my (non) definition of “educational technology”

I wrote this for an assignment in the Conceptualizing Educational Technology grad course I’m taking. I figure it’s worth planting my flag publicly as well…

“Educational Technology” is one of those terms that makes me squirm. I’m not comfortable with any of the definitions of it, primarily because they posit that “educational technology” is a separate, different thing that somehow needs to be integrated (somehow) into the “real” education. It positions technology as being “hard” and needing “experts” and “support” in order to be used by mere mortals. It raises the anxiety to a level that scares many people away. They don’t have time for “educational technology.” Or they don’t have the training. Or the budget. Or the support. Or the infrastructure. Or any of a long list of things that are suggested (explicitly and implicitly) by defining something like “educational technology.” It also aligns with the notion of a consumer-based society – educational technology is something to be produced in a laboratory somewhere, to be consumed in the classroom.

My personal stance is that there is no such thing as “educational technology.” Was chalk labeled “educational technology”? Were there educational conferences spawned around the notion of pen and paper? Perhaps there were, but more likely, these technologies were adapted and integrated because they were inherently useful to the practice of teaching and learning.

The idea that we can have a 360 page textbook that bills itself as “a definition (of educational technology) with commentary” boggles my mind. It sets the field up to be esoteric, distant, and isolated.

The one-liner definition provided by Januszewski and Molenda – that “educational technology is the study and ethical practice of facilitating learning and improving performance by creating, using, and managing appropriate technological proceses and resources”1 – is not a bad definition. But this usable version of their definition leaves so many unanswered questions as to be nearly meaningless. It requires an additional 360 pages to define all of the terms, and to describe implications and strategies. Any definition that complex is not likely to be relevant or useful. It seems more like a definition written by a committee, designed to appease an untold number of stakeholders.

My definition, if I’m pressed to give one, is probably “educational technology is whatever stuff you need to use to support the practice of effective teaching and learning.” Sure, it’s overly simple, and doesn’t additionally define any of the terms, but this concise definition leaves the definition open enough to be useful.

There isn’t really such a thing as “educational technology” – there is technology, used in the context of teaching and learning.

  1. AECT. (2008). Definition. In A. Januszewski, & M. Molenda (Eds.), Educational Technology: A Definition with Commentary (pp. 1-14). New York & London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. []

23 thoughts on “my (non) definition of “educational technology””

  1. …This is all pointing to precisely to one of the reasons I really liked the “Edupunk” moniker.

    There’s a line in Cheech & Chong’s “Up In Smoke” to the effect of: “We don’t gotta play instruments, man– it’s punk rock! All we gotta do is be punks! We can do that!”

    Yeah. We don’t gotta be technologists. All we gotta do is be educators. And we can do that!

  2. I’m using a textbook in my “Instructional Communications” course (talk about a term!) where I’m teaching high school teachers to use technology in teaching. I’ve pretty much punted most of it. The only thing I’d say is that society seems to separate technology from everything else, despite its ubiquity. People think of gaming, blogging, reading online as weird activities and sometimes inappropriate activities. TV, it seems to me, is finally being revered because at least it’s not blogging. Also, much of our technology has been co-opted by the entertainment industry. Twitter’s a great tool, but once Ashton Kutcher got a hold of it . . . it became inappropriate for serious use. I guess the thing that we have to stress with newer technology that we didn’t have to stress with pen, paper, and chalkboard is that these are tools–they can be used to learn, to have fun, or to do harmful things. It’s the way you use them that makes that happen.

  3. I think technology is great for the classroom as long as it’s used in an appropriate way. I’ve had classes where the teacher has been too reliant on powerpoint slides, and then I have no desire to go if I can learn the material at home.

  4. Erica, there I see a problem… that has various solutions. One solution for the teacher is to remove the slides and lecture without them. The same material would be taught, but without slides and they would not be made available for the reason that you mentioned — namely that they keep students from going to class for sake of the efficiency. The question that I would be tempted to ask is whether the solution has made teaching any better or more effective. I would be tempted to run an experiment to see if there is a difference in average performance on tests in each scenario. My hypothesis would be that students on the average do better when the slides are made available rather than when they are not. Perhaps the teacher, as I suggested in a previous course, needs to leave the slides and instead focus on other angles in class to get the ideas across.

  5. I agree, there is only technology and at that, technology does not mean that it needs power. Just like “e” or “i” devices/practices, the modifier is often there to provide some initial level of differentiation, but after a time, it seems to get in the way.

  6. I agree the book is overly complex. I guess it depends too what is the reason or agenda for making a definition. And should we make a new definition to change things or not.

    In my own personal definition, I to consider technology more broadly than just computers and devices and so forth.

    Technology is anything we invent or use that extends our capabilities or practices or activities (and constrains them, too, from Don Ihde).

    Some examples are language, and cooking.

    So, in other words, even teaching is a technology.

    And that makes teachers engineers (as Dewey argued).

    Ideally, teachers would get more respect for the craftmanship and complexity and constraints they deal with everyday.

    And computers would be seen as just an extension of teaching practices (that yes, introduce new and not always good constraints, too).

    So I guess I’d say “educational technology is whatever means we use to craft and facilitate learning”.

    There’s still another issue, too, that many people have an implicit behaviorist/transmission idea of learning and teaching, but that’s another topic.

  7. @erica The problem isn’t technology, it’s your teacher. Your teacher sucks.

    @Stu The first functional laser was in 1960 (according to wikipedia). I was born 17 years later yet I still see it as technology. I’d say that birth has far less to do with it than common usage and ease of usage.

    1. but the transformation has to happen within your own skull. shiny boxes and network connections are great, but cognition and learning happen in meatspace. it can be enhanced, extended, transformed via tech, but what matters is what is left when the ethernet jack is yanked. I’m not comfortable with the singularity and augmented-human-cyborg stuff, because it gives too much value to the silicon. technology will always fail, eventually. if we force ourselves too far down that path, we’ll be lobotomized (individually, and as a society) when it does.

    2. also, computers don’t grok “ideas” – they only know 0 and 1. That is all. WE form these into representations of ideas. We can trick ourselves into believing that computers have ideas, and can understand what they’re doing, through clever programming and shared conceit. But they don’t. They are toasters. Shiny toasters with ethernet jacks, but nothing more than toasters.

      1. Like books, computers augment and create relations, or to quote Kaye via Campbell, “computers are like instruments whose music is ideas.” Point here being, while you are right to suggest this process happens in our minds and imaginations, I’m not sure I buy that simply makes computers stuff. Is literature just stuff, art just stuff. If all cats are gray, then what value does any of them have. When thing create relations between and amongst people, they become more than stuff, and by suggesting they are stuff we pretend that understanding them and hacking them is of no matter. But it is of matter, and it is through that box that our relationship and conversation continues, meatspace or not (though the whole meatspace concept makes people just more stuff, and if you go there, than it would be hard to argue against your argument).

      2. is the alternative some form of animism? spiritual being within the bits? computers are just hunks of metal and plastic. their music is not ideas, but binary digits representing data.

        the power of a book isn’t the paper, nor the ink. it’s the connection between writer and reader. computers (and other tech) can do that, and are very powerful and effective at it. but they are just stuff. the magic is in what we do with the stuff – both internally (cognitively) and externally.

        1. Computers intelligence lies in patterns. In that reality can be represented as models and those models can be recognized as patterns, computers are intelligent. If that is all that there is to intelligence, than okay, but I don’t think that’s it… Breakthroughs don’t happen because of or in models.

        2. Ideas or more properly creativity, in arranging and reinterpreting ideas and creating whole new schemas of reality based on those ideas is an activity of human beings. I seriously doubt computers will ever be able to do that, they can’t even reinterpret idea systems that we currently have without tons of programming. Their job is actually getting easier because our lives and what we do has been reduced to simplistic models which all of us follow, and hence in that circumstance the pattern recognizers seem more intelligent than they really are. The diversity of opinion and interpretation is shrinking so that really there is only one voice that is heard, and as long as the computers can validate that voice through data gathering, they are intelligent. Authoritarianism with a digital slant, the integrated information reaffirms the ideology of the few who rule with scientific data and analysis.

          Sci-fi movie plot: If they did gain intelligence, to begin with they would be our slaves, and if they created their own culture and became independent they would no longer need us and would probably develop an ideology that would make them superior to us as we imagine them to be that today. That would either lead them to leave Earth or declare war on us, either is possible.

          They are definitely getting smarter at pattern recognition and because the scale of the technology is shrinking it is true that they are now capable of carrying information to you when and wherever you need it… So in that interaction between machine and man, you do get a sort of a cyborg who is more capable of processing information than a human without that, at least that’s the promise. At the same time you get significant information overload that essentially no longer augments anything but rather decreases human productivity significantly — we are here now. The meat space actually puts a limit on what can be known be known in finite time. Even if you could get the computer to reduce the information, because it is not integration, but rather reduction since integration would produce actually more knowledge which would take more time still to interpret and learn than reduction which produces less knowledge that then can be used to make a decision. In that this new knowledge is derived from some model of reality, it will represent the most likely outcome. The most likely outcome or information or knowledge is useless. Interesting things happen in nonlinear dynamics systems, not in linear model based discrete systems. Read Nasim Taleb’s book the Black Swan for more details.

          The only way of bypassing this problem would be if you could replicate the brain in a digital medium (but not as a model of brain, but the actually thing that works on continuous systems rather than discrete ones), but if you did do that then you would become irrelevant — a native sort of hunter gatherer that would soon be driven to extinction by your digital progeny so that they could do with reality what they wanted… I still seriously doubt that a replicated brain with a human interface is anywhere near, the brain is quite a bit more complex than pattern recognition. It is also not discrete and not model-based, and that no one seems to acknowledge when then compare it to computers. The bits are discrete.

          Currently we can get experts/intellects to do the same thing for us and they actually integrate the knowledge not reduce it, it doesn’t seem to help things at all; Chomsky will answer any e-mail you send to him but it is not evident to me that this has made any difference. So just like physical augments, digital augments may take control from the naturals, but this already happens to such an extent that I don’t really know what it changes, i.e. athletes and steroids.

          All of this crap is “fanboyism”, self-important idiots with new tools impressed by the companies and/or technology providing those tools. It’s a fad, nothing more… Thing will change, but the more that they do they will stay the same. The politics will not be changed by any amount of information distilled or not distilled. What matters is your will and exerting it in an open, free, and democratic process to bring change that you really believe in… The liberals today are in trouble because they have no such ideals where the conservatives still do. We need souls more than we need technology.

  8. I really love your definition of educational technology as “whatever stuff you need to use to support the practice of effective teaching and learning.” As a current student teacher my mind is being bombarded with new terms and definitions as to how to be a great teacher. Personally I believe you either are or you’re not, it’s not really something that can be taught. So, when I think of what I do on a day to day basis, I don’t think of myself as using “educational tech., I think of myself as using every tool in my power to get through to these students. I use technology every single day in my lessons, but I’m not doing it simply for the sake of doing it, but for the sake of communicating essential materal in ways that make sense to both my students and myself. Thanks for sharing this post as it made me feel as if I’m not alone in that thought. :)

  9. We are in a growing and changing world and as such, we should grow and change with the world. If we are teachers we must do our jobs and educate the world about change…It has to start with us….

  10. Here it is a year later – and I agree wholeheartedly. I am supposed to be writing a paper on the difference between Educational Technology and Instructional Technology. What a bunch of baloney. It’s all the same thing to me and to most of the educated people in the world, too. But someone had to write a book about it and I have to write a paper about it. Thanks for your definition. I am including your blog as one of my resources, maybe my classmates (0r teacher) will actually read this and understand what I am trying to get across to them: “educational technology is whatever stuff you need to use to support the practice of effective teaching and learning.”

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