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Exploring conceptions of technology: Implications for learning, teaching, and meso-level practitioners

Moved authoring to [ascilite-2021-exploring-conceptions-of-technology]

What might different conceptions of technology imply for learning, teaching, and meso-level practitioners

Vague ASCILITE 2021 idea


My idea is based around the question: What might different conceptions of technology imply for meso-level practitioners (i.e. us), learning, and teaching?

The method would take different conceptions of technology (e.g. Dron, postdigital, digital objects, and perhaps others) and use them as a lens to analyse the work we do and explore if and how that might change. The idea is that our work (as required by the context we work in) is informed by certain conceptions of technology (e.g. pedagogy before technology). Conceptions, which these other authors, argue are severely limited. Applying these new conceptions to what we do might reveal interesting and useful implications.


The web came with all sorts of promise (Berners-Lee) From here the great digitisation of society is failing - “monopolisation of the Web, rise of extermist opinions and behaviour” etc. Echoes of this in higher education - with proctoring services, copy detection etc.

Could make the point that we’re into the second wave

As illustrated by the second wave, the first wave never really took off (with some exceptions) …mention references…By the time the second wave is launching there are issues. Australian surveys of the COVID experience wasn’t great.

Importance of digital technology

Aust government launches $1.2bn digital strategy, including quotes from the PM

Every business in Australia is now a digital business,” he said. “This transformation is not merely a national one that needs to happen – it’s a global one that is happening. “We must keep our foot on the digital accelerator to secure our economic recovery from COVID-19.”

But we aren’t doing it well, What is technology

Over recent decades, Western universities have been very good at picking up and reproducing modish language about their purposes and methods – engaged enquiry, T-shaped graduates, being and becoming, and so on. They have been less good at ‘tooling up’ to deal with the complexity of analysing how their educational ecosystems actually function and of systematically redesigning for sustainable improvement. (Ellis & Goodyear, 2019, p. 242)

Technology has it roots in techne - Greek, mechanical arts and sciences etc COM22/CMM16

Conceptual Framework

Other conceptions of technology

Ursula Franklin - Technological society

Franklin and apparently Illich have the notion of “technology as the way things are done around here”

Also opening up Illich as another avenue.

Even the basic term technology, which is often used as a kind of shorthand for computing and related technologies, gestures implicitly to the socialtechnical binary, a long-standing cause for much debate and confusion in the field that can still be found in many publications. (Bigum, Bulfin & Johnson, 2015, p. 10)

Assemblies as heterogenous temporalities and spaces?

Bigum, Bulfin & Johnson 2015 quote Latour and Venn (2002)

The hammer that I find on my workbench is not contemporary to my action today: it keeps folded heterogenous temporalities, one of which has the antiquity of the planet, because of the mineral from which it has been moulded, while another has that of the age of the oak which provided the handle, while still another has the age of the 10 years since it came out of the German factory which produced it for the market. When I grab the handle, I insert my gesture in a “garland of time” as Michel Serres (1995) has put it, which allows me to insert myself in a variety of temporalities or time differentials, which account for (or rather imply) the relative solidity which is often associated with technical action. What is true of time holds for space as well, for this humble hammer holds in place quite heterogenous spaces that nothing, before the technical action, could gather together: the forests of the Ardennes, the mines of the Ruhr, the German factory, the tool van which offers discounts every Wednesday on Bourbonnais streets, and finally the workshop of a particularly clumsy Sunday bricoleur. (p. 249)

MLP, educational developers

Bellaby, A., Sankey, M., & Albert, L. (2020). Rising to the occasion: Exploring the changing emphasis on educational design during COVID-19. ASCILITE’s First Virtual Conference. Proceedings ASCILITE 2020 in Armidale, 145–155.

McGrath (2019) may be useful both for definitions and apparently arguing for a more distributed approach

Aitchison et al (2020)

Central to this expansion are educational developers, staff who support teaching and learning improvement in courses they do not themselves teach (p. 171) Their expertise may include – but is not limited to – knowledge of curriculum design, teaching practice, learning theories, data and learning analytics, technologies for teaching and learning, online learning design, the role of language in learning, and the learning experiences of students from par- ticular cohorts (p. 172)

They also identify a split in the educational developers among: Academic Developers; Academic Language and Learning Developers; and Online Educational Designers (p. 172). We are seen more as online educational designers, but tend to discuss and engage in most of those (thought perphaps more academic deveolpment). QUestions What do the boys think about this? What does a reading of Dron suggest?

Aitichison et al (2020) also find that across the board there is a movement away from developing people to developing products. Arguably connected to the idea of Johnson and the purpose of higher education

a central theme was the tension arising from a perceived shift in institutional priorities from ‘people development’ to ‘product development’: that is, from building human (educator) capacity towards curriculum resource development, particularly for the online environment. (p. 171)

Conceptualisations of Technology: Digital and beyond

Initially focus on three conceptions

  1. Dron and Arthur - Technology as orchestrating phenomena for a purpose [educational-technology-what-is-it-and-how-it-works]
  2. Nature of digital technology - NoDT + the IS idea that digital is ubiqutous
  3. Post-digital and the material view - beyond digital e.g. Goodyear’s blog post

Give a summary of these.

There is no technological solution

(No free lunch theorem)[]

Start with the problems with technological silver bullets, but argue that Dron’s conception also highlights that this includes pedagogical, institutional strategies, organisational structures etc. The need for certainty, cost efficiency and RoI shown by neo-liberal corporate approaches are likely to be forever thrwarted.

Pick up on some recent publications that report empirical findings and conclusions that might illustrate this

Situations facing Meso-level practitioners

Whiting et al (2020) on digi-housekeeping as the type of orchestration work required - perhaps getting at how there isn’t enough attention made to the orchestration that people (e.g. sessionals) need to undertake and not being recompensed. e.g. sessionals starting from scratch

Pedagogy has nothing to teach us

The Times Higher Ed piece that has a lecturer bemoaning “holier than thou educationalists” mandating how they teach under the “feared” umbrella term pedagogy. Hints at PCK and TPACK as a response indicating the importance of thinking of the assembly. Of not talking just about pedagogy, but about how that will be assembled within a specific sport. Reducing the effort of the lecturer in having to orchestrate and assemble.

Orchestrate and assemble, versus orchestrate is there value in conceptualising too much of what has to be done in teaching as assembly, rather than orchestration? To make a particular technology - be it pedagogy or digital technology - it is necessary to assemble it into a form that is appropriate for the specific purpose. Assembly is about refining and connecting all the different technology to fit the specific purpose that the lecturer (and eventually the student) has. Orchestration is simply using it.

The aim is you want to enable more assembly, but not require it, and support orchestration. Too much of our technology requires significant work to do both assembly and orchestration.

Misc. stuff from literature, twitter etc.

Tyranny of integrated systems and limited form of integration

Why productivity growth has stalled since 2005

Has a comment about moving toward “generalisation” which might be because traditional IT is unable to deal with assemblies that aren’t general

Increasing calls for Modularity

e.g Sways being stand alone, not manipuable. Versus what might be done in BJourn OUA project

At the wrong level of assembly?? Or is it a case that Sway aims to try to make assembly into something pretty fairly easy and interactive. But by becoming a more closed/hard technology. At one level it makes reuse in other contexts very easy, but as brick that can’t be changed. Hitting the reusability level.

The Content Interface by focusing on semantic Word documents/HTML with a University specific semantic layer allows for manipulation and repurposing. e.g. as simple as changing university dates.

Literature separating pedagogy and technology

What’s wrong with proctoring software?

Arguably, problems with proctoring software start with purpose. Proctoring software assumes that students might cheat and that it’s important that this be prevented. This purpose is not unique to proctoring software. It’s a primary purpose behind any form of invigilated exam. The problem is that COVID destroyed one of the key phenomena required for the invigilated exam technology - physical co-location. The change in phenomena that could be orchestrated contributed to the upsurge in proctoring software adoption by educational institutions. Educational institutions and individual teachers caught in a web of technologies arising from prior practice, but also driven by professional bodies wanting to be certain of student learning (aka that they didn’t cheat).

The replacement phenomena being orchestrated by proctoring software are digital technologies. The Internet, personal computers, and “machine learning” etc. In the abstract, it could be argued that these technologies are not inherently bad. However, the jury might still be out on “machine learning”, especially the flavours used in proctoring software. Problems arise because of the purpose and how these phenomena are orchestrated essentially becoming malware and then futher orchestrated with various practices within the vendor and educational institutions.

The orchestration decisions made by the vendor (and the institutions) create a hard technology that requires certain types of orchestration on the part of the student. Particularly problematic orchestrations, largely because the purpose of the technology and thus its nature is to be hard (and “safe” from cheating). The types of exam assessment being taken by students under the auspices of proctoring software also embody certain types of orchestration. Types of orchestration considered by many to be educationally suspect.

It would appear that decisions to adopt proctoring software pay limited attention to the type of orchestration required of students.

The unhelpful duality of pedagogy and technology

Many people - including me (McCormack & Jones, 1996) - have argued that the best way to approach learning and teaching is to “focus on pedagogy not technology” (Sharples (2019)) or “putting the pedagogic horse in front of the technology cart” (Sankey, 2019). Dron’s (2021) definition of educational technology suggests that pedagogy is technology meaning that such advice translates into “focus on technology not technology” and “putting the technologic horse in front of the technology cart”. i.e. redundantly tautological and somewhat less than useful. But worse than that, pedagogy before technology can be just as harmful and constraining as technology before pedagogy. Fawns (2020) identifies the more common issue where a method (e.g. lecture or tutorial) is chosen first and results in the same type of inappropriate choices and unsuitable experiences that arise when a specific digital technology is chosen first.

Fawns (2020) defines pedagogy as

pedagogy is the thoughtful combination of methods, technologies, social and physical designs and on-the-fly interactions to produce learning environments, student experiences,… A definition that seems to position pedagogy as the orchestration of phenomena for purpose. For example, the orchestration you and your students do during a tutorial in one of the rooms above.There appears a similar connection between Dron’s conceptions and Fawns’ (2020) postdigital view in the recognition of the situated nature of technolgy. For Fawns this is the integration of the technologies with the social and material environment. For Dron it’s how the web of different technologies in a tutorial room and the broader institutional setting are orchestrated.

Further resonance is evident in Fawns’ suggestion that

(context + purpose) drives (pedagogy [ which includes actual uses of technology]) and Arthur’s definition of technology as the orchestration of phenomena for a purpose. The question of the best phenomena and orchestration is measured against how well it helps achieve the purpose.

This separation of pedagogy and technology into two separate worlds is evident in the institutional practice of learning and teaching. The most explicit evidence of this are organisational structures that creates separate organisational units responsible for pedagogy and digital technology. Leading to the units and their members becoming increasingly focused on their respective phenomena. The pedagogy folk become experts in the principles of the latest pedagogical focus (e.g. employability, work integrated learning etc.) as the digital technology folk become experts in the nature of the latest technological focus (e.g. O365). But further removed from the specific contexts and purposes of individual teachers and students.

Soft technologies, digital fluency, and teaching qualifications

Too much phenemona, not enough orchestration?

My quick reflection on my experience is that too much of what is done to help learning and teaching is focused on the phenomena and not enough on the orchestration and purpose. Echoing my recollections of discussion in Ellis and Goodyear (2019) where the functional areas of a university - learning & teaching; information technology; and, facilitiates management - have a focus on specific different phenemona but see challenges in meaningfully orchestrating those phenomena. Where institutions consider orchestration it is usually to develop “outcome measures at the expense of understanding the proceses that generate those outcomes” (Ellis and Goodyear 2019, p. 2).

Is the main problem the purpose of contemporary universities?

Mark Johnson’s answer to the question “Why don’t your Zoom lectures Dance?” isn’t a critique of Zoom. He doesn’t critique what most see as the technology in a Zoom lecture. Instead he looks at the orchestrated assembly within which this technological object is used. He focuses on the technology (aka orchestrated assembly) that is the Unviersity.

His argument is that the purpose to which various phenomena are being orchestrated to create the technology of a Unviersity is the problem. He describes the current problematic purpose of contemporary unviersities as the “transactional ‘delivery of learning’ and its measurement” and to “make profits and pay vice-chancellors obscene salaries”. He suggests that is the purpose of this particular technology was “creating the contexts for new conversations” is needed to really make your Zoom lectures dance.

Arthur’s (2009) conceptualisation of technology and Dron’s (2021) definition of educational technology aren’t used in Johnson’s argument. But it is does seem that there is some resonance.

I don’t know many people who are in a position to change the purpose of a university. Suggested you have to live with it, or move outside the university. Living with it perhaps doesn’t mean blindly accepting it. If education is a coparticipative technological process, then perhaps living with it could include engaging in different acts of orchestration to assemble the university technology for more interesting purposes?

Focus on assembly and fit for (whose) purpose, rather than pedagogy before technology?

Dron argues for viewing education as “a coparticipative technological processes” and that such a conceptualisation is profound.

It’s the ability to engage in orchestrations that are important, but which are linked to individual purposes. But it’s also how the pedagogical and the technology and the ??? are orchestrated. Not enough attention paid there.

Old stuff below here in this section

I don’t ever seem myself being in a position to change the purpose of higher education, but I do think Arthur, Dron and Johnson are onto a useful way of understanding how to influence the quality of learning and teaching at a practitioner level. That is to eschew less than helpful arguments about precedence between pedagogy and technology (see Google Scholar). Instead focus on something along the lines of how easy it is for students and teachers to assemble technologies for their purposes.

Educationalists have been quite rightly arguing against technological “silver bullets” to education for quite some time. As argued above, a single technological object (e.g. Microsoft Teams, O365, Blackboard Ultra etc.) is not what matters. The problem for the “pedagogy before technology” folk is that (depending on your definition) pedagogy is just another technological object. The quality of a learning and teaching experience will most influenced about how well the participants in that experience are able to assemble the necessary technologies to achieve their collective and individual purpose(s).

Common hard assemblies as a barrier?

All universities appear to already have a common set of core learning and teaching assemblies: lectures, tutorials, workshops, assignments, exams, course sites etc. These common assemblies are well understood within universities. Most participants in higher education quickly form an understanding of the types of orchestrations they are expected to perform within these assemblies. These assemblies are difficult to change because they are enmeshed in interconnected webs of different technologies. Position titles (lecturer, tutor), time-tabling, workload allocation, enterprise bargaining agreements, room design, accreditation requirements of governments and professional bodies, and many more all work to enshrine these technologies as “the way we do things around here”.

Isn’t any surprise that during the rapid COVID response the most common questions were: How do I move my (lecture tutorial final exam) online?

These common hard assemblies appear to be barriers to change. Can far-reaching changes in pedagogical practice occur without changing these hard assemblies? Will mandating that all academic staff must have formal pedagogical credentials change these hard assemblies?

Universities are trying to use the same assemblies

All those existing hard assemblies surrounding learning and teaching were orchestrated into being to support face-to-face learning and teaching. Part of the challenge now is that those assemblies arguably don’t work as effectively for significant uses of digital technology. Digital technology is a new phenomena (technology) that the University technology is trying to use. It works differently to face-to-face technology. Different technologies as different phenomena create and foreclose different different opportunities (Zuboff, 1985). Different technologies have different affordances. Different technologies enable and perhaps enable different types of orchestration and produce different types of assembly.

Evidence for this difference is visible in the history for Australian higher education where there have been universities that were on-campus only, primarily print-based distance education, dual mode, and primarily online.

The LMS is both too soft (difficult) and too hard

The LMS is not a single technology. It contains multiple tools - discussion board, gradebook, content authoring etc - that can be assembled in many different ways. In most institutions that I’m aware of a course site within the Learning Management Systems is a mixture technologies that are both too hard and too soft. Some of this distinction is baked into the LMS, some of it is enshrined by institutional practice and policy.

For example, most LMS ensure that only authorised people are able to access a course site. Institutional policy determines specifically who is authorised. Hard limitations that can make it difficult to assemble open educational practices.

An LMS can also come with its equivalent to a blank canvas, a very soft technology. Below is an image of a blank Blackboard Content Area. The blank canvas where a teacher is expected to create a wonderful learning and teaching experience. Exactly what they do is entirely up to them and their knowledge of learning, teaching, Blackboard, web design and other technical knowledge. It’s hard. Not many academics have the necessary knowledge. That’s why there are so many ugly, badly designed LMS course sites, and a tendency for academics to use the LMS as a content repository for PowerPoints, Word docs, and PDF files (Bartuskova et al., 2015).

Blank Canvas Blank Blackboard Content Area
Blank Blackboard Learn Content Area
Small easel with a blank canvas, CC0 Another blank canvas CC0

Using assemblies to make the soft (difficult) hard (easy) and the hard soft

Dron (2021) points out that hard technologies can be made soft, and soft technologies can be made hard by orchestrating them into other assemblies. For example, a previous institution had the practice of creating different course sites for different offerings of a course. Meaning that students in each offering were starting from a clean slate. Any residue of experience (Riel and Polin, 2004) from earlier offerings is lost. In this example the LMS-based course site was orchestrated into a broader assembly of technologies that includes an external social bookmarking and annotation tool (Diigo). Softening the LMS and enabling some development of a shared residue of experience.

Most universities seek to harden the soft (make the difficult, easier) technology of a LMS site through the development of a institutional standard course shell/look and feel. A specific assembly of features that provide a consistent set of features across all courses with the ultimate aim of increase the quality of the learner experience while reducing the workload required to provide it. In what many see as the best scenario course development is not done by the teacher, but instead course development is orchestrated into a broader assembly that includes on a team of people with expertise in content, learning design, and technology that use a systematic design process to develop the course.

But these resulting assemblies (technologies) then have limitations that then lead to different types of assemblies. Generic default course sites suffer from the [reusability-paradox]

Walsh et al (2020) as an example of a very specific type of assembly that is being used to produce high quality learning experieences. Public/private with very specific/different teams - unbundling - but as perhaps the worst example of what Johnson is talking about. Raisign questions of how normal unviersities can achieve this and enable the sspace for the conversations that Johnson talks about. Perhaps the shared assmebly/CASA approach can work here. With a focus on conversations and on generativity

Swinging from hard to soft

Talk about GO assemblies

Lead into CASA

Some institutions define a common “default course structure” which defines some com

The difficulty of scale

Resort of project maanagement and hard technologies

some ways forward

An abstract structure

Some practical issues

Lecture as hard technology, versus study guide

Orchestration from the students perspective

Article from conversation titled “Good riddance to boring lectures: Technology isn’t the answer - understanding good teacing is” is at first glance a good candidate for unpicking


An evolution in ASCILITE practice?

Hannon et al (2014)

Sims (2004), who found a thematic shift in the concerns of conference papers: from the particulars of technologies and their production, to issues of pedagogical effectiveness and the participants in learning Arguing here is moving beyond pedagogy and technology and looking at practice/at orchestrations


Aitchison, C., Harper, R., Mirriahi, N., & Guerin, C. (2020). Tensions for educational developers in the digital university: Developing the person, developing the product. Higher Education Research & Development, 39(2), 171–184.

Bearman, M., Lambert, S., & O’Donnell, M. (2021). How a centralised approach to learning design influences students: A mixed methods study. Higher Education Research & Development, 40(4), 692–705.

Bigum, C., Bulfin, S., & Johnson, N. F. (2015). Critical Is Something Others (Don’t) Do: Mapping the Imaginative of Educational Technology. In S. Bulfin, N. F. Johnson, & C. Bigum (Eds.), Critical Perspectives on Technology and Education (pp. 1–13). Palgrave Macmillan US.

Dunlap, J., Sobel, D., & Sands, D. (2007). Designing for Deep and Meaningful Student-to-Content Interactions. TechTrends, 51(4), 20–31.

Hannon, J., & Al-Mahmood, R. (2014). The place of theory in educational technology research. Rhetoric and Reality: Critical Perspectives on Educational Technology. Proceedings Ascilite Dunedin 2014, 745–750.

Huang, J., Matthews, K. E., & Lodge, J. M. (2021). ‘The university doesn’t care about the impact it is having on us’: Academic experiences of the institutionalisation of blended learning. Higher Education Research & Development, 0(0), 1–15.

Johnson, N. (2015). The Work of Theory in Ed-Tech Research (pp. 35–50).

Pedagogy has nothing to teach us. (2020, November 26). The Times Higher Education Supplement.