Technology, determinism and learning: exploring different ways of being digitally literate

Uploaded on

(Seminar given at Lancaster University, 14th March, 2012) …

(Seminar given at Lancaster University, 14th March, 2012)

The field of educational technology has devoted a lot of time and effort to theorising ‘learning’, and some to developing ideas about what ‘education’ might be, but perhaps surprisingly, the idea of ‘technology’ remains poorly examined. Work commonly builds on ‘common sense’ accounts of technology, relying on deterministic accounts of the relationship between technology, practices and identities. These accounts rarely pay attention to ideas of context or the role of agency. 

These problems can be illustrated by work on digital literacy. Digital  literacy is widely assumed to be about free-floating generic skills. The prevalence of new technologies has supposedly led to the emergence of a generation of digital natives, who are supposed to learn in different ways and even have different kinds of brains from other people. Educational systems are expect both to reflect their new preferences for learning, and to prepare them to use technology as a route to gainful employment. 

However, instead, digital literacies can be reconceived as consisting of context bound, situated practices that are implicated in the construction of complex, hybrid identities in a range of overlapping domains. Viewed this way, being digitally literate becomes a social achievement, in which technology is taken up to serve personal agency, rather than a cause.

This presentation will review different ways of theorising technology, exploring some alternative framework (such as Actor Network Theory and praxiology), and their consequences for research. This will be illustrated using data drawn from an ongoing JISC-funded project that is using multimodal journaling to document their engagement with technology.

More in: Education , Technology
  • Full Name Full Name Comment goes here.
    Are you sure you want to
    Your message goes here
    Be the first to comment
No Downloads


Total Views
On Slideshare
From Embeds
Number of Embeds



Embeds 0

No embeds

Report content

Flagged as inappropriate Flag as inappropriate
Flag as inappropriate

Select your reason for flagging this presentation as inappropriate.

    No notes for slide
  • Conole, G. & Dyke, M. (2004) What are the affordances of information and communication technologies?ALT-J, Research in Learning Technology, 12 (2), 113-124.
  • Oliver, M. (2011) Technological determinism in educational technology research: some alternative ways of thinking about the relationship between learning and technology. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning., M. (forthcoming) Learning technology: theorising the tools we study. British Journal of Educational Technology.
  • Friesen, N. (2009). Rethinking e-learning research. New York: Peter Lang.
  • Oliver, M. (2005) The problem with affordance. The E-Learning Journal, 2 (4), 402‑413. Available online:
  • Oliver, M. (forthcoming) Learning technology: theorising the tools we study. British Journal of Educational Technology.
  • Woolgar, S. & Grint, K. (1997) The Machine at Work: Technology, Work and Organization. London: Polity.Friesen, N. (2009). Rethinking e-learning research. New York: Peter Lang.
  • Selwyn, N. (2010). Looking beyond learning: notes towards the critical study of educational technology.Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 26, 65–73.Conole, G. & Dyke, M. (2004). What are the affordances of information and communication technologies?ALT-J: Research in Learning Technology, 12, 2, 113–124.Wijekumar, K., Meyer, B., Wagoner, D. & Ferguson, L. (2006). Technology affordances: the “real story”in research with K-12 and undergraduate learners. British Journal of Educational Technology, 37, 2, 191–209. Derry, J. (2007). Epistemology and conceptual resources for the development of learning technologies.Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 23, 6, 503–510.
  • Oliver, M. (2011) Technological determinism in educational technology research: some alternative ways of thinking about the relationship between learning and technology. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 27 (5), 373–384.
  • Feenberg, A. (2010) Between reason and experience: essays in technology and modernity. London: MIT Press.
  • Cfbrice heath
  • Brice-Heath, S. 1983. Ways with Words. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Hayles, K. 1999. How we Became PosthumanHayles, K. 2006. From cyborg to cognisphere. Fenwick, T., Edwards,R. & Sawchuk, P. 2011. Emerging Approaches to Educational Research: Tracing the Sociomaterial. London: Routledge.
  • Mol, A. (2002). The body multiple: ontology in medical practice. Durham: Duke University Press.
  • Leander, K. & Lovvorn, J. (2006) Literacy networks: following the circulation of texts, bodies and objects in the schooling and online gaming of one youth. Cognition and Instruction, 24 (3), 291-340.


  • 1. Technology, determinism and learning: exploring different ways of being digitally literate Martin Oliver & Lesley Gourlay
  • 2. Overview• Problems arising from work in educational technology and literacy studies• Exploring some sociomaterial perspectives that help unravel these issues• Illustrating these in relation to a JISC-funded project on digital literacies• Some themes we’re thinking about as issues at the end
  • 3. Where did this come from?
  • 4. A moment in an ongoing conversation She annoyed me… …with this…but it was wellintentioned, so Ihad to work outwhat exactly myproblem was…
  • 5. • “A taxonomy of ICT affordances” (p115) – Accessibility – Speed of change – Diversity – Communication and Collaboration – Reflection – Multimodal and non-linear – Risk, fragility and uncertainty – Immediacy – Monopolization – Surveillance• Would Gibson recognise this wish-list as affordances…?
  • 6. …so I had to do this…
  • 7. …which led to this, and this…
  • 8. So what exactly is the problem?• Lots of educational technology research talking about learning theory – Constructivism, constructionism, etc etc• But almost nothing had a theory of technology at all – Half of the phrase, “educational technology”, being ignored…?• What theory there was, was unconvincing
  • 9. Common sense masquerading as theory• An engineering/design sensibilityTo use the words of educational technologist Rob Koper *…+ thisresearch tends not to be “theory-oriented,” but rather “technology-oriented” in character. E-learning research, Koper (2007) explains, isnot focused on “predicting or understanding events *in+ the world as itexists” (p. 356); it instead seeks to “change the world as it exists” (p.356; emphasis added). E-learning or technology-oriented research, inother words, attempts “to develop new technologicalknowledge, methods, and artifacts” for practical ends or purposes (p.356). It is this applied, practical, and technological research that Koper(2007) says is ideally suited to e-learning. (Friesen, 2009, p.7)
  • 10. • Affordance is a problem because… – It was a way of explaining how pilots landed planes (and so is pretty lousy at explaining culture or art) – It was designed to do away with ‘mentalism’ (and so is pretty lousy at explaining learning) – It doesn’t explain ‘misperception’, differences of interpretation (except as error), meaning, etc. – There’s no way of specifying affordances analytically (just listing what has happened and hoping it happens again) – Taken up as a way of lending weight to claims about what’s “possible” – in the absence of evidence – It’s used incredibly inconsistently (slipperiness is what allows theoretically dubious claims to stand)
  • 11. • Personally, reacting against use of affordance as a totalising, essentialising movement; against black-boxing; the loss of materiality; loss of any sense of history; etc.It is not clear theoretically what a “design” or “pedagogic” affordanceis, or how these are distinguished. Nor do these claims—thatsomething is afforded—offer an explanation of how that thing isachieved. In adopting a causal model, the process through whichthings happen is hidden.This illustrates the pattern through which affordances are attributed totechnologies. Rhetorically, these and other cases take a statement ofthe form, “A happened in situation B where C was used,” then claim,“C affords A.” In other words, the analysis here is observation followedby attribution, in which the situation is ignored. Theoretically,technologies are then treated as shopping lists of effects.
  • 12. • Technology “offers” (causes) or constrains – A way of designing user agency out – Appealing to designers who want users to behave – Cf. Woolgar & Grint (1997) and “configuring the users” (an STS take on the problem)• Wanted an account that didn’t reduce ‘the social’ to a ‘command and control’ systems/engineering paradigm (cf. Friesen)
  • 13. So what’s in the literature?• Education Resources Information Center search (2001– 2011) using “technology” and “theory” – 7152 results, almost exclusively “false positives” – “theory” not technology, but learning, affect, technology integration, organisational change, etc.• Manual search (2001-2011) from educational technology journals that were ranked in the top 35 by impact factor, as of December 2009 – British Journal of Educational Technology; Computers and Education; Journal of Computer Assisted Learning; Journal of the Learning Sciences; Language Learning and Technology; also added Research in Learning Technology
  • 14. The results• 10 articles identified with a focus (even vaguely) on technology itself – Borderline cases: theoretical work on design-based research (One paper); distributed cognition (One paper); learning (two papers) – technology important in understanding something else, not in its own right – One discussion of the social shaping of technology (Selwyn, 2010) – Five that concerned with ideas of affordance (Conole & Dyke, 2004, plus two responses to this article; Wijekumar, Meyer, Wagoner & Ferguson, 2006; and Derry, 2007, who was critical of the idea).
  • 15. So what were these alternatives?• Hard technological determinism – ‘common sense’ approaches; affordance – Both utopian and dystopian flavours• Soft technological determinism – Some affordance accounts (‘permissive’); Cultural- Historical Activity Theory (at least, as in HCI/Ed Tech)• Socially deterministic accounts – Communities of practice; SCOT – ANT somewhere else; describes situations but doesn’t explain or attribute causes
  • 16. What I want to do with this• Feenberg (e.g. 2010), and bringing agency back in to technology – Dominant technical codes, and the over-determination of action – ‘Room for maneuver’ as necessary and desirable in designs – Some sense of purpose, and politics, around technology• How far can we push the social? – Can we explain how people learn to use the technologies they encounter? – What’s social about being shot? (Grint and Woolgar) What do we need to give over to ‘nature’?
  • 17. My response to some of this• Trying to be clear about why the dominant position isn’t good enough – A sense of structures as created (“authored”), not just ‘given’• Identifying alternatives• Trying those out – E.g. Textual analysis of educational sessions in Second Life, drawing on Barthes’ narratology – A sense of structuring (process, not just ontological ‘fact’) and responding to structures
  • 18. Anything you can do… • Same session analysed from two perspectives (affordance, textual analysis) • More extensive, more theoretically grounded claims possible with textual analysis • Claims grounded in setting (culture/history) not universalised • Textual analysis supported claims about pedagogy, technology ‘in contexts’ / networks, learners, etc.
  • 19. Theoretical ideas in search of a setting• JISC funded project: “Digital literacies as a postgraduate attribute” –• An opportunity to relate different ways of thinking about technology, learning, practice, cause, etc.• If technology were deterministic this would be a non-issue – Technology would make us all literate, or we’d all fail to become literate…
  • 20. ‘Digital Literacies’ & New Literacies Studies• Assumed to be free-floating generic ‘skills’, capabilities or ‘know-how’• Context bound, situated practices implicated in the construction of complex, hybrid identities in a range of overlapping domains.• Viewed this way, being digitally literate becomes a social achievement, in which technology is taken up to serve personal agency.
  • 21. NLS, practices and materiality...• Arguably, most NLS perspectives still place the human ‘user’ of technology at the centre• Agency around text production is seen to rest with the student /author/user• ‘Literacy event’ (Brice- Heath, 1982), foundational work focused on the social• ‘Practices’ - emphasis on the human?• The material is implicitly rendered ‘context’ ?
  • 22. Artefacts & spaces • Blackboards etc ‘…artefacts meaningful to the figured world of literacy’ (Bartlett & Holland 2002:13) • Humans & artefacts as hybrid actors (Holland et al 1998) • Literature on HE spaces (Temple 2007): lack of ethnographic work on practices • Assumed to be non-places? (Augé 1995) • Spaces & episodes as literacy practices / events / texts? • (Jones & Lea, 2008) Digital literacies as textual, not technological practices22
  • 23. JISC project overview• 2-year funded project• Digital Literacies programme, 10 projects• 1st year student research• 2nd year implementation projects
  • 24. Focus groups: domains & devices• Well, in my bedroom, on my bed, its mainly my mobile and going through my emails, travel information, whether on Facebook, my mobile too. Then, um, and in the study room, that would be my laptop and, um, laptop, that would be Blackboard, research, entertainment. (MA student)
  • 25. Journalling pilot
  • 26. Journalling case study: Yuki• Japanese, female in her 40s, MA student• I think I was not – how can I say? – like… I wasn’t interested in the kind of things girls like: dolls and some kind of pretty things. Instead I was interested in computer and camera and the cars, everything boys tended to like. That is because, that is why I was interested, I became interested in the technology, and for the practical use’.
  • 27. Print literacies
  • 28. Digital/digitised texts
  • 29. Ubiquitous technologies• Yuki: For me the most important thing is portability, because I use technologies, ICT, everywhere I go, anywhere I go. For example of course I use some technologies, PCs and laptops and my iPad in the IOE building, and in the IOE building I use PC, I use them in PC room, in library, and for searching some data or journals. In the lecture room I record my, record the lectures and taking memos by that.
  • 30. Non-human actors
  • 31. Non-human actors
  • 32. Multimodality• Lesley: What other types of uses of technology have you got for your studies?• Yuki: Studies… to look for the written truth. Of course everyone makes that, may do, from the internet, and some, look for some data, other than journals and books from the website. Technologies… And I sometimes use YouTube or some moving images site to help my understanding. Sometimes I cannot understand what the one article said. I ask some moving images to explain
  • 33. Domains
  • 34. Situated textual issues
  • 35. Discussion• Complex, constantly shifting set of practices• Permeated with digital mediation• Strongly situated / contingent on the material• Distributed across human /nonhuman actors• Texts are restless, constantly crossing apparent boundaries of human/nonhuman, digital/analogue, here/not here, now/not now.
  • 36. Sociomaterial approaches• Humans, and what they take to be their learning and social process, do not float, distinct, in container-like contexts of education, such a classrooms or community sits, that can be sits, that can be conceptualised and dismissed as simply a wash of material stuff and spaces. The things that assemble these contexts, and incidentally the actions and bodies including human ones that are part of these assemblages, are continuously acting upon each other to bring forth and distribute, as well as to obscure and deny, knowledge.’ (Fenwick et al 2011)
  • 37. How we became posthuman• ‘ ...the posthuman view configures human being so that it can be seamlessly articulated with intelligent machines. In the posthuman, there are no essential differences or absolute demarcations between bodily existence and computer simulation, cybernetic mechanism and biological organism, robot teleology and human goals’• (Hayles 1999: 3)41
  • 38. From cyborg to cognisphere• Hayles argues that Haraway’s cyborg is powerful metaphor but now ‘not networked enough’ (2006: 159)• The individual no longer appropriate unit of analysis• ‘...incorporation of intelligent machines into everyday practices creates distributed cognitive systems that include human and non-human actors; distributed cognition in turn is linked to a dispersed sense of self...’ (2006: 162)42
  • 39. Flickering signification• ‘When narrative functionalities change, a new kind of reader is produced by the text. The material effects of flickering signification ripple outwards...the impatience that some readers now feel with print texts...has a physiological as well as a psychological basis. They miss pushing the keys and seeing the cursor blinking at them... Changes in narrative functionalities are deeper than the structural or thematic characteristics of a particular genre, for they shift the embodied responses and expectations that different kinds of textualities evoke. When new media are introduced, the changes transform the environment as a whole’• (Hayles 1999: 48)43
  • 40. Contested sociomaterial practice• Mol’s praxiology (2002 – the body multiple) – Ethnographic study of disease in a hospital – Exploring how different procedures, configurations of resources, accounts and so on produced different realities – Exploration of how particular possible realities came to be favoured at specific times (e.g. initial consultation, post death) – Ontological politics: not just accounts, but accounts in competition
  • 41. A politics-of-what explores the differences, notbetween doctors and patients, but between variousenactments of a particular disease. This books hastried to argue that different enactments of adisease entail different ontologies. They each do thebody differently. But they also come with differentways of doing the good. *…+ These questions arenot answered here. Investigating the body multiplemerely helps to open them up. *…+ Likeontology, the good is inevitably multiple: there ismore than one of it.
  • 42. The digitally illiterate teacher?This technology thing can occupy most of your lessonplanning because back then we only had black boardsand all the kids had their own text book, and just doeverything from the board. Now, it has changed the waythat I teach as well because I need to apply a lot ofsoftware and use the ICT into my lesson as well, yes, and Ithink that’s going to be an essential thing in thefuture, especially I think the government here are tryingto promote that as well. Also all the kids are verycomputer literate, so they know all the things about butas a teacher you don’t really know it. Kids can teach youin the beginning but then later on they probably will thinkif we can do it, how come you can’t do it.
  • 43. • Has always used technologies – Blackboards, text books, etc.• Envisages a future and a role that has to be different – “it *technology+ has changed the way…” – “the government…”• Positioning self as less literate that “the kids” – Digital generation/native – Ignores use reported in same interview of Email, SmartBoards, PowerPoint, Google, Facebook, etc.
  • 44. • A category judgement is seen to follow from this• The false binary of ‘literacy’ – A series of ‘literacy events’, involving situated sociomaterial practices• Who gets to classify a teacher as digitally literate, and on what basis? Whose ends does this serve? And what should be done in response to this? – An agenda for new interventions, interactions and configurations of social practice
  • 45. Removing the agency of texts and tools informalising movements risks romanticising thepractices as well as the humans in them;focusing uniquely on the texts and tools lapsesinto naïve formalism or techno-centrism. – Leander and Lovvorn (2006:301), quoted in Fenwick et al (p104)
  • 46. Conclusions• Patterns in Educational Technology literature, and some alternatives – Ongoing battle with determinism… even now… – Simplistic, un-nuanced use of ‘affordance’ as a way of keeping people out of the way of design• Methodological tensions between structuring and assemblage, and our interpretation
  • 47. Conclusions• Literacies and affordances concern relationships between two categories seen as an unproblematically separate binary• Affordances tend to collapse into unhelpful extremes – Either a determining, governing set of forces controlling human action – Or an unconstrained space in which human agency can operate unimpeded• How can we move beyond these simplistic binaries?