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Educational technology: what is it and how it works

Dron, J. (2021). Educational technology: What it is and how it works. AI & SOCIETY.


Education is defined as a technology - using Arthur’s definition of technology

the orchestration of some phenomena for a purpose and being formed through assembly of other phenomena, including technology

An important part of this is that it /encourages the asking of three important questions about all technologies (including pedagogies)

  1. What is the stuff (phenemona) that makes up the technology?
    • What are the principles and affordances of the phenemona?
  2. Who is doing the organising?
    • teacher, student, vendor, IT person, etc.
  3. For what purpose is it being used?
    • Is it educational equality, making sure students don’t cheat, that it’s scalable?.

Rather than users of technology, we are participants in the orchestration of technology. Raising the question about the nature of our participation. Are we “cogs” because the technologies are hard. Hard technologies have rigid behaviours. Soft technologies are have an innate plascticity. They leave gaps for us to do things??

But technologies are assemblies that include combinations of hard and soft technologies. Unlikely that there is a really hard or really soft technology.

It is the assembly that is of most interest. The use and orchestration - including the tacit knowledge and skills of the doodler, not the technology. e.g. it’s not the list of functionality of the LMS that is of interest. It’s the use and orchestration that resulting assembly. But softness depends on people being aware, empowered, and able to make use of it.

Also something about the importance of assembly


Definition of education as

the giving and receiving of systematic instruction, the process of facilitating learning, constituted from countless methods, tools, and structures, operated by teachers and many others (p. 1)

Argues that education “may usefully be seen as a technological phenomenon” (p. 1)

That this perpective

has some very far-reaching consequences for research and practice, explaining some hitherto puzzling phenomena, and challenging some of the fundamental beliefs held by many educators and researchers in education (p. 1)

The nature of technology

Technology is “an ‘annoyingly vague abstraction’”.

Part of the problem, though, is that technology can be both something that we do and something that has been done, often simultaneously


Identifies Arthur’s (2009) definition

describes technology as “the orchestration of phenomena for some purpose” (p. 51)

Which encapsulates three central aspects of technologies

  1. they make use of stuff (real or imagined, mental or physical, designed or natural)
  2. the stuff is organised by someone;
  3. the organised stuff is used for something.


to intentionally bring different things - actions, tools, methods, proceses etc. - together in an organised form, and an orchestration is the result of doing so (Dron, 2021, p. 2)


Arthur’s definition includes the notion that “the stuff” which is orchestrated will typically include other technologies. e.g. nuts and bolts, rules of grammar etc.

Technological evolution differs from natural evolution inasmuch as it occurs through combinations of existing technologies rather than genetic adaptations (Arthur, 2009) - from (Dron, 2021, p. 2)

Education is itself a “large and complex technology” resulting from “layer upon layer of other mutually constitutive and affective technologies that both combine and compete”.

New technologies are built upon and from others.

Human-enacted technologies like organisational processes, or methods of design and manufacture, are as much technologies as cars or factories (Arthur 2009; Kelly 2010) - (Dron 2021, p.2)

Educational technologies

Pedagogies - “methods, models, or principles of teaching” - are technologies.

Definition of educational/learning technology

one that, deliberately or not, includes pedagogies among the technologies that it orchestrates.

Parts of an educational technology system only become educational technologies in their own right when they affect learning in an educational system. e.g. screws holding a computer together are not computing technologies as they do not affect computing in a computing system.

Faustian bargains (and the Task-Artifact cycle)

Most technologies solve problems, most technologies create new problems to solve. Creating a technology creates new phenemona which are unpredictable.

Then new technologies are created to respond to those new phenemona.

Not science

Technology is not “the application of science”. Rather, “science is applied technology”.

Many technologies don’t rely on science.

Never neutral

All technologies embody views and beliefs. ??Are these part of the phenomena and purpose?

We often don’t understand technologies and Frisch (1994) argues that technologies have “the knack of so arranging the world that we don’t have to experience it”. That lack of experience contributing to perceptions

We are part-technology, but also out technologies are part-us. That’s how embedded technology is in human life.

technologies lie deep within us, and human life woul be unimaginable without them

Learnign is not technology, but means to intentionally learning…

Babies fresh from the womb learn. Many non-human things can be said to learn. By most of the means we use to intentionally learn are technologies.

Participation and plasticity

We are not uses of technology. We are participants in the orchestration of technologies.

Our participation is influenced by how hard (rigid) in behaviour or soft the technology is. We participate with a mechanical watch by winding it.

Soft technologies have innate plascticity. Provided by gaps.

Soft technologies are harder to use. Offer creativity, flexibility and reslilience.

Harder technologies tend to provide efficiency, precision and replicability, but at a cost of flexibility and adaptability

Assemblies that soften or harden

Almost all technologies are assemblies of both soft and hard technologies, so extremes are vanishingly rare.

A pencil used to join the dots is harder than one used to doodle. Notice again, though, that it is not the pencil that has changed, but the use and the orchestration: it is that assembly that is the technology of interest, including the tacit knowledge and skills of the doodler, not the pencil.

Hence, it’s not the LMS and its functionality that should be the focus, but instead it is the assembly - the use and the orchestration.

Cooley (1987) - for tools that informate and against tools that automate

Moreover, the softness may be available but, unless people are aware of, empowered to, and capable of taking advantage of it, the system remains hard for them. For example, if a vehicle provides both manual and automatic gear shifting, the manual option is useless unless the operator knows how to use it

Structural patterns

Hard technologies are less flexible and cannot be easily changed. Hence usually play a structural role in assembly. Slow-changing elements (hard technologies) affect the faster-changing elements more than the reverse.


What is soft for one person may often be hard for another

The technology that matters is that object plus the orchestrated assembly of which it is a part, including the soft technologies added by its participants