Does the Technology Matter?

Recently I have given keynotes at the Plymouth e-Learning Conference (video here .wmv format) and the  Technology Enhanced Learning Symposium at DeMontfort University (slides here), both of which explored the flow of technology from shiny innovation through to  embedded use within an institutional environment. I did this from the perspective of the individuals/groups involved rather than by describing the evolving affordances of digital platforms. This approach being an attempt to avoid the ‘what’ of technological determinism, concentrating instead on the ‘why’ of institutional/individual motivations.

A few of the things I covered included:

  • Drawing out the similarities and differences between the geeks gate keeping the BBC Micro in 1982 with the beautiful people (in expensive jeans) ‘life-styling’ the iPad in 2010.
  • Highlighting the daunting breath of activity and motivations that now come under the increasingly useless banner of ‘digital’ by contrasting the excellent Hierarchy of Digital Distractions with the contents of the 2009 GCSE in Information Communications Technology.
  • Asking the audience to reflect on their own personal motivations and positions relative to my ‘Six Very Simple Diagrams’: Role, Desire, Pedagogy, Technology, Motivation and Bickering.

Of these ‘Role’ seems to cause the most discussion:


Do you see your role as one of successfully embedding technology  until it becomes ‘transparent’ or is it more about challenging current practices using the tech as a driver for change? It could of course be a combination but my experience within the Higher Education sector is that groups coalesce around either ‘disappear’ or ‘disrupt’. This, in my opinion, is why individuals who can facilitate communication between these groups are crucial to the ongoing innovation-embedding flow within any institution.

The apparent opposition within the disappear-disrupt paradigm was brought back to mind when I was invited to take part in a ‘Does the Technology Matter?’ debate for the ALT-C conference later this year. Inspired by some slightly belligerent Tweeting around the concept by myself, @josiefraser and @mweller Dave Cormier hung the tensions embodied in the statement very elegantly on Smartboards (although he could have chosen any number of technologies) in his ‘It’s about the technology and it isn’t’ post. In the post he neatly balances the push-pull nature of the introduction of new tech into a classroom situation, highlighting what the effects of a new technology can be and what is simply foregrounded by the presence of that technology.

For me this aligns well with the disappear-disrupt concept in that your position on this continuum will underpin your reaction to the ‘Does it Matter?’ statement. This brings me to extend the question into a more useful form: ‘Does the Technology Matter for What?’ which does not have an objective answer as it is inextricably linked with ‘What do you Think you are Trying to Achieve?’ Oddly the latter question is often passed over when ‘new’ technologies are being introduced with vague allusions to ‘efficiency’ or ‘it’s what the students want’.

Again it’s the ‘what’ not the ‘why’ which tends to get focused on. As an example I would cite the ‘digital literacy’ debate in which motivations to engage frequently go unexplored leading to a focus on how to develop and maintain a successful digital identity as if this is the only way to live and learn. This in turn inevitably moves onto interminable discussions around facebook privacy options that ultimately spiral into the nature of society as a whole until lunch brings the whole thing to an inconclusive finish. Too much ‘what’ morphs into a woolly ‘why’ just as people start to get really hungry.

What I’m lobbying for here is a properly balanced conversation around ‘Does the Technology Matter’ in which we avoid simplistic posturing by making it clear what our assumptions and motivations are. In this way the discussion will help us to reflect on our own positions and how we can successfully collaborate with those around us who hold differing views but might well be trying to achive similar things. I’m not saying that I’d-like-to-teach-the-world-to-sing I just think that our underlying approach to technology is still a little 1982 and it’s time to accept that the picture is a bit more complex.

11 thoughts on “Does the Technology Matter?

  1. dave cormier Reply

    We did a follow up webcast to the smartboard post last night… it was pretty entertaining for me at least 🙂

  2. Mark Power Reply

    I’ve always been baffled (and belligerent) about this question as, in the past, it’s seemed to me that it’s one trotted out by the navel gazers who, while working and evangelizing about ‘eLearning’, don’t actually use a variety of technologies that much and so prefer to talk purely in academic terms and waffle about pedagogy and the learner and….”it’s not about the tech!”. My belligerent..ness leads me to ask, “if it’s not about the tech then we’re not playing eLearning are we. The “e” is therefore redundant”

    But, as ever, I like your thinking, Doctor White. You’ll tease this out into something more tangible.

    For me, when I talk about tech I’m never talking about just..”the thing”. I’m not talking about Device A, Website B or App C as “that’s it. That’s the tech”. For me, when you talk about technology you’re automatically and immediately talking about the “thing” itself and the interactions with it.

    Technology = ‘Thing’ + Interaction. Whether that’s a mobile device, a VLE, a blog, Twitter, etc…

    So of course it bloody matters! (my belligerence again). But too many that ask that question don’t seem to act as if the interaction is already part of what makes a technology. They seem to think that saying “Oh well, it depends what you do with it” is amazingly insightful and Big News. It’s like saying “The learner experience is key”. Well of course it is! Thanks for the groundbreaking statement!

    So…”Does the technology matter?”. Given that the technology is everything we do around the tools themselves then I think the answer is a fairly obvious one.

    But that’s maybe just me.

  3. @daveowhite Reply

    @Markpower So my current favorite phrase is ‘The technology is vital but not central’. 🙂

    Of course the tech matters but in the context you outline in which tech and people are intertwined. I think my point is that we need to carefully set out our positions before this debate becomes useful. Much as you have. A good eg of the problem I’m trying to avoid it the ‘X Tech is Dead’ scenario. In most cases the tech in question is not dead it’s simply become successfully embedded. Or (dare I say it) Post Digital.

  4. Scott Wilson Reply

    This “role” thing … isn’t that just another way of looking at a technology value chain/value network?

    As in, you bring in technology to first get a few efficiency savings in existing processes, then build on it to help implement strategic goals, then use it to develop new services and markets that weren’t previously feasible. So you usually aim to both embed and disrupt.

    Then again maybe I’m thinking at the macro level (e.g. CRM, MLE etc – using a range of technologies in a common project) and you’re thinking more at the individual level (e.g. promoting a device, service or a piece of software etc to a few people).

  5. @daveowhite Reply

    @scott Depending on where you sit on the disappear-disrupt line the order of that value chain would change. For example, using a tech to drive truly innovative new practices is not likely to lead to any efficiency gains in the short term. I’m not keen on the idea that tech=efficiency. It would be possible to argue that facebook and Twitter (remember when that was blogs and wikis, ah, those were the days) are ‘efficient’ but not easy… So being clear about our position, motivation and goals in this regard is important to manage expectations.

  6. [...] concerned. Of course, we didn’t get very far, and if I’d read Dave White’s post Does t...
  7. Frances Bell Reply

    The opportunity to wind up Mark Power is too tempting to ignore;) although I agree with him that of course technology matters.
    Science and Technology Studies has been pondering over the social and the technical for years, some resisting technological determinism and others considering the interests of technology and other non-humans. Langdon Winner even contends that social relations are embodied in technology and artefacts have power. The late Rob Kling’s work in Social Informatics is worth a look too
    What grieves me as a jobbing academic who uses LTech and as an editor of an LTech journal is how little is learned by researcher and practitioners (present company excepted) from research and practice of technology implementation in domains other than education.
    Anyway, I am not sure about linear models of technology implementation. Focus on the next new thing (ipad or whatever) could make us miss opportunities, offered by saturation of low tech. Here’s an interesting read that challenges a focus on latest tech
    E-literate blog- ‘Mobile Is My Soul’: More About Cell Phones in the South of Africa
    What does it have to tell us?

  8. Luke Fernandez Reply

    Winner’s framework is a useful one for elaborating on the “disappearing into use” versus “disrupting the status quo” dichotomy articulated above. If technologies can have inherent political tendencies (as I think Winner seems to be suggesting in “Do Artifacts Have Politics?”) one might choose which role to adopt based on whether one is happy with the extant distribution of power within academe. Still, a discontent with existing academic regimes may not be sufficient to turn us into eduPunks if we want decisions about our university’s future direction to be made in an inclusive and participatory manner. Conversations about the design and adoption of technologies has to be democratized first; the issues that eduPunks are talking about has to be engaged in by the campus at large. Only then can we be confident that we’re “disrupting class” in a way that furthers democratic ideals. I think this is one point Winner is making (albeit in a more general manner) in “Techne and Politea.”

    A further word on the dichotomy. It’s not clear to me that all forms of technological conservativism imply the notion of “disappearing into use.” Conversely, I think it’s possible to disrupt in ways where the technology still remains largely invisible. Take for example the university’s longstanding attachment to text based culture. While our attachment to text was the status quo for centuries it’s hardly the case that the technologies associated with this culture were transparent to it’s users. In fact it took (and still takes) a lot of discipline to train students to write effectively. And while they are developing textual literacy I doubt if a student sees the technology as invisible or intuitive. Conversely, new cohorts of students are adopting and importing all manner of new communications onto campus. While these technologies may be disruptive, from many student’s perspectives they’ve already become transparent. These ideas, I think, are also informed by Stephen Luke’s now classic taxonomy of power (cf. ) . Power and influence is sometimes wielded in overtly coercive ways and other times in more insidious (aka “ideological”) fashions. But what style of power one wields doesn’t always follow exactly from whether one is upholding or seeking to disrupt the status quo.

    My apologies if I’m taking the dichotomy out of a larger context; perhaps the above issues are addressed in your Plymouth e_Learning Keynote?

  9. Naveed Husain Reply

    Technology matters otherwise we wouldn’t be having this discussion. The issue is that pedagogy has not changed to incorporate technology. The dream of how technology is applied or can be applied is limited to those who do, who can, and who want. The problem is there are many who want but do not understand that it is not an iPad or iPhone that make it cool, but using the right tool for the job. That cannot happen until value is placed on Instructional Technology and course design. The process needs to be repeatable, scaleable, and purposeful.

  10. Pat Parslow Reply

    I’ve posted on my blog about why I think the tech has always, and probably will always, lead the pedagogy and social norms. Not my best post ever, but at least I put a diagram in this one 🙂

  11. [...] Along with reminding folks of some earlier posts for researchers on this site (June 23rd, 22nd, 21st, 20...

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