Ed Tech as discipline

Perseus with the Head of Medusa

(There’s probably a really good metaphor I could make about this image, but I’ve included it just for the Vasari ref below and because Cellini was something of a ‘character’).

There was an article that did the rounds a few days ago about Ed Tech should become a discipline. And last week Audrey Watters gave a tremendous keynote which touched upon why she felt it was a bad idea (it’s worth reading Audrey’s keynote in full not just for the content but as an example of someone really crafting a keynote, developing an idea and articulating it with clarity cf. my approach of chucking together a bunch of slides at the last minute and mumbling my way through them). Audrey’s keynote is a plea for situating educational technology in a broader society and being critical:

“I want to suggest that what we need instead of a discipline called “education technology” is an undisciplining. We need criticism at the center of our work.”

I agree very much with Audrey, that too often ed tech is not critical, it idolises the technology, or at least fails to question what values it carries within its software kernel. But, I wonder (and I wonder a lot about ed tech without getting to firm conclusions), if some of these reservations might not be best overcome by ed tech becoming a discipline. Which sounds paradoxical, but bear with me.

For a start we should ask what we mean by it becoming a discipline? It should have its own journals? Tick. Its own conferences? Check. Recognised accreditation? Hello CMALT. A professional society? Nice to meet you ALT. So, in many ways, it is one already. I guess the defining characteristic though is a number of undergraduate degree in that area. There are a few “Education and IT” type degrees out there, but not really a range of Ed tech ones.

So how might ed tech being a discipline in this respect help? Firstly, it allows us to bring in a range of perspectives. One of the criticisms of ed tech is that people come in from one discipline and are unaware of fundamental work in a related one. So the Ed Tech discipline might well have components from psychology, sociology, education, computer science, statistics, etc. This would help establish a canonical body of texts that you could assume most people in ed tech are familiar with.

Secondly, another criticism of ed tech is that it lacks rigour. Claims are often based on anecdote, small trials, or just hopes about the power of technology. As well as establishing a set of common content, Ed Tech can establish good principles and process in terms of evaluating evidence. These first two I would argue are vital as ed tech becomes more significant in education and the claims made for it more extravagant (why are you thinking of MOOCs?).

Lastly, and for me, most interestingly, it creates a body against which criticism can push. By way of analogy, let us consider Art History, which I’m currently struggling through a Masters in. Art History used to be predominantly about the history of Art. Starting with Vasari’s Lives of the Artists it focused on the ‘great’ artists and their works. Later it shifted to talking about styles as a way of framing the history of art. But in the 1970s there was a reaction to this, bringing in marxist, feminist and multi-cultural perspectives. The implicit assumptions in the previous approaches were directly challenged, leading to the New Art History. Now Art History is as much about “Art History the discipline and practice” as it is about “the history of Art”. By making Ed Tech a discipline there is the possibility that we facilitate a similar perspective. You could only have a New Art History if there was an Old Art History. When a subject becomes a discipline, then it is not long before you get a version of it prefaced by the word “Critical”. Critical Educational Technology sounds fine to me, and could sit alongside Practical Educational Technology to the mutual benefit of both.


  • dkernohan

    I love the idea of “Critical Educational Technology”. Should anyone wish to pay me to critique educational technology using a range of interdisciplinary approaches could they please contact me via twitter DM to discuss contractual terms. I’ve got a decent track record and could share a CV if needed.

    In the meantime, I – like everyone in the field (with the honourable exception of Audrey Watters, and I flat out do not have the capacity or bravery to be Audrey Watters) will do this in the evenings and weekends that break up my attempts to earn a living and support a family.

    • Steve Bamlett

      The jury is still out in my opinion on the value of disciplinary boundaries at all. At least, I think, the issues of boundaries and ‘frames’ is a fairly substantial part of any knowledge that claims to be knowledge (about anything).Hence I am not alarmed by the navel-gazing we are pointed to in Art History.

      Even though it may be dated (I don’t know but I don’t mind being corrected), I still consult Kreber (2009) when I can. It reminds me that university departments don’t constitute the world – or even A world substantively – without question. That isn’t to say that they can’t be useful tools – as long as you don’t mistake them for spectacles to see the world and all that through.

      One reason though I wouldn’t want to see more departments as the answer is that it forces us to take our eye off that fact that the technology ‘affords’ new ways of grasping what might be knowable in any subject discipline. As the vanguard of open boundaries, it makes much more sense to me.

      The truth is, I suppose that disciplines are really institutions – some very closed institutions.

      all the best


      Kreber, C. (Ed.) ‘The University and Its Disciplines: Teaching and Learning Within and Beyond Disciplinary Boundaries’ New York, Routledge.

      • admin

        Hi Steve, yes, you and Simon make similar points about the siloing nature of disciplines. I guess like so much, there are advantages and disadvantages to it. I was thinking through the positives here but didn’t have the space (or really the will power if I’m honest 🙂 to address the disadvantages

      • Mark Smithers (@marksmithers)

        Just as an aside, in the last year I have started to describe myself as a critical educational technologist in my twitter bio because I thought that the term educational technologist on its own meant being lumped in with the happy clappy technologists for whom edtech can do no wrong as well as those rent seekers that try and profit from edtech in the worst possible way.

        I used to get concerned that attacks on educational technologists were attacks on me. I now realise that they weren’t. They were attacks on the things I dislike most about the way technology is implemented in highered.

  • digisim


    Personally I don’t think that EdTech should become a “discipline” in the way you describe. My experience is that disciplines often end in silos (in UK Universities this manifests itself as Faculties & Schools) and they very rarely engage with each other.

    If EdTech became a discipline then I think there is a danger that it is seen as something “others” do and not something we all do. In the same way I might see Art History as something you do (and not I)?

    However, I do wonder whether there is some value in terms of establishing itself as a research domain? Again drawing on my own experience I often end up writing about EdTech/Digital Learning / TEL and situating it in the broader “Education” research domain (REF UoA 25). – Perhaps this makes it a discipline?

    I wonder at what point there its a critical mass of discourse (and in what form does this come) when EdTech will be default become a discipline? Perhaps a discipline is something which just emerges and not something we can make happen?


    • admin

      Hi Simon, yes we spend a lot of our time trying to break down disciplinary boundaries, so the idea of erecting another might well be flawed. But I was musing that it would have some benefits. It’s whether they outweigh the disadvantages I guess – also I like that people come into ed tech with different perspectives, it makes it an interesting place to be, and that might be lost if we went for a more “accepted” disciplinary world view.

    • dkernohan

      Hi Simon – in many areas of “edtech studies” there already is a significant mass of both formal and grey literature. However the unending pursuit of novelty means that it is seldom read. Which is a shame as much of it is superb.

      EdTech is crying out for a decent critical history, encompassing both technological and narrative shifts at a global level. But that’s another PhD and post-doc that I have neither time nor funding to do.

      • digisim


        Interestingly I’m part way through my PhD (in the area of e-research & TEL) and the more I read the more I am convinced that there is certainly a lack or criticality within this area (but I don’t think that is because it’s not a “discipline”). In the majority of the papers I have read the use of theory (usually from educational theory) is used to underpin an “edtech” intervention. I think perhaps that edtech research has emerged from a very technically applied position (many published papers are about
        ‘this is what we did with tech in this educational setting”).

        I’m not sure that edtech has yet effectively situated itself within the wider theoretical frameworks and perhaps that is why it hasn’t been as critically explored.

        I wonder if “edtech” has an identity crisis? It desperately wants (and needs) to be a critical discourse but is still written about as a solution to a problem that we’re not even sure we have?


        • dkernohan

          Edtech does need to develop a critical lens separate from mainstream “education studies”, and it needs to get serious about developing and using a literature (be that a traditional literature or via blog posts or something else).

          But the main problem it faces is ahistoricism – even when history is acknowledge (rarely) there are always mitigations, that this time the same idea will have different results. The field, and the society around it, moves much slower than the constant stream of novelty it is often presented as would imply

          Good luck on your thesis, Simon! I’d love to read it.

        • Jennifer Englund

          Hi Simon,
          As someone who’s also in the middle of a PhD program (in the broad ‘area’ of edtech), I am starting to increasingly realize exactly what you mentioned about the lack of criticality. Thinking about some of its origins in military training was a huge one for me.

          Curious if you are thinking about taking any of this on for your dissertation work, or related research projects? If so, would love to chat more with you.


          • Maha Bali

            What r u guys reading? There’s plenty of criticality in edtech if you look in the right places. I was initially completely put off by edtech positivist and utopian approaches back around 10 years ago..but I see lots of critical work now. Especially by people like Sian Bayne and the Edinburgh folks and Frances Bell and on Hybrid Ped (if ur looking for peer-reviewed stuff specifically – there’s a lot more all over the place)

          • Simon Thomson (@digisim)


            You are right to correct me & I should’ve phrased my comment a bit better. I totally agree that there are certainly lots of wonderful people engaged in critical discourse around edtech.

            Whilst I do draw upon these wonderful blogs, postings & tweets that come from this discourse, very often to inform my own critical perspectives, I’m afraid there still isn’t the breadth or depth of criticality around edtech in traditionally published educational journals.

            I am sure that this will change over time (I hope so) as more and more of us build an even bigger critical edtech community and publish (formally & informally) our work more widely.

            I think it is unfortunate that tutors supporting PhD studies still largely focus on the need to use “high quality” (read high ranking) sources of literature, but I think this too will change over time as new supervisors emerge who value the rich seams of critical discourse that can be found in more open publishing platforms.


  • Rosie Hare

    This is such an interesting topic and I havev read both your post and Audrey Watters’ keynote. Also agree with dkernohan above. Would love to see a Critical Educational Technology discipline emerge and would happily contribute. As a relative newcomer to this field of work (approx 3 years of experience) I am definitely suffering from a bit of an identity crisis in terms of what my job/line of work is supposed to achieve, other than train people to use certain systems.

    • admin

      Hi Rosie, that identity crisis is pretty much par for the course. Everyone wanders in to ed tech from elsewhere, which is both part of its charm and its problem. I love that I can be sitting with people who have degrees in computer science, philosophy, anthropology, psychology etc. You don’t get that in, Chemistry, say. But they we don’t have the shared concepts they have in chemistry either.

      • Rosie Hare

        My undergraduate degree is in History! And I ended up in edtech roles after studying for a postgraduate qualification in information and library studies and gradually drifting into these kinds of roles from library work. It’s more interesting and there are more opportunities, I feel.

  • T Morgan

    I’m on the fence about this one. On the one hand, you are quite convincing in making a case for a discipline. On the other hand, there are strong disciplines already out there that embrace ed tech quite easily and do a good job of being critical: distance education, critical literacy, multi-literacy, to name a few. In fact, sometimes ed tech (and open ed to some degree) feels a bit like navel gazing when it doesn’t properly situate itself in relation to some of this work.

  • Maha Bali

    Oh come on. Critical edtech has existed for years. It’s done daily by people like the #edcmooc folks (eg Sian Bayne, Jen Ross, Knox et al), ppl who push the edges of what edtech could be (Dave Cormier) or look critically at all that (Frances Bell). It’s right there and called critical digital pedagogy by us in the Hybrid Pedagogy community. It’s the work of people like Bonnie Stewart and Catherine Cronin and Kate Bowles and by how women and people of color push back against mainstream positivist edtech e.g. Audrey Watters, Sava Singh, Sherri Spelic, me 😉

    As I posted on Bryan’s blog, I have no idea what’s missing for edtech to count as a “discipline” except for someone to start excluding these alternative perspectives and start restricting the kinds of research we are allowed to respectably do.

    Oh wait. That’s ALREADY the case. Everyone will cite the white men of edtech and occasionally recognize other voices exist. Also methodologies such as collaborative autoethnography will find GREAT difficulty getting published on edtech. Just because…

    Ohhhhh because it’s a field dominated by men and therefore by scientific/positivist sensibilities where more interpretive/critical approaches are considered less rigorous.

    I don’t know what calling it a discipline would achieve… But all I have outlined above already exists and happens

    Oh and I have a masters degree in eLearning. I don’t know what is needed for something to be called a discipline. You said all of the “things” seem to be in place. Journals. Conferences. Associations. Etc. Worldwide and not just in US/UK.

    • admin

      Hi Maha, I am in complete agreement with the need for these voices and it was exactly the idea of having people like Tressie and Audrey read by ed tech people that made we think of a diverse discipline. I guess the difference is I feel their absence arises because ed tech isn’t a discipline, whereas you feel it arises because it is a discipline. I think David Kernohan gave a good list from why he’d want to see ed tech as a discipline, and that included having more critical voices in it. Part of the problem currently seems to me to be that people come in via the latest bit of technology and never get to the critical part. The Art History analogy was about that – it had been the history of European white men essentially, and then in the 70s and 80s, this was challenged by a range of great critical thinkers such as Griselda Pollock. Now multiple perspectives, critical analysis of what it means to do art history is the norm. So I was hoping ed tech as a discipline might help us move to that state.
      But I take your point very much that by establishing it as more of an academic discipline, as that creates a land grab for controlling thought in the area, and there is a danger (indeed a likelihood) that might be won by US, silicon valley focused white men, which would be the opposite of what I intend.
      So would it be right to say I think we’re in agreement about what ed tech _should_ look like, but I was suggesting making it a discipline might be a good mechanism for that to happen, whereas you feel that is exactly the cause of the current situation? I need to think about that, you may be right. What would be the best path then do you feel towards the general goal which we both have in mind do you think?

      • tressiemc22

        From my narrow perspective, I think of disciplines in the Weberian-Bourdieusian sense: need institutions, exclusion/enclosure, prestige hierarchy. The original post argues that the symbols of institutions (journals), exclusion/enclosure (conferences), prestige hierarchy (white men doing white men things to Mahi and Audrey’s point). That is true. What we miss is the political economy of those symbols. They have emerged mostly from networks, not institutions. Princeton isn’t founding ed tech conferences so much as Princeton is recognizing ed-tech activities. The indirect legitimacy in a network environment is actually post-institution even though the way we talk about it centers the institution. Because ed-tech arises from the business of the institution — accountability regimes, technologies, the spaces between bureaucratic nodes — it cannot legitimize the institution. Therefore, ed-tech as we currently practice and understand it could not do the necessary work of exclusion, rank ordering and symbolic exchange that institutions require of disciplines. On the upside that does mean, as Mahi points out, that ed-tech can do things sociology cannot. It can allow networks to filter ideas rather than prestige (even when those significantly overlap). The institutionalization efforts like journals and such are actually trying to preclude precisely the kind of network effects that make the journals possible. It’s interesting. Anyway, notable discussion.

  • Kate Bowles

    I’m with Maha on this one. When the gain from disciplinarity turns out to be a shared who’s who and a consensus around ideas that matter, we overlook an entire history of subaltern thinking about who always gets left out when the lists are made. Because lists belong to someone, and conferences belong to someone, and professional associations belong to someone, and when we Venn Diagram it all, the same people get waitlisted, because first everyone has to get through the A-list.

    We can make peace with this: we live with information superabundance, and this has liberated us from the idea that a canon is admirable, let alone possible. And I don’t think we depend on a discipline to achieve rigour or critical analysis, to do research, to run an event, to speak to policy, to attempt to influence Silicon Valley, to remember to look out for history, or to do all of these things collaboratively and coherently.

    To me the school of thought we could call “edtech” accommodates a community of purpose, enriched by coming from different disciplinary perspectives. But the industrial formation we could call “disciplines” is a whole other mess of problems, not least of which is the folly of categorical thought, and the sound of Foucault gently laughing. (“This book first arose out of a passage in Borges, out of the laughter that shattered, as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of thought—our thought, the thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography—breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old definitions between the Same and the Other.” — The Order of Things)

    The wild profusion of existing things works for me.

    • admin

      Hi Kate, yeah I was musing about the possible advantages of it being a discipline, but I didn’t address the disadvantages. One of those is exactly that wild profusion of backgrounds and ideas. I was wondering though if, as with art history, a discipline, may be a way of exposing more people to more of that critical thought than is currently the case. So it wasn’t about cutting things off, but expanding the scope of what people encounter. But I take the point, there is a rush for discipline real estate and the very people we might want to be included, get pushed out and then it is even harder to get them heard.

  • Muireann

    Critical educational technology’ – not sure I’d call it a discipline, should it be termed ‘discourse’ instead?

    Also these posts/comments are triggering my thinking about what Biesta (yes white and male, but I fell in love with his ideas about education)  calls for : A revolution of suggestions for the impossible future of critical pedagogy..
    Should discourses in this area be framed around questions starting like:
    What are the aims of education?
    Is it also an identity question? Does who we are and what we value about education frame our actions as educators, as learning technologists, as academic developers? Are we asking ourselves these deeper questions? In this group we might be asking these questions, but more broadly are others involved in education asking those questions? Do the have the capacity to ask critical questions?


    • Maha Bali

      Muireann – nothing wrong w white men having good ideas 😉 the only problem is when they’re ideas exclusively get listened to and everyone else’s are pushed aside. Or worse, when someone less famous than them says the same things but the men get credit (stories of women in science abound…)

  • lenandlar

    If you create a discipline called edtech what would you include and what you exclude in order to create a set of “shared concept”? Is it problematic for anyone that too many people (like myself) are drifting in and out of “edtech” and especially those who may not have a PhD? In one of the earliest definitions of Computer Science, one was thought of as a Computer Scientist only if one had a PhD in the field and is actively undertaking research. I wonder if there is some of that at play here?

  • laura czerniewicz

    Really interesting discussion thank you all. Something I wrote about several years ago now, and the discussion makes me think that paper needs to be looked at again. (“Educational technology – mapping the terrain with Bernstein as cartographer” ). One can look at a discipline as a field of players and moves and negotiations and power plays, a Bourdieu approach, and the approach of this discussion I think. Or as a structured knowledge terrain – the Bernstein perspective offers to edtech the notion of “horizontal knowledge structures in hierarchical discourses” in other words how knowledge is configured. Ed tech is never going to be a vertical discourse ie a coherent, explicit systematically
    principled structure. It is applied and fragmented and constantly added to.

  • tbirdcymru

    Just a short comment:
    If it is to be a discipline (which I would like to see), we should probably not just call it Ed Tech (can’t be that techno deterministic).

    Presumably something more like:
    Technology-Enhanced Learning and Teaching

    Did you know that in Loughborough University, some of the Learning Technologists are called Translational Scientists?

    Also I agree about the various disciplines which would contribute to a ‘canon;’ the psychology of learning is very important especially as it will bring additional scientific basis which I think our discipline will benefit from. Also: Media and Communications would be quite important.

    Terese Bird

  • Juliette Culver

    Realise that this is a slightly old post but just reading it for the first time now.

    I think what educational techology is missing is some sort of shared body of knowledge / way of thinking that everybody working in the area knows that they share. If you look at most disciplines – with sciences (and I imagine most social sciences?), you know that e.g. everybody who calls themselves a physicist will know about electromagnetism, thermodynamics etc. and be very familiar with the scientific method. I don’t know enough about arts subjects, but even if people specialise in particular subfields, I presume that there are e.g. approaches to studying literature or history that anybody with a degree in the subject would be familiar with.

    I don’t think that educational technology has this – you’ve got lots of people coming in from different disciplines and although there is a huge amount of overlap, I don’t think there is a core knowledge or way of thinking that you could be sure that everybody would be familiar with.

  • Wendy

    Catching up on this blog post and very interesting discussion. What came to mind is the new undergraduate course availabe in Australia at the University of Technology Sydney http://www.uts.edu.au/future-students/find-a-course/transdisciplinary-innovation. Developed by Prof Shirley Alexander (@SAlexander_UTS), the Batchelor of Technology Innovation (BTi) has this preface “In transdisciplinary projects, learners and researchers integrate data, information, tools, techniques, perspectives, concepts and/or theories from two or more disciplines to tackle socially relevant problems collaboratively with other stakeholders (real or simulated) in their context.” While this doesn’t address edtech becoming a distinct discipline, I think that graduates from this course could easily fit into an edtech role.

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