The different things people mean when they say 'The technology isn't important'

September 2009

The old mantra of 'pedagogy, not technology', 'technology isn't important' or 'we are too obssessed with technology' seemed to come up more than average at this year's ALT-C and in fact Martin Weller has written a blog post about the topic.

It is a line that hits a nerve with me I guess, because as a developer, when somebody says 'the technology isn't important' they are also in effect saying 'you are not important'. I even made the decision to return to development precisely because I cared about pedagogy out of frustration that the technology often didn't exist to do the things that I wanted to do pedagogically. I also believe that as a developer, the better you understand the domain that you are working in, the more likely you are to produce good, useful software, regardless of whether you have experts in that domain to consult. I don't think the division between who knows about each should be as acute as it is.

Anyhow, I think when people say something along the lines of 'the technology isn't important', they mean one or more of the following, and it turns out that I actually agree with the vast majority of them.

1. 'People spend too much time pursuing things that are shiny rather than things that are useful'

I don't have any problems agreeing that this happens and I think it's something that needs to be addressed in many instances, but it doesn't mean that it's not possible to do things with technology that are useful. 

2. 'The pedagogy problems are harder to solve than the technology problems'

They are different types of problem and so hard to compare. There are enough examples of problems with technology in teaching, whether in terms of reliability, scalability or usability, that the technology problems obviously aren't totally trivial or cheap to solve. They are just different and both difficult in their own way.  

3. 'We are spending too much time talking about technology as opposed to pedagogy'

I think this happens in part because technology is easier to talk about and the problems and options are easier to articulate. We've got a better vocabulary for talking about technology than pedagogy. I think if we want to solve this we need to try and figure out better ways to articulate discussions about pedagogy.

4. 'Things will go wrong if you don't think about both the pedagogy and the technology'

Absolutely - it's like a sets of lenses and if anyone of them is dirty you won't be able to see through them.

5. 'Technological innovation isn't useful at driving pedagogical innovation'

Plenty of counterexamples, here.

6. 'Technology has nothing to offer pedagogy'

I guess you don't hear this so often in learning technology circles. Scott Wilson articulated this very well I thought at F-ALT when he said that what technology can change the timescale, distance and cost at which things are possible (paraphrasing there, Scott put this far more eloquently!). I think that's very powerful.

7. 'I don't like the technical people I have to interact with'

OK, this is probably a bit of an exaggeration, but pedagogy and technology do attract different personality types, and I wonder if there might occasionally be an element of this, especially it's hard for non-technical people to truly appreciate the work that technical people do.


I was recently reading The Fat Duck Cookbook. At points during reading it, I couldn't help hearing echoes of lots of the debates on technology in teaching. At the end of the first section Heston Blumenthal includes his Statement on the 'New Cookery' which sums up very neatly how I feel on the topic, obviously altered to be relevant to education. Here is part of it:

We embrace innovation - new ingredients, techniques, appliances, information, and ideas - whenever it can make a real contribution to our cooking.

We do not pursue novelty for its own sake. We may use modern thickeners, sugar substitutes, enzymes, liquid nitrogen, sous-vide, dehydration, and other nontraditional means, but these do not define our cooking. They are a few of the many tools that we are fortunate to have available as we strive to make delicious and stimulating dishes.

Similarly, the disciplines of food chemistry and food technology are valuable sources of information and ideas for all cooks. Even the most straightforward traditional preparation can be strengthened by an understanding of its ingredients and methods, and chemists have been helping cooks for hundreds of years. The fashionable term "molecular gastronomy" was introduced relatively recently, in 1992, to name a particular academic workshop for scientists and chefs on the basic food chemistry of traditional dishes. That workshop did not influence our approach, and the term "molecular gastronomy" does not describe our cooking, or indeed any style of cooking.

You can read the full statement here.