The “Technology isn’t important” argument

Notech

<No Technology in Brighton by Sammy0716 http://www.flickr.com/photos/28438258@N08/3005591006/>

Ten years ago I chaired the OU's first major online course (I may have mentioned this before 🙂 and we had an onslaught of students who wanted to take it, precisely because it was online. I gave a talk about how we (John Naughton, Gary Alexander and myself) had shaped the course around the web. Our idea had been to fundamentally make technology the focus, and envisage a course that had the internet at the centre of it. At that talk one of the objections was 'technology is irrelevant, it's pedagogy that matters.'

I gave a woolly, conciliatory response then. I have been hearing the same argument in different forms for the past ten years now, and my response is less accommodating now. It came up again at ALT-C when I was there, and my reaction is now almost apoplectic. Because people don't want to be seen to be technological determinists, or just geeks, it's often met with sage nods and murmurs of agreement (hell, even applause). It comes in many different guises, so here are some of the ways it is worded:

  • This discussion is about technology when we should be talking about learning
  • Technology shouldn't be the focus, it should be people
  • Why are we talking about technology , the emphasis should be on communication

Etc, you can substitute some of your own terms here as to what is more important than technology (society, process, fruit). Now there is some truth in these beliefs, technology often doesn't succeed because we ignore all the stuff around it – the administrative context it operates within, the time people have to use it, how it makes people feel about their jobs, etc. I know all this stuff, but what 'the technology isn't important' people often really mean is 'I want to ignore technology'. And that is surely the wrong way to go.

I'd go along with Clay Shirky's argument that technology becomes really interesting when it becomes invisible (eg the mobile phone became a powerful social force when it became ubiquitous). But in order for it to become invisible it first has to be visible. While it is surely true that ultimately what is interesting about twitter, say, is nothing to do with the technology of twitter itself, but the connections it fosters, the way it changes our social interactions, the global peer networks we form over it. And eventually we won't talk about twitter at all. But it is a necessary step on the journey to the 'bigger picture' to be interested in the technology. Ignoring the technology won't allow you to jump to the end point, it will prevent you getting there.

I guess it depends on where you are coming from. In his keynote Martin Bean (the OU's new VC) made the point that of technology, people and process, then technology is the least important. This has probably been true from his perspective and experience from working at Microsoft. As he said, he has sat down with education ministers who have been blinded by some new software or hardware and have completely failed to put into place any of the framework which will make them effective. If you are dealing with government ministers then getting across the 'technology won't solve your problems on its own' argument is paramount.

Alternatively, from my perspective the technology isn't important argument is used as a justification to disregard anything technologically driven and hopefully carry on as we've always done. In this context suggesting that technology isn't important is irresponsible. I'm sure plenty of journalists argued that technology wasn't important, it's quality reporting that counts. That didn't stop technology completely transforming their industry. And I'm sure post-Gutenberg we heard arguments that 'printing isn't important, it's what's in the Bible that counts'. And when Brunel was busy laying railway lines I'm sure horse-drawn carriage owners insisted that 'the railway isn't significant, it's staying in nice inns that we should focus on'.

So this is a warning – if you use a pseudo 'technology isn't important' argument when I am in the room, expect a long, painful scream.

7 Comments

  1. I was ready to respond with a “but the technology isn’t important!” tirade when I started reading your post, but I understand what you’re saying and I think I’d be be wrong to disagree with you.
    As an online community manager, I like to say “it’s not about the technology”, but what I am really saying might be more like “I’d like educators to get over the latest tool’s bells and whistles and assess it from a pedagogical perspective to see how they can capitalise on the capabilities it presents (if any), then show learners how to use it as part of the course so that they can get about with learning online comfortably, ideally making the technology invisible, and reaping the real benefits of learning online”… as you can see, it’s a huge mouthful, hence the shortened equivalent.
    The first part of Gilly Salmon’s 2000 e-Moderation model is about dealing with the technology in the hope that you move the learners from a focus on it, to a focus on what it enables… So, no, I don’t disagree with you at all, and I think how people use the statement “it’s not about the technology” is of huge importance. *I* care about the technology enough to want to make it invisble to my learners perhaps? Hmm. Very thought provoking post. Thanks.

  2. Great post.
    If you think about the technology you don’t tend to take notice of – the stuff that is practically invisible – it is invisible because it just works, it is easy for users and they don’t have to think about it.
    Most of the technology that just works is either incredibly simple to use (Google, iPod, Twitter, to name a few examples), or it is mature enough that enough of the kinks and quirks have been worked out for non-technical people to be able to use it without needing to fight it.
    Mobile phones are a great example – explaining to my in-laws how to use their first mobile was easy: to answer a call press the green button, to make a call enter the number then press the green button, press the red button to hang up. That’s all they need to know to be productive with the incredible amount of technology that is packed into the device.
    I have also managed to get my in-laws to replace their traditional phone service with a pure internet VoIP service – because the technology is now seamless enough that they don’t need to know the details, they have a phone handset and a router that does all the magic for them – it just works. The ADSL technology is mature enough, the VoIP technology is mature enough and the handset technology is mature enough to make all that technology invisible.
    Think about all the non-technical bloggers out there using WordPress daily. When I first started using WordPress (back in the b2/cafelog days) it was significantly more difficult to use than it is now. The technology has matured and has had enough testing and UI tweaking that it now works very smoothly for most people, and services like WordPress.com make it even easier to the point where most people don’t need to know the implementation details. This is another example of the technology plus the services to support it making it easy – you are quite correct in asserting that technology on its own is never the solution, the infrastructure and support needs to be in place to make any technology work.
    Technology should be an enabler – when done correctly, it allows us to achieve exponentially more than we could without it – but it has to be done correctly and have had time to mature for it to become invisible enough for non-technical users to be comfortable.
    Unfortunately when you are still pushing the envelope of technical innovation, maturity is not likely to be there yet. This is where I feel many people fall into the trap of technology – being an early adopter when their user base really needs them to be aiming for mature solutions. I think too often people buy new technology thinking this makes them innovators – when innovation to me is more about how you use the technology.

  3. But in order for it to become invisible it first has to be visible… it is a necessary step on the journey
    I agree, but on the other hand that step is happening faster and faster. So fast you can miss it, actually. With something like Twitter it’s possible for someone to say to a slowcoach like me, ‘The technology doesn’t matter – because this is a conversation the world had for two months, six months ago, when you weren’t watching. Now it’s a Twitter world and we’ve moved onto discussing the etiquette involved.’

  4. Educational technologists work at the interface of education and technology, so have to expect a bit of friction.
    I’m sometimes guilty of looking at things through the lens of technology, giving it too much importance, so it helps to be checked every now and again with the ‘technology isn’t (so) important’ argument. With regard to the analogies of the railways, printing press, etc., these things changed the world because of what they allowed to happen, not how they worked. I think we (the collective we, nothing personal!) need to keep in mind sometimes when we talk tech.
    Likewise, I’ve worked with plenty of academics who fit the ‘head in the sand’ stereotype when it comes to technology and so miss out on some of the real benefits it offers.
    So I guess my view would be that both are important and we’re reaching the point where they’re so interdependent that you can’t talk about one with talking about the other.

  5. @Mollybob The key thing for me is that there’s a difference between “It’s not about the technology” (with which I’d probably agree) and “The technology isn’t important” (with which I wouldn’t agree at all). Just one other aspect of why the technology has to be important — if you don’t think about it, you wo’t understand what it allows you to /stop/ doing.

  6. Hi Martin,
    I think that you are right, we aren’t as far apart as it appears. There are two statements that you make which particularly interest me. The first is that “it is a necessary step on the journey to the ‘bigger picture’ to be interested in the technology.” I concur wholly but take the view that the technology is secondary, rather than unimportant, and that even whilst we work towards invisibility, the human or the community or the vision of social justice or social enterprise has to be front-and-centre. Otherwise we never stop to think why. The beauty of our current range of technology is that it helps do the socio-political stuff that I hope for. I feel that we ed tech specialists are key here and could help us move those agendas forward.
    In an overlong way I blog about this at DMU LearnEx. During ALTC09 I blogged about Ideologies [as you will have guessed I am a bit political :>0] and I am more interested in the connection into the human in all this – although I am a long way off “getting” it! Hmmh.
    The second statement you make that I found important was around our “justification to disregard anything technologically driven and hopefully carry on as we’ve always done. In this context suggesting that technology isn’t important is irresponsible.” Agreed. Nothing else to say, beyond that I use Google Apps, mobiles, YouTube and blogger to support this organisation. The tools matter for what they do, which is enabling us to provide a great week at Xmas for our guests.
    I hope that at ALTC10 we get to high-five, or at least have a beer!
    Best wishes,
    Richard Hall (@hallymk1)

  7. @Mollybob – yes I think your closing statement is bang on – I care about the technology enough to want to make it invisible. In the same way I kind of feel that my job is to almost make myself redundant – when people are using ed tech so easily that being a Professor of Ed Tech is like being a Professor of Penmanship.
    @Simon – yes I agree. Technology should become easy to use and an enabler. When I say we should talk about the technology I don’t mean how twitter works (to pick an example) at some API level, but that we can talk _about_ twitter because it, the technology, is changing how we network and communicate. It is the latter things that are interesting, but you can’t talk about them without talking about twitter in the first place.
    @Steve – re railways etc yes, exactly, it is what the technology allows to happen that is interesting. But at the same time, people didn’t ignore talking _about_ railways and only talk about ‘travelling’. Sometimes the technological impact is so significant you can talk about the technology and the impact.
    @Richard – yes, I should stress that what really interests me is the _impact_ of technology (particularly on education). I don’t really care about the technology itself. But I do know that when people say ‘technology doesn’t matter’ what they often mean is ‘it isn’t important’, which isn’t true – it is very important. Newspapers, the music industry etc show us how significant the technology is and the perils of dismissing it. So I think we’re both interested in the social implications of technology – maybe I’ve just been too frustrated by the continual efforts to dismiss it as irrelevant? And yes, definitely up for a beer next year.

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