Theory of education on technology; or Educational technology theory?

Here’s a question to ponder — Do educators in your field propose a theory of learning and then use that on/with technology OR do they have technology and are then looking for an educational technology theory to apply?

Which happens more often in your school or educational institution?  Is it a case of the cart before the horse?

Picture of the cart before the horse.

In the past few weeks I have been challenged by a number of readings in both educational technology (or ICT – information and communication technologies outside of America) and theories on learning.

I realise that over the past 5 years I have adopted personas and even thought it was the pinnacle of an educators ICT expertise to become a “miracle worker”, an Apple Distinguished Educator (ADE),  a Google Certified Teacher or an Adobe Education Leader.  A “miracle worker” is what De Castell, Bryson, and Jenson (2002) describe as someone who has formed “partnerships” with businesses, and helped the “corporatisation” of educational institutions:

Miracle workers are often located in universities, and take the form of ‘high-­flyer’ academics with branded and quasi entrepreneurial mega­-projects and high­-profile revenue­-generating products (e.g., Canada’s TeleLearning Network of Centres of Excellence), whose impressive resources open doors to schools and/or communities caught up in the frenzy to “Leverage technology to transform the educational experience ” (WebCT, 2001). (para 4)

Having friends and colleagues reach all of these levels I have also had insight in to how true the above label can be.  Often through an educators passion to transform learning and be at the forefront of change, an early adopter, the big corporates attract and suck them in with promises of international trips, speaking events and “free” products that of course lead you to promote their product and hopefully drive sales.  It is a catch 22, principals and administrators also value these educators as they are put up on a pedestal by these companies as the best of the best 21st Century educators.

But my question still stands – are they approaching technology with a learning or educational theory or are they sprouting some corporate created theory of educational technology and what it “can do” for learners?  Who or what is driving the cart here?

For me and my classroom, and even my staff the focus is on “appropriate use” of technology for learning.  This is not just appropriate is terms of behaviour by the learners but appropriate use for the context of the learning task at hand.  I find myself constantly reflecting and asking myself, would technology help here? If so, how, in what way? So it was heartening to see that Wilson (1997), Day and Llyod (2007) put forward the notion that education technology is a “design science of education” and that we must consider the context of the learning environment it is being used in before a learning theory can be applied. Perhaps controversially they also believe that “there are no current accepted norms for the use of theories in educational technology”.  So whether you are are inherently a cognitivist, behaviourist, or constructivist who has moved to more postmodern educational theoretical positions, you still must ask the “big questions”. Where can technology help learning? When should it help and when shouldn’t it?

Inappropriate use of a megaphone

Are you using technology appropriately?

For me this process has been incredibly rewarding.  As an avid ICT user I have also struggled with many of the negatives or downsides surrounding inappropriate use of technology. As a proponent and enthusiast , you are often presented as the pioneer out conquering the frontier so if you don’t show complete confidence in the mission at hand then you’re at risk of loosing followers. But what is more important than the glitz and glam of being a “miracle worker” is the learning.  The learning needs to be front and centre of every conversation which is why it is important for people like Clay Shirky to stand up and say that all is not right in the world of ICT.  Only last month he wrote online:

… this year, I moved from recommending setting aside laptops and phones to requiring it, adding this to the class rules: “Stay focused. (No devices in class, unless the assignment requires it.)” Here’s why I finally switched from ‘allowed unless by request’ to ‘banned unless required’.

We’ve known for some time that multi-tasking is bad for the quality of cognitive work, and is especially punishing of the kind of cognitive work we ask of college students.

This effect takes place over more than one time frame — even when multi-tasking doesn’t significantly degrade immediate performance, it can have negative long-term effects on “declarative memory”, the kind of focused recall that lets people characterize and use what they learned from earlier studying. (Multi-tasking thus makes the famous “learned it the day before the test, forgot it the day after” effect even more pernicious.)

Now if this kind of observation is being seen in the classrooms of NYU surely it is happening elsewhere.  Shirky references a number of studies to support his concerns about the impact of multi-tasking on learning and the learners themselves.  So the simple question is – does “it” need to be always on? The obvious answer in your classroom should be a resounding – no! – unless it is required for the task at hand.  This is certainly how I have approached my lessons in the past year, how about you?

Note: For further reading on my inspiration for writing this post you can find my annotated bibliography on selected research for the appropriate pedagogical affordances of technology in education here: Vass_Annotated_Bibliography and references below.


Day, D., & Lloyd, M. M. (2007). Affordances of online technologies: More than the properties of the technology. Australian Educational Computing, 22(2), 17­21.

De Castell, S., Bryson, M., & Jenson, J. (2002). Object lessons: Towards an educational theory of technology. First Monday, 7(1).

Issroff, K., & Scanlon, E. (2002). Educational technology: The influence of theory. Journal of Interactive Media in Education, 2002(1).

Wilson, B. G. (1997). Thoughts on theory in educational technology. Educational Technology, Saddle Brook NJ­, 37, 22­-26.


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