher and official in New York City Public Schools. He is currently the assistant professor of education technology at Pace University. Visit him at