Thursday, 3 January 2013

Learning technology: Theorising the tools we study

an article by Martin Oliver (Institute of Education, University of London) published in British Journal of Educational Technology Volume 44 Issue 1 (January 2013)


This paper identifies a significant gap in existing work within the field of educational technology – the failure to explain technology theoretically – and proposes an agenda for addressing this.

While there are discussions of theory within educational technology research, these typically focus on learning. Technology itself is seldom considered, being treated instead as “natural” or given.

This is in marked contrast to other fields of study, in which robust theories of technology have been developed.

The consequence of this is that technology is treated as if it will cause learning – and when it does not, there is no clear explanation of why.

To advance this discussion, two traditions of work theorising technology are introduced – one positivistic, including work on affordance, and the other (largely unrepresented in educational technology) that provides a social account.

An example of each is used to analyse a case study, so as to contrast the kind of claims that currently get made about technology with those that we could make. It is argued that adopting a social account of technology would enable richer, better-integrated claims to be made about technology use.

Practitioner Notes

What is already known about this topic
  • Technology is a central concern of research in the field, but it is not clear how we should think about this term.
  • While work in the field some decades ago tried to conceptualise technology, it is now treated as a taken-for-granted category.
What this paper adds
  • Systematic evidence is provided that we rely on a “common sense” understanding of technology.
  • The idea of technology is explicitly debated in other fields of study, and two of those traditions are reviewed here.
  • An example is provided that illustrates that these other conceptions of technology can provide richer accounts of empirical work than those currently dominant in the field.
Implications for practice and/or policy
  • We cannot assume that technology will simply have “effects” on people.
  • Alternative accounts of technology provide richer explanations of technology use, and would benefit the field.

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