This river’s full of lost sharks

Shark Arena - Nassau, Bahamas
(Remember folks – most sharks are friendly)

I am a Professor of Educational Technology. I work at the Institute of Educational Technology. I run a blog called EdTechie. Let’s face it, I’ve nailed my colours to the educational technology mast. But it’s an odd discipline in many ways, and some argue it’s not really a distinct field at all. Unlike other fields people tend to drift into ed tech from elsewhere. It’s rare that, say someone becomes an academic physicist after having started out as social scientist. These disciplines have an accepted route into them, degree, postgrad, doctorate. But often with ed tech people will start out elsewhere and through accident, curiosity or managerial edict, find themselves engaged in the application of technology to some aspect of education. You’re a Biology lecturer who becomes interested in the use of virtual labs, a classic prof who gets funding for mobile learning, a computer scientist who is interested in learning analytics. And so on. I did my PhD in Artificial Intelligence, and it wasn’t the application of this to education that got me interested, but rather just the possibilities of the then nascent web. I experimented with online tutor groups, web pages, and found myself at e-learning conferences.

This serendipity and multi-disciplinarity is part of what I like about ed tech. You meet people who have very strong creative backgrounds, others with philosophical perspective, and others from computer science tradition. The differences these views bring to the field make it exciting, innovative and challenging. I like that people drift in from elsewhere, like a well positioned pub where walkers, cyclists, locals, shoppers, and arty types all mix happily. But it does mean we don’t have a common cannon of work to refer to. People pick up bits and pieces, some take a course (like our very own Masters), but unlike many academic disciplines, you can’t assume a shared understanding and knowledge.

The downside of this is that sometimes new entrants are uninformed about existing research. Generally I find that people who migrate into ed tech are humble and keen to learn the theory and research that can help inform their own work. You know what’s coming next – this is not the case I find with many MOOC researchers. As I’ve moaned about before, a corollary of the Silicon Valley Narrative that drives MOOCs is the Year Zero mentality. There was no research in online learning prior to MOOCs, because online learning did not really exist prior to MOOCs. This all came to mind with a recent Chronicle piece which declared excitedly “Students Learn More by Doing Than by Watching“. This has been known for so long, in so many forms that I don’t really know where to begin. Yet it is trumpeted as a new breakthrough. I would also suggest that had such a finding came from normal, online courses rather than MOOCs, the Chronicle wouldn’t have covered it.

So this post is basically a big Le Sigh.

PS – title is from The National’s ‘Secret Meeting’:


  1. johnbaglow says:

    As someone who dabbles in online teaching I firmly believe that the principles of effective teaching and learning must surely be more or less the same whatever delivery mode you adopt. Just as ‘doing’ may well be more effective than ‘watching’, so interacting with peers is likely to be more effective than not doing so. So I’m agreeing with you that new delivery methods don’t mean new principles.

    1. admin says:

      Hi John – That’s largely true, although I think there are differences between what works well face to face and at a distance often, but as you say, this is one of those principles widely known. My disappointment with this stuff is that it’s old even for elearning, but because it’s MOOCs it is seen as new and innovative

  2. DrMiner says:

    Here here! I have a degree in higher Ed but I work in corporate America & I have dedicated nearly 15 yrs now to trying to bring the two “markets” together, because we’d have better results if we used the same techniques & approaches. I often have the same response as you: Are you kidding me? That’s not a new technique ( insert technique here). Keep up the contrarian viewpoint – I love it

  3. journeywithtech says:

    I did a PhD (at a late stage in life) as I wanted to get to the hub of what constituted valuable research that could actually inform teacher practice. The first epiphany was to realise a distinction between learning and Education. That led to accessing the science behind the different forms of learning. Then I could move on to identify what was misleading in the research literature; either ignoring the similarities between face-to-face and online or assuming no difference, and tacit practitioner knowledge is usually ignored – so I can empathise with your big sigh……

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