Focus on the technology or not?

So what comes first, technology or pedagogy?

You will often hear people, especially at learning technology conferences talk about how we focus too much on the technology and we should be putting learning first, focus on the pedagogy. Put pedagogy first and then apply appropriate use of technology to solve that pedagogical problem. It’s as though there is a problem about talking about technology and the use of technology without putting the pedagogical problem at the forefront.

Of course if we put technology first, then we could be seen to be shoehorning technology into the learning, a bolt-on perhaps…

Or not!

I do wonder about the point of a learning technology conference that doesn’t give weight to the very technologies that we are discussing and presenting about in these events and conferences.

It’s not always about the technology, however in order to utilise technology effectively and efficiently, it is vital that practitioners are aware of the potential and availability of technology.

How else are they going to apply the use of technological solutions to learning problems?

Most practitioners are more than aware of the learning problems they and their learners face, what they need are solutions to those problems.

The issue I have with putting the learning problem first at conferences and events is that implies that everyone has that specific learning problem and that one solution fits.


Yes there are generic learning problems that we face, but most learning problems will be subject to who is leading that learning and who the learners are.

In the end what happens is that learning problems become adapted to fit other learning problems and it’s not always a good fit, so the technological solution becomes less of a solution and becomes more of a problem.

The issue is much more about context.

In the context of the classroom or lecture theatre, a practitioner is facing a series of learning problems that need solving. Some of these if not all of them can be solved using traditional learning methods and processes. However some of them can be solved smarter, more efficiently (ie cheaper) or solved faster using learning technologies.

This comes back to the earlier point that, it is vital that practitioners are aware of the potential and availability of technology. When they know what is available and importantly what it is capable of then they can apply technological solutions to their learning problems.

Likewise in the context of an event or a conference session, the focus can be on the technology, as we don’t know what the learning problems are, and to be honest there are too many variables in play that would allow us to effectively start with the learning. By moving the focus onto the technology, we can start to improve the knowledge and skills of practitioners to ensure that they are aware of the potential of different technologies in order to support them solving problems and meeting challenges they face with their teaching and with their learners.

So when I have led sessions on mobile learning, I have often put the focus on the mobile technologies even though I know that mobile learning is not about mobile devices, but about learning. However by explaining to practitioners what can be done with the PlayStation Portable (PSP) and what it is capable of (especially with the GO! Camera attached), the practitioners in that session will be aware of the potential of the PSP and when they next face a pedagogical problem they will know then if the PSP is a solution for the learning and their learners. I know a Sports Lecturer for example who did just this. His learners needed to study body movement analysis, in the past they used pencils and paper out on the sports field, it worked, but wasn’t entirely practical. By changing to using the PSP and camera they were able to not only video and photograph sports movements, they could review them in the field (on the PSP’s large screen) and also refer back to them once back in college. When I led that session on PSPs, there was no way that I could have known about the curriculum, learners of everyone in that room, any learning problems I started with, wouldn’t be relevant to many people in the room and I could have lost them before we even started. When talking about the PSP as a solution, I know from experience that practitioners would have said, “well that wouldn’t work with my subject” or “well my learners are different, so that wouldn’t work”.

Part of the issue is that I find many practitioners can’t visualise outside their subject and context, so find it difficult to adapt solutions for different problems, to problems of their own. However given a more open view on the subject, if they are aware of the potential then they can often apply the use of technology to their solution and solve their problems. In other words it’s an ownership issue.

The real challenge is that new technologies (and I am thinking mobile here) offer radically different solutions to learning problems and practitioners though can apply the technology to their own problems, don’t always see the potential to do more and to do it better, as the solution is out of a traditional learning context.

So yes by putting technology first at events and conferences we can solve pedagogical and learning problems. However there is a bigger issue in how we fundamentally change what we do, because in the main we have always done it that way and practitioners and learners have expectations that it will be done that way. When you remove them from this comfort zone then you have a bigger challenge than just thinking what should we focus on, technology or pedagogy.

However you have to start from somewhere and by explaining the potential that learning technologies offer, you are starting from a good place that will open minds to future potential and possibilities.

10 thoughts on “Focus on the technology or not?”

  1. Thanks for this post, you hit the nail on the head.

    It is a balance, isn’t it? One that is dependent on the diversity and skill level of the audience. Like you wrote, I have seen teachers turn off when the instructor focuses too much on a content area that doesn’t relate to them. I have also watched teachers leave because the paradigm shift was too dramatic.

    That said, I think you face a risk if you go too far in other direction, too. A few well placed examples of the tool working with students speaks volumes, and validates the potential of what you offer.

  2. Thanks for this post, James.

    I think I disagree – yes we need to know about the technology and what it can do, but an emphasis on the learning aspects saves a lot of fruitless investigation of technologies that offer little benefit to the learning process.

    Of course, all learning instances are different, but as educational technologists we should be interested in the commonalities around groups of these instances, and ways in which we can offer technical affordances to improve some or all of these instances.

    Apart from anything else, if there is one student out there whose learning would be transformed by the iThing, although most others would find it worse than useless, this is the concern of that learner and those directly supporting them.

    For instance, I keep a guitar in my home office: an emerald-burst 1991 Patrick Eggle Berlin with Seymour Duncan coil-tappable pickups, no tremolo assembly and spertzel locking nuts. Picking it up and playing it for 5 minutes helps me work with complex problems away from a screen. I imagine it might not work for others.

  3. Your timing is remarkable, James: this post ties in so neatly with a conversation I had this week in our office about technology and pedagogy in terms of staff training.

    I do agree with you that context is key. Further than that, I think knowing your audience is even more important. In my experience, it can be counterproductive to feed a certain type of audience too many features and applications. Choices, choices! – Too much potential can be overwhelming for some people. I think it’s important to acknowledge this.

    EdTech events and conferences tend to attract an audience full of expert teachers and expert techies. It’s the perfect blend of motivation, creativity, enthusiasm and vision. My audience at internal college training events, on the other hand, is a very different blend of mindsets and abilities. While one type of audience can handle a tech focus with a bit of pedagogy thrown in, another type of audience needs to see the pedagogy first in order to benefit most from the tech that we introduce them to.

    I blurbed about this a bit more in-depth at

  4. Here in Melbourne we are at the beginning of the academic year and had this conversation last year as we prepared our staff training plans for 2011. We are just rolling over to Moodle 2.0 so everything is new for the teachers at the institute I am working in.

    The teachers are the usual mix is very enthusiastic early scooters who need very little encouragement, can see the potential of technology in it’s many guises, and can visualise it’s use across a variety of contexts. At the other end of the spectrum are the teachers who resist change with more energy than it would actually take to try something new!

    I take a different approach depending on the audience – a “look shiny” approach to demonstrate what’s new and imagine the possibilities in the classroom; and a very targeted, curriculum-focussed approach that grounds the new technology very clearly in a context that the teachers can relate to. With reluctant teachers I try to show them one thing – a Moodle quiz, an assignment function, or the wonderful “instant embed” function of Moodle 2.0. I don’t want to frighten the reluctant ones.

    I enjoy both types of training. I love the enthusiasm of the eager, tech-ready teachers but I also enjoy the challenge of meeting the needs of the teachers who aren’t really convinced that it will work.

  5. Obviously I should have checked the officious auto-correct before I posted. I can almost forgive it the random apostrophes in the possessive “its” but how did “adopters” get to “scooters”?

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