What do we talk about when we talk about tech?


One of the rationales for establishing the networked learning conference was that "focused primarily on the educational aspects of learning that is supported by new information technologies, rather than a focus on the technology itself”

What is “the technology itself”? What do we consider constitutes “technology” and what technology do we research? What do we not look at or exclude I sometimes think that this a more-or-less accurate representation of what we talk about when we talk about technology in TEL or networked learning http://www.thedailymash.co.uk/news/business/shiny-thing-make-it-all-better-201001282420 :wink: If we were to redraw the T in TEL to be broader than a device focus what would that do?


Hi Steve,
Thanks for the various contributions you have already made to this hotseat. I look very much forward to this hotseat, facilitated by you.

My name is Mikala Hansboel. I come from Denmark, and I work (among other) on researching (our ways of researching) relationships between ICT’s and education. My PhD thesis (2010) and recent work has been heavily inspired by various STS/ANT resources.

To me the radical contributions (to mention but a few) of Science and Technology Studies (STS) is that we get the means to discuss what we actually mean when we use concepts like “technology” and “mediation”. For many years the field of “elearning” lacked discussions on the primary concept “technology” occupying the field.

To me the concept of technology hangs tightly together with the concept of knowledge. Adding the field of STS to our discussions has (to me) brought forward the more political dimensions of “elearning” to the field. I am particularly fond of the new analytical scopes that come with engagements with empirically understanding technology as effects (not something with a priori effects in and of itself), and technical mediations as tightly hanging together with emerging enactments of technologies in and across practices (e.g. Latour).

Furthermore, I find that Latour’s principle of “following the actors” has added to my engagements in educational research, because something entirely different comes from following the “the thing”. I find that the principle of following the actors opens for different kinds of enactments of the educational matters we engage with, than when we start by anticipating what should be the spaces, times and actors of relevance to our research. I have e.g. researched: mingoville.com (a virtual world for teaching English at the beginner’s level) as it moved into different schools and homes in various countries in the world (see https://www.ucviden.dk/portal-ucsj/files/15037651/5_Hansbol_ELEA_8_3_web2011.pdf) and I have followed a so-called knowledge-sharing system as it was moved into a business college (see my PhD thesis: http://www.dasts.dk/wp-content/uploads/Hansboel_2009.pdf).

Recently I have also been engaged in researching relationships between the agencies of a theory of science MOOC,and the participants’ engagements in the MOOC.

I look forward to meeting and discussing with others interested in some of the same issues.

:smile: Mikala


Hi Mikala,

Thanks for your contribution - I too love the freedom and opportunity form the idea of “following the actors” and redrawing what acts to engage with things not just people.

While often a harsh critic of ANT I find Langdon Winner’s insights useful in redrawing and re-thinking what the T in TEL could be as it feels to me that the idea that Networked Learning would define itself by not focussing on the tech (for good reasons so as not to become “a tech conference” have had a side-effect of leaving the tech to be left less critiqued or explored than the learning.

Langdon Winner’s (1977) examination of the ways in which the word “technology” appears in academic and everyday speech noting how the term is “widely used in ordinary and academic speech to talk about an unbelievably diverse collection of phenomena - tools, instruments, machines, organizations, methods, techniques, systems, and the totality of all these and similar things in our experience.” (p8). He then proposes a typology:

  • Apparatus: the “tools, instruments, machines, appliances, weapons, gadgets which are used in accomplishing a wide variety of tasks …… For many persons, “technology” actually means apparatus”(p11)
  • Technique refers to the Greek root of technology as technē and covers “methods, procedures, routines - that people engage in to accomplish tasks” (p12)
  • organization refers to the use of the term technology to refer to “some (but not all) varieties of social organization- factories, workshops, bureaucracies” (p12)
  • Network is his term for the use of technology to “mark those large-scale systems that combine people and apparatus linked across great distances” (p12)

I think that a shift in networked learning research away from the apparatus and towards the network idea of this typoliogy could be a benefit - e.G. rather than focus on “iPads in classrooms” extend that to look at how iPads and apps and the infrastructure behind them commoditise and individualise knowledge and learning and users.


Winner, L. (1977). Autonomous technology : technics-out-of-control as a theme in political thought. Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press


Hi Steve and Mikala,

I like Ursula Franklin’s notion that technology is the way things are done around here. It’s an holistic, ANTish way of thinking about practices. So, for me, for example, school is a technology. It’s a way of doing things. If you want to drag John Law’s work into it, it’s a method assemblage (see his After Method.

Then instead of worshipping the L-word (learning) you can think about the practices that attract the label. You can think about what can and can’t be said or thought about the L-word. You can also think about the labelling practices: oooh look I spotted a yellow-bellied black-hooded learning. Or, you can think about learning as just another vestige of humanism: aren’t we special, we can learn.

Then there is the fun stuff from social neuroscience:

According to a textbook on human physiology, the human sensory system sends the brain about eleven million bits of information each second. However, anyone who who has ever taken care of a few children who are all trying to talk to you at once can testify that your conscious mind cannot process anywhere near that amount. The actual amount of information we can handle has been estimated to be somewhere between sixteen and fifty bits per second.

Mlodinow, L. (2012). Subliminal : the revolution of the new unconscious and what it teaches us about ourselves (1st ed.). London: Allen Lane, p. 33


Your conscious mind is only able to process approximately 50 bits of information a second, while your unconscious mind processes approximately 11 million bits per second.

Zimmerman, M. (1989). “The nervous system in the context of information theory.” In R. F. Schmidt & G. Thews (eds.), Human Physiology, pp. 166-173. Berlin, Germany: Springer-Verlag.


If the conscious mind is like a Post-it note, then, by comparison, the unconscious mind is the Library of Congress.

Haseltine, E. (2010). Long fuse, big bang : achieving long-term success through daily victories (1st ed.). New York: Hyperion, p. 152.

I’ve not been convinced that adding adjectives to the L-word helps much at all, despite the name of this conference!

I know the push to not think about the material bibs and bobs that don’t have language, i.e. an iPad, is a simple device to try and curb the enthusiasm of booster ed techies but that is a dull game, as is the game many ed techs play: Oooh look, a new shiny thingamebob. I wonder if I can do something, anything useful with it in a classroom. That’s my one sentence history of ed. tech. We have to get past this nonsense because the real game has little to do with silly squabbles about the tech in classrooms.

To me, the well-intentioned ed techs have blind-sided the field of education, i.e. the field has effectively said: the tech is for teaching and learning and it’s in good hands so we can get on and do other, more important stuff. Then when phenomena that are underpinned by the inexorable improvements in the digital pop into view there is a knee jerk response that typically says two things: we know what is going on and it’s no threat to what we do. So experiments that are concerned with the unbundling of various formal education organisations (think schools, universities) is quickly dismissed or domesticated. Or the developments that formal education systems appear not to have noticed: the rise and rise of machines; the ongoing encroachment of machine learning into a staggering set of practices that used to be the province of humans; the linked and worrying developments in the biotech/gene tech space, the nanotech space, the materials tech space. IT underpins all of these developments.

The field of education is pretty much the last to realise that the planet is going through an almost never ending series of Gutenberg moments. The emergence of full stack phenomena like Uber are indicators of the important shifts that the digital has enabled. Lots and lots of new ways of the way things are done around here :).


Can you suggest some more words as well as the L word?

I hope this topic is not going to end over the weekend. You are getting to some important stuff.


Hi Will,

Do you mean instead of the l-word or other terms that I reckon ought to be referred to as X-word?

If the former, there is already a huge array of terms in use to talk about the L-word. If the second, then the T-word, for technology is one. What follows is an early draft version of a chapter. The earlier scribble picked up much of this argument. There are a few more links here that might be useful:

The T-word and related things

Before we develop the contrast, we need to be clear how we use the term technology from here on in this chapter. Common usage is to have the word refer to the material artefacts, the hardware and software. We argue that while it is a linguistic convenience, there are problems that come from thinking about the issues at hand in this way. To begin, we draw on an argument of Ursula Franklin’s (1990) who posits technology as formalised practice. She develops this notion from Kenneth Boulding’s notion of technology as ways of doing things. So we can speak and think of a technology of painting, of gardening, of sailing, even of establishing factors that favour integration of computers in classrooms. This is a more holistic way of thinking about the T-word. Franklin makes the point of situating technology in culture, in specific contexts. We argue that this goes part of the way but effectively is a move that only morphs one binary into another: the social technical binary becomes ways of doing things and their contexts. These epistemological shufflings can go on indefinitely, cutting up representations of reality(ies) in order to better suit the purpose.

From here we want to further develop our approach to the T-word. We want to argue, following Pickering(1995), Barad (2003) and Mulcahy(2010) that a performative idiom allows us to move out of the quandaries of binary shuffling. The idiom suggests a consideration of practices, of doings, of actions. In this idiom, technologies are effects of practices, not stand alone things waiting to be represented. Barad (2003) makes the point:

representationalism is the belief in the ontological distinction between representations and that which they purport to represent; in particular, that which is represented is held to be independent of all practices of representing. (p. 804)

Usefully, she continues and examines the origins of representationalism, arguing, following Rouse (1996), that representationalism is a Cartesian legacy,

a linguistic variation on Descartes’ insistence that we have a direct and privileged access to the contents of our thoughts that we lack towards the “external” world. (p. 209)

Thus the performative idiom turns things on their heads, so to speak. Rather than beginning with a fixed set of components, factors or predispositions that require representation, it prompts us to consider the practices that enact integration-realities, such as the papers we cited earlier in this chapter, such as this chapter. A key question then is, how realities get done in practice. How, for instance, are teachers, their students, the computers in the classroom enacted in integration-realities? Or, put another way, teachers, their students and the computers which are the focus of concerns about integration are all effects of practices.

Barad, K., 2003 Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter, pp. 801-831 in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society.
Franklin, U., 1990 The Real World of Technology. CBC Enterprises, Montreal.
Mulcahy, D., 2010 Assembling the ‘Accomplished’ Teacher: The performativity and politics of professional teaching standards. [i]Educational Philosophy and Theory[i] 43: 94-113.
Pickering, A., 1995 The mangle of practice : time, agency, and science. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Rouse, J., 1996 Engaging Science: How to Understand Its Practices Philosophically. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, N.Y.

The final version did not use the t-word device it is:

Bigum, C., & Rowan, L. (2015). A gorilla in their midst: rethinking educational technology. In S. Bulfin, N. Johnson & C. Bigum (Eds.), Killer apps: Critical perspectives on technology and education (pp. 15-34): Palgrave.


Phrases like “the internet of things,” “Big
Data,” and “machine learning” flag developments that have already attracted
the attention of ed-tech researchers and scholars.

found this in a free https://www.palgrave.com/resources/sample-chapters/9781137385444_sample.pdf

So far, (still reading this as part of a slow Sunday morning ) I have to wonder where “edtech” is coming from. Is it already another academic subject? Seems to me it come mostly from tech companies and media. This could be another reason why “education” is not well defined.

Anyway, please keep this thread going. More later, might even buy the book but will take a while to read it.


Hi Steve and everyone else,
This is just to say thanks for all your interesting posts. Unfortunately I’m a bit hung up these days. I hope to be able to return to the discussions before they end…

:slight_smile: Mikala


Hi Will,

The other chapter (pre-print version) is here. It’s a good question re ed tech. There is a history and the close connections to those who sell the tech has always been tricky. There are some folk who, IMHO, get it. Bret Victor is one. His site is a joy and you could well spend a long time reading and playing. The book is a bit all over the place. Not sure I’d spend $ on it ;).

Re all the hot topics you mention, you might find this Wired piece by Kevin Kelly helpful.


I guess they won’t really end till close to the face to face conference. So maybe start again early next year?


more later, I am also thinking about this connected to radio. I work on a local FM station facing similar issues so aomw of the tech actors overlap.