Liveblog – CALRG reading group over ‘Technological Determinism’

Yesterday’s CALRG reading group covered Martin Oliver‘s paper: ‘Technological determinism in educational technology research: some alternative ways of thinking about the relationship between learning and technology.‘ You can find the full article here.  

I’ve summarized our discussion below, but it was written live, so please excuse any typos or grammatical errors. Each paragraph denotes one person’s comment or contribution.


Why did we choose this paper? Because Technological Determinism an easy track to go down as a researcher. Example: projects seeking a laptop for every child or iPads for classrooms, as if technology will make everything better. It’s a useful thing to be aware of.

Need to stop outside of technology enhanced learning — why do we think that technology can enhance learning in the first place?

How do we interpret the role of technology if we say that it has no agency — how do we put it in the context of learning? Martin Oliver demonstrates four ways or methodologies to attempt to do this. 

Is it technology impacting the social or the social impacting the technology? Does it need to be black and white?

Technology is a co-evolved thing. We reinvent the problem every time a new technology come into existence. Take for instance the way people reacted to the introduction of the pencil, it is identical to arguments about iPads. This argument keeps coming up because we haven’t changed the way we teach and the way we integrate innovation into the classroom.

Perhaps there is no such thing as TEL as its own category or discipline because education has always involved incorporating new technologies and innovations? 

There is often an assumption of what technology is in TEL— when we say technology we tend to mean digital, but this should not always be the case.

There is something to be said for technological determinism. Example: accessibility and field work, allowing those in wheelchairs to participate digitally from afar. Technology allows for better and different educational experiences. However, the danger is putting the cart before the horse by considering the technology before the activity or why it is needed.

But it’s also about how we envisioned that technology, because it existed it before we constructed it to have meaning in education.

It’s a social thing. In the accessibility example, you must have a society that accepts that you don’t need to be physically present in field work, and that the digital  experience is an equal experience to being physically there.

Technology is designed for specific systems, and there are issues when there are those who disrupt that by owning other systems. We’re expecting teachers and students to fit into certain systems that they may not feel comfortable with. 

To what extent does technology restrict our learning?

Example: there are limited programs we can run within this building (in IET at the OU), which confines learning habits that are normal at home. The IT guy isn’t interested in our learning habits, just that we are set up in the way he’s been told we should be.

Another example: the Android vs iPhone argument —  learning technologies are made on specific platforms because it’s impossible to design for all of them at once, but this limits who can use them.

Future of technology workshop — Giasemi Vavoula and Mike Sharples — give academics play-doh and other craft materials and ask them to come up with current and future learning  activities, and the materials required to do them. The idea is to not restrict them to technologies currently available. Workshop can free them from technological determinism by not restricting them to what we currently know. Let’s have some crazy, mad ideas.

We should think about affordances — what do we understand about affordances?

It depends on where you sit — is the point of technology in the classroom to overcome a disability? 

We should look beyond disability when we think about affordances. Example: Todd Rose’s Ted Talk about fighter pilot design. We should think about human variations, not just affordances.

Link made to Donald Norman book

If the solution you come up with is not usable by the lowest common denominator, you’ve failed. You shouldn’t need a user manual. 

Link made to Conole and Dyke article about affordances

People tend to think of the good things that technology affords, but not about the negative aspects. Example: university laptops are portable, but they also allow the university to monitor behaviour.

MOOCs is another example — when discussing why people make MOOCs, oftentimes the reason is ‘we thought we’d try it.’ Not much thought on how they will support learning. This leads to a problem of measurement.

That’s why MOOCs don’t work.

Where do we get the idea that MOOCs don’t work?

Thinking in terms of people not completing.

But this is not necessarily an important measurement.

This is why you need to know what you’re trying to achieve — you can’t know if it’s successful if you don’t know what the purpose is.

We forget to consider how people use technology — when left to their own devices, they will use it in ways we don’t assume. When I do a MOOC, I’ll do what I’m interested in and then not finish, so I’m a non-completer by statistics, but I still personally feel I’m being successful. I’m one of the people they want to fix.

That highlights the idea that we can’t quantify everything. That’s why so many of us use mixed methods — numbers won’t tell the whole story.

The Problem with giving classroom technologies — people will use it in ways we don’t intend or be scared of it

Why do we try to link using technology and achieving formal qualifications. People are using technology in their lives in ways we didn’t intend, but it enriches their learning experience and students achieve what they feel they need to. But we are too focused on the formal outcome.

The learner perceives the learning experience different than the provider does. The provider and developer have designed a MOOC, for example, differently than how the students see it and want to use it.

One thing TEL is looking for is the gap between what the institution sees as the affordances and how the learners actually use the affordances, which will be different. 

This discussion intersects everything you do in TEL — our view of technology will affect the biases in our research set-ups.

Martin Oliver argues that the technology remains when the activity is finished. It’s bothersome that so many technology departments have a storeroom full of ageing technologies that many students would love to use. Idea of academic imperialism — researchers going in and doing experiments with technologies, then leaving and taking the technologies with them, just to write journal articles. What happens to the people you leave behind? We have an ethical obligation to participants that the successful interventions we create can continue. It’s not just about design of the research, but also about the design of the exit and the legacy you leave behind, and the people who have used the tech and then have it taken away.

Digital sources lead to changing facts — lack of permanence in our knowledge, and schools are used to owning their own content and disseminating the information as they wish. Kids now have access to information outside the school, making the school’s walls porous. Technology has brought a balancing act of knowledge.

Affordances of technologies mean new skills are needed – the capacity to evaluate new information because the teacher is no longer the filter. 

We need to teach people to be safe consumers of information on the internet. How do you enable critical thinking in students? These are things we need to think about in the future. 

Martin Oliver’s article is a good example of method vs methodology. By making a choice of method, you are also choosing its theoretical underpinning.

Each perspective or methodology he mentions only offers a partial account — there is a need to understand the limitations of your method


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