Kinasevych (2014). Time Perception, Cultural Constructs Of Time, And Their Effects On Learning Through Educational Technologies.

Kinasevych, O. (2014, December 2). Time Perception, Cultural Constructs Of Time, And Their Effects On Learning Through Educational Technologies. Unpublished manuscript, Winnipeg, Canada.


This brief essay surveys existing research related to time and learning through educational technologies. In particular, the essay investigates the human perception of time, cultural constructs of time in language and behaviour, the effects of time on learning, and the interactions between time-constructs, the psychology of time, and educational technologies. Time is identified first as a phenomenon experienced subjectively within human consciousness and second as an external, cultural construct. Perceptions of time as well as the imposition of cultural constructs can have significant impacts on human affective responses, cognition, and behaviour. Because learning aptitude is quantified through measures of time, time and learning are crucially linked. This essay makes a critical examination of technology as an instrument of power and social control. This essay goes on to connect these observations to their effects at the nexus of learning and educational technologies. Finally, the essay considers how critical pedagogy might be applied to educational practices involving technology and time.


The practices of education require the careful, evidence-based consideration of the tools and processes that would be incorporated into those practices. Educational technologies ought not to be exempt from such scrutiny. Indeed, the sophistication of advanced technological tools and processes should indicate that, perhaps, they should command more scrupulous analysis.

To that end, this essay will consider existing research in the human experience of time and its interactions with educational technology. Learning has been acknowledged as a developmental enterprise of language, social interaction, and culture (Vygotsky, 1978). Time, although an individual, subjective experience, is shared through social discourse and is constructed into a cultural artifact (Hall, 1959). Technology, too, is seen as a social exercise and, as such, is imbued with the cultural meanings of the individuals making use of it (Selwyn, 2011; Wajcman, 2008). Therefore, what effect is there on the learning process when the human psychology of time meets educational technology? This question, then, is at the heart of this essay, along with some potential resolutions.

Education either functions as an instrument that is used to facilitate the integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes “the practice of freedom,” the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world (Shaull, 2000, p. 34).

As reflected in the above quote, this essay takes the position that the educational process must serve the sole interests of learners. In cases discussed later, certain imperatives emanating from dominant social entities have the effect of steering the educational process toward their own interests, subordinating learners into objects of exploitation, and begrudging learners the principal, transformative values of the learning enterprise. The stance of this essay is to challenge these dominant, external interests and in doing so restore the primacy of learners in their own learning. Any external diversion of the educational process toward secondary interests—in the form of the manipulation of time or in the design of educational technology—becomes subject to scrutiny and remediation, as it does in this essay (Freire, 2000).

Time as subjective experience and cultural construct

What are some of the mechanisms that modulate the human experience of time? What modes of time perception have been identified in the literature? How are these experiences articulated into social discourse and human activity? This section of the essay will discuss how the perception of time enters human consciousness and some of the possible biological mechanisms involved. It will examine some of the various ways that perceptions of time are made manifest within human experience. It will then consider the cultural constructs of time that are used to represent these experiences within the social sphere.

Consciousness and biology

The subjective experience of time arises out of consciousness. An individual’s attention allows these experiences to enter awareness and memory. Csikszentmihalyi articulates the following model of human consciousness:

Consciousness is the complex system that has evolved in humans for selecting information,… processing it, and storing it. Information appears in consciousness through the selective investment of attention. Once attended to, information enters awareness…. We can think of subjective experience as the content of consciousness (2014, p. 242).

So, through this “selective investment of attention” (Csikszentmihalyi, 2014, p. 242), the perception of time enters awareness to varying degrees, depending on the degree of attention allotted to it.

What biological basis is there for human perception of time? If time can be understood as being manifested through cognitive processes such as attention and consciousness, researchers can look to mechanisms that moderate these functions. Research in this area points to the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), “a cluster of cells at the base of the brain… as the primary internal clock of the human body” (Huebener, 2012, pp. 53–54). This biological basis suggests a connection of the experiences of time in their many forms to physiological, psychological, and developmental events within the human organism.

Time as a subjective phenomenon

As a phenomenon experienced within the individual, time perception is understood to be subjective with the attendant subjective variation that might occur within that experience. Some of the characteristics of time within human perception have been identified as “change and continuity…, limits and choices (the sense that social action involves choosing between one task or another), [and] the pacing of time, or ‘tempo.’” (Roxburgh, 2004, p. 119). Tempo is discussed in the context of this essay as the apparent duration of passing time. Experiences of duration have been described as having varying qualities. Subjectively variant experiences of duration, influenced by individual psychological events, can be experienced in the moment as well as in retrospect (Levine, 1997). Individuals recalling or experiencing the same moment in time may describe strikingly different subjective durations.

Experiences of longer apparent duration, where time may appear to move slowly, are reported when a greater number of events have occurred, dominating the individual’s attention. Longer apparent duration also occurs when a passage of time is being actively observed. Individuals report longer subjective durations when feeling anxious or while awaiting the occurrence of an anticipated event, which is related to feelings of urgency (Friedman, 1990; Hall, 1959). Long durations can be felt as oppressive and are often associated with boredom. By failing to engage an individual’s attention at an “optimal arousal level” (Levine, 1997, p. 36), long subjective durations demand additional expenditures of effort on the part of individuals as they attempt to train their attention to an event in which they have minimal interest.

Conversely, experiences evoking shorter subjective time durations—where time may be described as “flying”—tend to occur during events that attract the individual’s interest (Friedman, 1990, p. 1). Short durations are perceived when events are pleasurable or if positive progress is being made, as evidenced in Meade’s experiments with factory workers (1960). In these experiments, Meade found affective changes, in the form of improved morale, and behavioural changes, in the form of increased productivity, when visual cues were provided as to progress, when clear end-points to the tasks were established, or when some other motivation or incentive was provided. These interventions were found to alter perceived time duration on the part of the factory workers (Levine, 1997; Meade, 1960).

A subjective phenomenon referred to as “flow” occurs when an equilibrium of time pressure activates engagement, motivation, and the perception that time is passing rapidly (Levine, 1997, p. 47). Csikszentmihalyi has defined flow as:

a subjective state that people report when they are completely involved in something to the point of forgetting time, fatigue, and everything else but the activity itself…. Attention is fully invested in the task at hand, and the person functions at his or her fullest capacity (2014, p. 230).

So, in flow the passage of time does not enter into the individual’s attention. Rather, the individual’s attention and energy become invested in the given activity. The experience of an abbreviated subjective duration becomes “intrinsically” pleasurable and rewarding, so much so that “the end goal is just an excuse for the process” (Csikszentmihalyi, 2014, p. 240). It is the individual’s perception that determines whether or not—and the degree to which—flow occurs. Flow arises when the subjective level of challenge approximates the subjective level of individual skill. The equilibrium between these subjectively perceived traits determines the degree and quality of flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 2014).

Levine described the experiences of a violinist during rehearsals in an example that illustrates how flow can be used to improve cognition and performance. While practicing, the violinist encountered subjective distortion of an “expanded” time duration (1997, p. 35). This expanded duration allowed the musician to attend to a larger number of discrete observations, accommodating them into memory, and it contributed to greater dexterity and attention to technique during the musical performance. Csikszentmihalyi includes artistic activities—such as musical performance—as ones in which flow often occurs, as well as sports, games, scientific inquiry, creative pursuits, and aesthetic experiences (2014).

In addition to Csikszentmihalyi’s research, there are studies that acknowledge the biological foundation of the flow phenomenon. Sometimes these phenomena are referred to as subjective time dilation.[1] Subjective time dilation has been examined by neurologists using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) equipment while observing brain activity related to flow. Visual-spatial scientists have identified flow and time dilation phenomena in their own research in eye movement and spatial perception (New & Scholl, 2009; van Wassenhove, Wittmann, Craig, & Paulus, 2011). Just as there are biological foundations to overall perceptions of time, this research suggests that there are common neurological and physiological underpinnings to human time perception in the context of time dilation and flow.

Because time perception is subjective, factors that arise within individuals can affect perceptions of time; not everyone perceives time in the same way. Subjective factors include such intra-individual differences as psychological makeup, for example, or health. External factors such as socio-economic factors come into play, as well. Furthermore, there exist reciprocal effects between time perception and health, both physical and mental (Friedman, 1990). Cultural constructs of time, discussed next, are also seen to have health effects when they conflict with individual time perceptions or cultural expectations.

Cultural constructs of time

Although time is perceived at a subjective level, the experiences of time are articulated into language for the purpose of social discourse. In the process of meaning-making, cultural constructs of time are fabricated through continuous social negotiation. Language is a key medium in the representation of these time-constructs. Time-constructs, as cultural forms, are manipulated according to social requisites (Friedman, 1990; Fulmer, Crosby, & Gelfand, 2014; Huebener, 2012). Hall identifies temporality as one of the “primary message systems” in human culture (1959, p. 61). The time-constructs that arise from culture have been categorized in a number of ways. Examples of the cultural categories of time include “1) polychronicity and monochronicity, 2) past, present, and future orientation, 3) event time and clock time, 4) pace of life, and 5) time as cultural metaphor” (Fulmer et al., 2014, p. 54). Event-time and clock-time, as expressed in this essay, refer to the “subjective and situational” experience of time in the case of event-time, and to a relatively more “objective” and “precise” view of time in the case of clock-time (Fulmer et al., 2014, pp. 55–56; Huebener, 2012; Levine, 1997; Parrish & Linder-VanBerschot, 2010; Suzuki & Nemoto, 2012).

Despite their apparent fluidity, cultural notions of time, as cultural artifacts, are fixed firmly within their social conventions. While cultural expressions are found to be difficult to impose on those outside a given cultural context, within a cultural group these expressions are used to anchor discourses and understandings of time so that conceptual orientations can be maintained. (Friedman, 1990; Huebener, 2012). Appointments can be kept, rituals observed, and cycles of time respected.

In a similar vein, cultural forms, such as metaphors, are likely to constrain the representations through which time-constructs are made manifest. That is, when expressing concepts of time cultures may favour certain metaphors—expressions and characterizations—over others. For example, linguistic constructs may favour the description of time duration as spatial distances or, instead, as quantities (Fulmer et al., 2014). North American culture tends to favour the modelling of time using spatial modes of description, invoking space and distance (Friedman, 1990). The linguistic differentiation of time-constructs does not simply reflect itself in dialogue but also in how activities are enacted. Thus, clock-time conceptions tend to favour productivity and the meeting of deadlines. By contrast, event-time conceptions show a preference for satisfactory outcomes of a given quality and the importance of social relationships (Fulmer et al., 2014; Levine, 1997).

In addition to its spatial characterization of time, Western culture characterizes time as having value and tangibility such that it can be “bought, sold, saved, spent, wasted, lost, made up, and measured” (Hall, 1959, p. 171). These fabricated trammels of time, together with Western values that stress productivity and efficiency, make the “waste” of time—such as when time is not spent “producing nor consuming” (Johnson, 1978, p. 203)—seem like “a grave offence” against society (Rose, 2013, p. 6). Western cultural ideals of progress are seen “to disparage the past and fetishize the future” (Huebener, 2012, p. 12). The demands of these time-constructs on individuals in Western societies are palpable as the “manufactured urgencies of everyday life” (Rose, 2013, p. 6). Instead of enjoying a “time surplus,” individuals experience a chronic “time famine” (Johnson, 1978, p. 203; Levine, 1997; Wajcman, 2008). This effect is particularly evident in wide swaths of North American society and is seen to have negative ramifications on individual health (Hall, 1959; Roxburgh, 2004).

In contrast to Western cultural constructs of time, and particularly the predominant North American ones, the time-constructs of North American aboriginal people provide examples of alternate time characterizations and expressions. Alfred Irving Hallowell, an American-educated anthropologist, recorded his experiences with the Plains Ojibwe people in Manitoba, Canada, keenly noting how time was represented within their daily lives (1937). He described the use of solar and lunar cycles, movements of the stars, and seasonal changes for determining when tasks or events should occur. There were “no set times for daily activities”; instead “rhythm [was] elastic in the extreme and except when motivated by hunger or necessity they [were] dictated to a large degree by external circumstances and by whim” (1937, p. 656). People engaged in activities when they were “ready” (1937, p. 657). Such rhythms fit the notion of event-time rather than that of clock-time. Cyclic intervals were the preferred articulations of time, rather than those of linear vectors. In evaluating his own cultural preconceptions of time in the context of the Ojibwe community’s practices of time, Hallowell reported profound internal conflicts in his attempts to resolve the differences that he perceived (1937).

As discussed earlier, time-constructs reflect the values and ideologies of their cultures of origin. Cultural expressions of time can be used as a form of “dominance and control” (Huebener, 2012, p. 32) by a prevailing culture. The meaning of temporal constructs such as “‘first,’ ‘new,’ ‘original,’ ‘now,’ and ‘long-term’” (Huebener, 2012, p. 32) may be commandeered by the prevailing culture in a form of a “colonization of time” (Wajcman, 2008, p. 68) or “cultural invasion” (Freire, 2000, p. 152). Expressions and practices of time differing from those of a dominant culture may be mistaken as psychologically, developmentally, or in other ways deficient or inferior (Agranovich, Panter, Puente, & Touradji, 2011). A dominant Western culture should not be seen as immune from harbouring such tendencies (Dyson, 2010; Hogan, 2005). Considering the differences between North American aboriginal peoples’ time conceptions and those of the later North American settlers, it could well be expected that considerable friction might occur and, in particular, that dominant cultures would likely impose themselves on the subordinated ones.

Glass - 1890-(78-79)
Figure 1: Pages from an English language lesson book used in Canadian Indian residential schools in the late nineteenth century. The lesson shown is about time-constructs of the dominant Anglophone culture. The text is in English with Cree syllabic translation on the facing page. From Primer and language lessons in English and Cree (pp. 78-79) by E. B. Glass and J. McDougall, 1890, Toronto: W. Briggs. In the public domain.

Pages from an English language lesson book, shown in Figure 1, provide an illustration of the relationship of the dominant Anglophone culture to the subordinated Cree culture in Canada in the late nineteenth century. The lesson depicted addresses dominant Anglophone time-constructs, which appear here to take precedence over any traditional time representations of the Cree people. Books such as this one were in use at Canadian Indian residential schools that aboriginal children were forced to attend beginning in the late nineteenth century until the late twentieth century (Glass & McDougall, 1890; Kanu, 2006; Rand, 2011).

So far, this essay has connected the human psychology of time to its basis in human biology. From there, the subjective nature of time perception was discussed with a focus on perceived duration and the phenomenon of flow. The essay then discussed cultural expressions of time, their significance, how they characterize time in some Western and non-Western cultures, and how these may conflict. The next section will examine how the psychology of time interacts with learning.

The effects of time on learning

What does time have to do with learning? In what ways can time be used to enhance learning? Are there instances in which aspects of time can obstruct learning? This section will consider the theoretical underpinnings that define time as a component of learning, how learning may be enhanced through temporal interventions, and what impediments may be introduced when time is not carefully considered in the learning process.

Time defines learning aptitude

Learning can be understood as the incremental, progressive change that occurs between human developmental states. By such a definition, the developmental states are separated by an interval of time during which developmental growth occurs. Thus, such intervals of time are fundamental to the changes in developmental state that may accrue: time is, therefore, a “central variable” in the learning process (Bloom, 1974, p. 683). Aptitude, sometimes thought of as the capacity for learning, can be defined as the amount of time a learner would require to accomplish a given learning task and reach a “criterion level of achievement” (Bloom, 1968, 1974, p. 683). Where certain learning is required as a prerequisite for subsequent learning, mastery at the criterion level may only be attained after a prolonged period of time (Bloom, 1974). Whatever the case may be, learners must commit a certain amount of time, particular to their individual needs, to the task of learning (Carroll, 1985). All learners differ in the quantity of time they need to reach a criterion level of mastery (Bloom, 1974, p. 683). This, then, is their learning aptitude. Furthermore, Carroll stresses that:

it should be understood that “spending time” means _actually spending time on the act of learning_. “Time” is therefore not “elapsed time” but the time during which the person is oriented to the learning task and actively engaged in learning (Carroll, 1985, p. 21).

Therefore, when learners persist through a period of time and dedicate that time to the task of learning they are likely to succeed in that task. This notion is sometimes referred to as “time on task” (Bloom, 1974, p. 685). Carroll and Bloom both emphasize that “actually spending time” learning requires an investment of attention (Bloom, 1974; Carroll, 1985, p. 21). The quality of the attention that is expended would affect the learner’s prospects for success. Learners must attempt to regulate their attention in the face of competing demands for that attention. Csikszentmihalyi acknowledges the role of attention in development and learning when he states that “whatever occupies attention shapes experience and, through it, consciousness, [and] the self” (2014, p. 257). Attention, then, serves to establish the quality of the learning engagement.

Affective aspects of time in learning

When learners have adequate time to partake in learning tasks such that each is able to satisfactorily complete the learning goals, these learners experience improved motivation, perseverance, confidence, and engagement (Bloom, 1968, 1974; Carroll, 1985). Learner experience and perception of time have been found to have an impact on individual cognition and motivation (Fulmer et al., 2014). In related research, Csikszentmihalyi points to the affective benefits of flow in the context of learning. The flow experience leads to increased engagement and persistence in learning, especially when it occurs at a level of challenge that “fosters the growth of skills over time” (2014, p. 249). Conversely, learners are found to “become frustrated and despair of their ability to learn” if they do not reach mastery level and subsequently may “develop some dislike for or disinterest in the subject” (Bloom, 1974, p. 687). This negative effect has been found to be compounded when learners compare themselves unfavourably against their peers and even more so as such disadvantage compounds over a long period of time—learners may feel “inferior” and are “likely to suffer frustration and decreased motivation” in their learning efforts (Bloom, 1974, p. 683). However, these negative feelings can be forestalled with early intervention. The progression of learning over time is not necessarily linear nor does learning accrue at a constant rate. Additional time given to the task of learning, apportioned incrementally and from an early stage, reduces frustration and increases motivation when learners are able to keep pace with peers within a learning cohort. Early intervention is key as is the quality of the interventions, such as may be derived through formative assessments (Bloom, 1974).

Learning and time-constructs

To this point, this essay has examined learning aptitude and the affective aspects of learning with time as an external construct, observed and measured from an objective standpoint. As has been already discussed, time may be experienced subjectively and time may be articulated as a cultural construct. How do subjective time experiences and cultural constructs of time interact with learning?

Learning, whether in formal school environments or within informal settings, is considered, in part, a social discourse oriented toward the negotiation of meaning (Vygotsky, 1978). This negotiation means that certain social values and aspirations may be given greater authority than others. At times, and perhaps too frequently, these prevailing values may not be altogether to the benefit of the learner. Social theorists have suggested that ideas such as Taylorism—a notion of industrial production focused on efficiency and management control—have informed contemporary instructional activities (Bonstingl, 1992). It has been noted that contemporary instructional approaches, whether through policy or tradition, have reflected Taylorism in that they have tended to allocate only a limited amount of time toward learning (Carroll, 1985). However, external deadlines, a common temporal constraint in formal learning situations, have been found to reduce “subsequent intrinsic interest” in learning activities (Amabile, DeJong, & Lepper, 1976, p. 97). Other research has indicated negative effects of time limits in the contexts of test-taking (Agranovich et al., 2011). Cultural constructs of time, as well, may present obstacles to learners, whereby learners’ concepts do not concur with the constructs in use within the learning environment. Such obstacles have also been seen to alienate learners and impede their achievement (Levine, 1997; Morgan, 2013).

There may be approaches to time manipulation and control that do not have negative effects on learning. Researchers have found that manipulation of time can be used to accelerate or arrest the speed of events under observation such that they can be more carefully or more practically studied. Simulations of time constraints may be used to evoke affective responses in learners, mimicking real-life applications of areas under study. “Time,” it was noted, “is a medium that binds all events and content into a cohesive and believable environment” (Bergeron & Obeid, 1995, p. 128). Despite these potential applications, the risk remains that preferred representations of time may be designed into a given technology and may subsequently and unintentionally present obstacles to certain learners.

This essay has discussed how learning and time are connected through aptitude as a measure of learning capacity, with attention being a key indicator of the quality of the learning engagement. This connects to the flow phenomenon, which in turn relates to affective aspects of the learning experience, such as motivation and confidence. The connection is then made between learning and culture. Cultural imperatives that favour certain representations of time, thereby imposing potential conflict with a learner’s culture of origin, are seen as potential impediments to learning engagement.

Time and educational technology

This essay now turns to questions concerning time in the context of educational technology. A key discussion will be given over to the characteristics of technology itself. Interactions of time perception and time-constructs in relation to technology will be considered, as well as their benefits and detriments. Lastly, this section will consider how time is a factor within educational technologies.

The characteristics of (educational) technology

Although a single definition of technology appears elusive, common characteristics seem to appear in the various conceptions provided in the literature. Galbraith, for example, expresses a view consistent with an industrial economic model, that technology can be understood as “the systematic application of scientific or other organized knowledge to practical tasks” (2007, p. 14). Rogers presents a definition in a similar vein, where technology can be seen as “a design for instrumental action that reduces the uncertainty in the cause-effect relationships involved in achieving a desired outcome” (2003, p. 13). In a philosophical discourse about the essence of technology, Heidegger states, simply, that “instrumentality is considered to be the fundamental characteristic of technology” (1977, p. 12). With reference to education, technology is seen as the tools and processes within the practices of teaching and learning (Januszewski & Molenda, 2013). A number of alternate definitions of technology, to varying degrees of utility, also have been expressed in the literature (Dusek, 2006; Rose, 2013).

Both Galbraith’s and Rogers’ definitions of technology acknowledge a component of human influence in the production of technological instrumentality: Rogers describes prior “design” (2003, p. 13) while Galbraith emphasizes subsequent “application” (2007, p. 14). Extending this notion of human participation, the literature supports the view of a human and social role in drawing out the meaning and use of technology. Yeaman states that an appropriate understanding of technology “relates hardware and software directly to their affect [sic] on people. Therefore technology is always social technology” (1994, p. 317). Selwyn acknowledges the design and application intents toward technology and observes that technology emerges through “complex interactions and negotiations with the social, economic, political and cultural contexts” (2011, p. 84). These complex interactions and negotiations advance through “different routes” that “lead potentially to different technological outcomes” (2011, p. 87). The social negotiation of technological form and meaning also points to the “‘design flexibility’ and ‘interpretative flexibility’ of a given technology,… that a technological artefact has different meanings and interpretations” (2011, p. 87). Recognition of this social posture of technology, Selwyn adds, is important to “developing rich understandings of the structures, actions, processes and relations that constitute uses of digital technology in educational settings and contexts” (2011, p. 82).

A metaphor through which the mutual shaping of technology may be understood is to see technology as a text (Channell, 1983; Hlynka & Yeaman, 1992; Woolgar, 1991). In construing a technology as text, it can be seen as being “written” when it is designed and then “read” when it is being interpreted (Selwyn, 2011, p. 86). Such a metaphor “draws attention to the often unseen work by designers, financiers, marketers and others in both crafting the materiality and interpretations” of technology (Selwyn, 2011, p. 86). The metaphor of technology as text “also provides acknowledgment of the opportunities that exist for alternative appropriations and uses of technology” (Selwyn, 2011, p. 86). It appears also to support the consonance of Galbraith’s and Rogers’ definitions of technology.

Because the nature of technology is that it becomes actuated solely through socially negotiated meaning, it can be stated that technology does not have any inherent qualities and, more significantly, it has no inherent outcomes or inevitability (Selwyn, 2011; Wajcman, 2008). The view that technology “causes or determines the structure of the rest of society and culture” is known as technological determinism (Dusek, 2006, p. 84). However, as has been discussed, technology is manifested only through the processes of its design and application through human enterprise and meaning-making. What technologies “actually are” is determined entirely through human craft and interpretation (Selwyn, 2011, p. 86). Technology may be better understood as the practices of design and application of technologies, rather than as inert objects outside human interaction.

There exist a number of direct criticisms of the theory of technological determinism. Technological determinism at times has been used to ascribe positive inherent characteristics to technology. Automation in the workplace was at one time expected to increase leisure time for workers, a result that has not materialized; in fact, quite the opposite seems to have occurred (Wajcman, 2008). In light of this, persistence in a technological determinist viewpoint might then lead to the notion that technology has negative inherent characteristics. It becomes clear that neither positive nor negative characteristics can be reasonably attached to technology. What the determinist position lacks is consideration of human intent (Selwyn, 2011).

As are all people, the designers and operators of technologies are influenced by their internalized social cultures, rooted in their lived experiences (Callahan, 2005; Hall, 1959; Triandis, 2007). Culture is “the link between human beings and the means they have of interacting with others” (Hall, 1959, p. 213); these means are comprised of “shared values, group behavioral patterns, mental models, and communication styles” (Callahan, 2005, p. 261), such as the temporal constructs discussed earlier. Cultural constructs, in particular ones fabricated to represent the experiences of time, are varied according to the cultures from which they arise (Hall, 1959). How technology is configured and used is culturally grounded within its human context. Thus, technology is made to reflect the characteristics of preferred cultural constructs.

Because the meaning and use of technology is grounded in the meanings given by its designers and operators, most any object could be considered a technology once its instrumentality has been defined in a given human context. So, technology may include computational hardware and software, information storage and displays, communications technologies such as computer networks and mobile telephony, and digital media such as electronic video—all representative of what may be understood as “high technologies” (Ong, 2002, p. 81; Richey, 2013). At the other end of the technology spectrum, “low tech” (Abbeduto, 2006, p. 314) tools and processes would also fit: written language and paper, for example, among many others. All of these can be conceived as having social meanings that have been negotiated by their designers and operators.
One question remains: what, then, comprises an educational technology? Given that the meanings of technologies are ascribed through their configuration and application, as discussed above, any technology that is directed toward teaching or learning may be considered an educational technology. There is nothing inherent in a technology that determines its suitability, or lack thereof, to educational practice. This essay contends that technologies may be defined as educational simply through their activation toward the purposes of teaching and learning.

Technology and temporal constructs

In addition to conveying linguistic representations of time, technologies may be used to represent, encode, and impose conceptions of time in various other ways. Written language is seen as a technology that promotes a conception of time as linear and sequential (Ong, 2002). In his studies of media and literacy, McLuhan points to written text as a cultural foundation that allows for time to be constructed linearly, a structure through which time may be purposefully partitioned (2003). Usage of the printing press for replication of written texts has been characterized as extending control over time and continuity (Innis, 1949). The use of more sophisticated technologies such as electronic media is seen to create temporally “simultaneous” and spatial time representations (H. M. McLuhan, 2003, p. 236). Others see the use of electronic media as extending the simultaneity of time “wholly beyond human consciousness” (Wajcman, 2008, p. 66). This shroud of simultaneity has been seen to transform social communications carried over electronic networks into “a continuous pattern of mediated interactions” such that there develops a “blurring [of] the boundaries between absence and presence” (Wajcman, 2008, p. 70). These circumstances arise not through any inherent characteristic of technology—as has already been established—but through human interactions that create these “multidimensional practices of time and new meanings of temporality” (Wajcman, 2008, p. 72).

Time, technology, and learning

Some applications of educational technology could be considered positive due to consequent outcomes within teaching and learning practices. Use of educational technology for asynchronous and distance applications, for example, has been at times considered appropriate and successful for bridging certain temporal and spatial obstacles (Leeds, 2014). Applications of educational technology have been theorized to support constructivist learning principles (Jonassen & Reeves, 1996, p. 697). Technology may be used to manipulate and distort time for pedagogical purposes in which time can be made “to pass more slowly, more rapidly, reverse, or jump to an earlier or later point,” for example, or to illustrate cause-and-effect relationships (Bergeron & Obeid, 1995, p. 128). Such applications can also be introduced to reduce learners’ levels of stress—in order to promote learning—or, conversely, to create simulations that arouse feelings of urgency that learners may experience in real-life situations (Bergeron & Obeid, 1995).

In the literature, the relevance of time in the context of educational technologies has been acknowledged but it has been a largely neglected area of research (Leeds, 2014, p. 179). The sophistication of advanced technologies has led some education practitioners through the tenets of technological determinism to consider these tools as a panacea to all temporal obstacles (Leeds, 2014). But technological configurations that favour a sequential ordering of time due to dominant culture insistence of such patterns, for example, may subordinate the time conceptions and practices of learners who originate from non-dominant cultures. These applications of educational technology deflect the challenges of time onto learners such that “online learning alters the temporal culture from discontinuous to continuous [and] learning activities are moved from a specific place and clock time to task-based activities where spatial location, timing and temporal duration become the responsibility of the learner” (Leeds, 2014, p. 186). In Wajcman’s analysis, this “oppressive” demand for “constant availability” (2008, p. 68)—a blurring of the line between the social and the technical—has been seen to alter the relationships between learners and their time practices of origin into “a redefinition of ‘public time’ and ‘private time’ into ‘on time’ and ‘off time’” (2008, p. 68).

As education is not a “neutral” process (Shaull, 2000, p. 34), this essay has taken the position that each learner’s welfare and benefit are paramount; that education is not for the purpose of domesticating learners into a dominant culture. Standpoints counter to this understanding are likely to introduce elements that are in conflict with the learners’ autonomy. These impediments may be in the form of technologies configured to insist upon dominant cultural meanings (Selwyn, 2011). Such configurations may pace teaching and learning at rates inappropriate to the teachers, learners, and subject matter; they may fill the learning environment with distractions, and they may alter social relationships to the detriment of all participants (Rose, 2013; Wajcman, 2008). In fact, the practices of social negotiation around technology, along with an expectation that technology will inherently solve problems, has drawn technology’s operators into constant attention, obedience, and mutual instrumentalization (Heidegger, 1977). Within this context it may be necessary to consider the hidden curriculum of the technology environment (Apple, 1971; Oztok, 2014). What are the “tacit assumptions” being made (Apple, 1971, p. 27)? Whose and what values are being favoured? What is being presented as worthy of a learner’s attention?

In order to respect the autonomy and agency of learners, educational practitioners must recognize individuals’ cultural constructs and practices, and recognize how the use of any given technology may magnify the intrusions of dominant cultural values. Practitioners are more likely to identify the undesired conditions being brought into a learning environment by examining the origins of a technology and the preferred readings that have been configured into it (Selwyn, 2011, p. 86). The more sophisticated the technology, the greater the scrutiny may be required. Within educational settings, “awareness of the inherent powers and messages of each of these unique configurations” is urged (H. M. McLuhan, 2003, p. 4). Ultimately, certain applications of educational technology may be too far skewed away from fully benefiting the learners to which they may be directed. Because time is a critical component to learning, a perspective that examines technology through the lens of time would be critical in any such assessment.


This essay has discussed how time connects to human psychology, how time is expressed in human cultural transactions within contexts such as education, and how dominant preferences of these expressions may find their way into technologies and thereby into learning. The conclusion of this essay reflects on some key observations taken from this discussion.

Why time?

From a philosophical and humanistic perspective, time is seen to contain all the possibilities of a learner’s aspirations (Freire, 2000; Rossatto, 2004). Learners express their potential within temporal frames, situating themselves with relation to “the past, the present, and the future, their history, in function of their own creations” (Freire, 2000, p. 101). Such aspirations are seen to be articulated within a myriad of cultural forms. From the perspective of learning and development, growth and transformation occur through chronological time, a span in which learners dedicate time and energy toward the transformation of themselves and their worlds. Applications of technology may permit learners to accomplish these transformations within their own conceptions and practices of time. Alternatively, dominant cultural forces may seek to “domesticate” time (Freire, 2000, p. 38) through the use of technology, thereby usurping the learners’ autonomy.

Unanticipated effects of technology use

Often, there are unintended consequences resulting from the use of technology in general and of educational technology in particular (Nichols & Allen-Brown, 1996; Wajcman, 2008; Yeaman, 1994). The continual social negotiation of the meaning, design, and application of technologies, as with all human artifacts, denies any argument in favour of technological determinism, that is, the assumption of inherent and inextricable uses and meanings of technological artifacts. In addition, there is scant research support for the notion of “soft” technological determinism (Selwyn, 2011, p. 85), a belief that any obstacles to implementation are external to the technology itself or that there are impediments to “acceptance” of the technology residing with the users and implementers (Morgan, 2013, p. 868; Selwyn, 2011). Technology on its own does not determine the choices that individuals may select. Agency remains with the individual users of technology. But in the extreme, technology, as a vehicle of social discourse, may well be used to objectify others and to provide a vector for their instrumentalization (Marcuse, 1964). The entire social discourse within which technology is situated both reveals and obscures all the possible applications to which technology may be configured and administered (Heidegger, 1977).

Dominant cultures and technocracy

This essay has discussed how the use of technology may be understood as a bilateral social discourse, a perspective illustrated through the metaphor of technology as text (Selwyn, 2011). Discourses involve a negotiation of meaning and often they manifest an imbalance of powers between proponents. More powerful, dominant voices are likely to increase in prominence. Everywhere, human cultures overlap and in all human societies there exist dominant cultures (Freire, 2000; Rossatto, 2004). Freire had recognized cultural domination, declaring that it is likely to assert itself “to transform everything surrounding [itself] into an object of its domination” (2000, p. 58). “The earth, property, production, the creations of people, people themselves,” Freire continues, including “time—everything is reduced to the status of objects at its disposal” (2000, p. 58). It is undeterred power on the one hand and insufficient resistance on the other through which social inequality is seen to be perpetuated (Nichols & Allen-Brown, 1996, p. 236).

The two-way discourse of technology usage allows dominant cultures to impose their biases. Technology becomes a conduit through which dominant culture dominates (Innis, 1949; Oztok, 2014). Furthermore, theorists have argued that in addition to being a conduit through which domination flows, technology use itself becomes the object of imposition, so that “domination perpetuates and extends itself not only through technology but as technology, and the latter provides the great legitimation of the expanding political power, which absorbs all spheres of culture” (Marcuse, 1964, p. 116). This imposition has been insidious and “technology serves to institute new, more effective, and more pleasant forms of social control and social cohesion” (Marcuse, 1964, p. 11). Echoing Marcuse, Feenberg observes that:

Technology is a two-sided phenomenon: on the one hand the operator, on the other the object. Where both operator and object are human beings, technical action is an exercise of power. Where, further, society is organized around technology, technological power is the principle [sic] form of power in the society (Feenberg, 2010, p. 2).

The exercise of power through technology is known as technocracy (Dusek, 2006). Technocratic power operates in an entirely “technical relation to the world, safe from the consequences of [its] own actions” (Feenberg, 2010, p. 6). The following allegory by Storr illustrates the detachment of technocracy:

It is obviously true that most bomber pilots are no better or worse than other men. The majority of them given a can of petrol and told to pour it over a child of three and ignite it, would probably disobey the order. Yet, put a decent man in an aeroplane a few hundred feet above a village, and he will, without compunction, drop high explosives and napalm and inflict appalling pain and injury on men, women, and children. The distance between him and the people he is bombing makes them into an impersonal target, no longer human beings like himself with whom he can identify (As cited in H. M. McLuhan, 2003, p. 286).

Such power is seen to self-perpetuate through the “spread of technology and management to every sector of social life” (Feenberg, 2010, p. 6) often with the goal of maintaining and extending power and economic interests (Nichols & Allen-Brown, 1996). As “technologies are appropriated and re-appropriated by political and economic interest groups” the configuration and application of the technologies are seen to “diverge from the intentions and claims of designers” (Selwyn, 2011, p. 88). In particular, such divergent uses may include social control and the control of time as might be condoned by Taylorism and its applications to labour or, in the context of this essay, toward educational practices (Marcuse, 1964; Wajcman, 2008). This exercise of power is seen to “alter individuals’ world-views and create biases through which a society’s orientation and values are shaped” (Oztok, 2014, p. 51). Theorists point to a contemporary “prevalence” of technocracy, identifying it as a “threat” to “human agency” through the instrumentalization and domination of others and its “asymmetrical” power relationships (Feenberg, 2010, p. 1; Marcuse, 1964).

Technocracy has made inroads into educational practice under a “false perception that only rational management” is appropriate to these ends (Nichols & Allen-Brown, 1996, p. 230). Because technology may be used as an instrument of control in service to dominant powers, it is seen here to be applied to the detriment of learners (Baptiste, 2001; Selwyn, 2011). Technocracy is seen to lead to the instrumentalization of learners, encouraging certain learning and cognitive styles wherein learners perform as though extensions of technology. Oztok elaborates on these observations showing how various cultural factors create inequity in online learning environments (2014). The necessity of attention in learning is relinquished to the demands of technocratic interests. Learners are led to negotiate for themselves how best to direct their attention in the learning process. Csikszentmihalyi laments that:

under contemporary social conditions, the importance of the self-regulation of attention is amplified. Individuals encounter exponentially growing amounts of information from an ever-rising number of sources, and they must decide how to invest their attention among these many possible claimants. Because attention is recognized as a precious commodity, others compete aggressively to attract, control, and direct it (2014, p. 257).

A way forward

At best teachers, learners and everyone else involved in education are placed in a position of having to respond to technological change by making the “best use” of the technologies that they are presented with.… Issues such as gender, race, social class, identity, power, inequality and so on are all sidelined in favour of the technological (Selwyn, 2011, p. 83).

Under the circumstances that Selwyn describes, it will likely be the teacher that remains the last, best line of defence in the learners’ interests. Learners may not be in a position to participate effectively in such a process (Nichols & Allen-Brown, 1996). Freire suggests that teachers’ “efforts must coincide with those of the students to engage in critical thinking and the quest for mutual humanization” (2000, p. 75). Rose encourages teachers to be the stewards of technology in the classroom; that rather than “simply accepting, with either reluctance or enthusiasm, the arrival of the latest technological ‘tool,’ [they] must manage, with care and forethought, the movement of technological innovation into educational spaces” (2013, p. 95). Such a role would, in Wajcman’s words, “protect against the further invasion of technology into lived human experience” (2008, p. 61).

Finally, how might teachers succeed in such a role? They might choose to embrace the evidence-based underpinnings of their practice. This arsenal of research may include theoretical analyses offered by postmodernist approaches that question dominant social forces and offer emancipatory options for praxis (Nichols & Allen-Brown, 1996). Analysis that implements critical theory approaches would question cultural constructs and may thereby secure a degree of social justice for those marginalized by dominant cultures, including relief from domination through cultural constructs of time (Nichols & Allen-Brown, 1996; Yeaman, 1994). An extension of critical theory, critical pedagogy, has been articulated for application specifically to education practice (Freire, 2000; Nichols & Allen-Brown, 1996). Whatever approach is selected, the effects of time perception, the cultural constructs of time, and their effects within the application of educational technology ought to be the subject of particular attention.


  1. The term ‘time dilation’ as used here refers to its application in the field of psychology, as part of the human sensory experience. This is not at all the same phenomenon of time dilation as discussed in the field of physics, a phenomenon that is entirely outside the detection of human sensory apparatus.


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This paper was prepared for course EDUB 7450 “Seminar in Educational Technology.” I’m grateful to course instructor Prof. Denis Hlynka for his insights and guidance.
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