Why use metaphors in ed tech


I’m just about to complete a new book, Metaphors of Ed Tech. It’s sort of an accompaniment to 25 Years of Ed Tech (although entirely stand-alone) – it’s been argued that stories and metaphors are the two main modes that humans use to make sense of the world. So 25 Years was the story mode, and this is the metaphor mode. In the intro I set out why I think metaphors are an important way to think about ed tech.

The online pivot has highlighted for me the paucity of models we have around online education. It has been framed as a deficit model of the lecture and that’s about it. I feel that offering a range of metaphors that explore positive and negative aspects of ed tech is worth developing. Metaphor provides a means of considering ed tech that does not rely on a direct comparison with the existing model (it’s also kinda fun).

But more significantly it is because ed tech now, particularly since the pandemic, plays a central role in education. Ed tech is a multi-billion dollar industry and the role of companies and technology will have an influence on how education is realised in the coming years. The future of education and change within the sector are nearly always couched in terms of responding to the challenges proposed by technology, developing skills in students to function in a digital society and economy, and implementing technology or associated business models. The manner in which ed tech is framed and presented is often manufactured to suit the needs of those with a vested interest eg disruption. Understanding and thinking about ed tech, its implications, issues and context will be essential in shaping how it is used and our relationship to it. Metaphors are a means of achieving this, and in this chapter I want to set out why I feel they are important, and therefore why they can be significant in our relationship with ed tech.

Metaphor allows us to reason in a different manner about technology. By using a metaphor, particularly an unusual one, we can come to see different aspects of something, which can challenge our original thinking. Through metaphor we can think creatively when considering ed tech. I would argue that much of our relationship with ed tech is a quotidian, pragmatic one. A practical approach to technology is fundamental, but there is also room for  imagination and even playfulness when we consider it. Lots of practitioners who work in learning technology are worn down by the grind of it all, and metaphor allows some space for creativity, and that should be encouraged.


  1. This sounds very interesting. I remember that in the 1980s there was a lot of work done on metaphors in Scandinavia, and of course Morgan’s work.
    I remember using metaphors for breakthrough. It was this that it brought to my mind when I read it in your post. Students liked using the Breakthrough by Breakdown approach for system they had in common eg Uni Library.
    Madsen, Kim Halskov. 1988. ‘Breakthrough by Breakdown: Metaphors and Structured Domains’. DAIMI Report Series 17 (243).https://tidsskrift.dk/daimipb/article/download/7599/6443

      1. I don’t know that is the best reference to use 🙂 There was quite a body of work and an important source was the Winograd & Flores book. I did this search for metaphor within articles that cite the book. Might be useful for you to find more relevant sources https://scholar.google.co.uk/scholar?hl=en&as_sdt=2005&sciodt=0%2C5&cites=9088851922584209569&scipsc=1&q=metaphor&btnG=
        Thinking a bit more about it, I think that breakthrough by metaphor ( or other analogical/ multiple perspective approaches) is useful in trying to reveal what technology conceals/ dissembles. Facebook might seem like a social network/ news source/ marketplace/ site for learning/ etc. rather than a means of collecting personal data (of variable quality) for selling advertising services and other products/services that spin out of that data. Not just Facebook obvs 🙂

  2. Very much looking forward to this one Martin. I am just getting started in a project that is looking at humour in the pedagogy of online learning and I am starting to think about the links from humour to metaphor, and stretched metaphor…..

  3. I love metaphors and I always find it interesting how war and military metaphors seem to pop up in conversation even when completely inadvertent (ie Boot Camps to describe intensive training events). I have often wondered if that is mostly a western culture thing, or if other cultures employ military metaphors like we seem to do in the west?

  4. There’s a couple of chapters on technology and metaphors – ‘Technology as Tool, Text, System, Ecology’- Ch.3 & 4, in Nardi and O’Day’s book ‘Information Ecologies – Using Technology with Heart'(1999). They draw on the work of Ellul, Winner, Postman, Latour, Gibson.

    1. Thanks Stephen – I have a quote from that very chapter in the intro. I think they make the point about the use of metaphors in tech very well (better than I do), so I let them say it for me 🙂

  5. That does sound really interesting Martin. But I would also caution against the danger of superficial understanding that can be triggered by a metaphor without sufficient background: https://metaphorhacker.net/2019/05/explanation-is-an-event-understanding-is-a-process-how-not-to-explain-anything-with-metaphor/.

    But, of course, that would not stop me, so here are two metaphors of online education I wrote about some time ago: https://metaphorhacker.net/2020/06/no-back-row-no-corridor-metaphors-for-online-teaching-and-learning/.

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