What is the purpose of educational technology?

I don’t mean that title as a rhetorical, smartass, question, but rather a more fundamental one. It’s probably not one we ask ourselves very often, we tend to be caught up in the application of a particular technology, or trying to solve a specific problem. But at the more abstract level, what do you think educational technology is for? When we adopt it, what is the purpose we are intending it to fulfil? I expect the answer will vary depending on technology or context, and not be limited to one function overall. But of you had to answer the question “what is the main purpose of educational technology?” at a cocktail party, what would you answer (apart from asking yourself how did you get invited to a party where this is the conversation). Here are some potential responses I think:

Improve learning performance – I think some people will answer more vaguely that it is to just “improve learning”, but we need to be more specific. Improve learning how? One obvious aspect would be performance, as measured through assessment, tests, retained knowledge. This is an answer that many purveyors or advocates for particular technologies will point to. Students who used technology X scored significantly higher on end of semester tests. That’s a good outcome. It might be worth noting that some of the literature around deeper learning would argue that these short term gains might not be perpetuated, and we rarely see the sort of longitudinal studies that would examine whether these students continue to perform better, or as sometimes occurs, in fact perform worse later on. But, for now, improved performance is a strong contender.

Making learning more accessible/flexible – educational technology can help make aspects of learning more accessible (although it can also put new barriers in the way), and flexible. We saw this in the pandemic – online learning could continue when face to face couldn’t. Distance and online universities, such as the Open University, offer provision to people who cannot attend face to face or adhere to a strict timetable. Assistive technology can make resources more widely available and easier to use for people. So, yes, ed tech can help us flex around the conventional model of education.

Financial benefits – the use of educational technology rarely leads to the savings envisaged by many senior managers who underestimate the costs involved, but it can be cheaper than building a fancy new lecture hall and lab space. And if it allows institutions to reach new markets, then online offerings can generate income. More widely educational technology is big business, which generates jobs, tax revenue and wealth (for some I suppose).

Student experience and choice – even in courses that are not directly vocational there’s a benefit for students to be learning skills about navigating online resources, collaboration and information handling. Related to flexibility, educational technology also allows some degree of choice in how they operate, for example watching lecture capture video, discussing with peers online, using social media forums, testing things with AI, etc.

Improved pedagogy – it may be related to student experience or improved performance, but perhaps distinct is that some ed tech allows us to do things we simply couldn’t do before. Access to vast databases, or simulations that permit dangerous or impossible variations, these can make a subject engaging.

Reflection on practice – perhaps low down the list but the advent of new technologies often causes a good degree of reflection on existing practice. Take AI as an obvious example, it has caused much consternation around the type of assessment we perform, and some of that is actually very beneficial. We should have been having that discussion anyway. More fundamentally it makes us question, what is the function of education itself? This periodic reframing or reassertion of the principles of education is a valuable by-product.

Administration and monitoring – ed tech also allows for a good deal of monitoring, and administrative functions to be undertaken. There is a strong thread of ed tech as a means of function and control. Some of this is desirable (it’s probably a good idea to know who your students are and to have a timetable), others less so (invasive exam proctoring), but most institutions need it to function in some respects.


I created a quick Poll in Vevox, and after 43 votes, the results were as follows:

“Making learning more accessible/flexible” was the clear winner with 44% of the vote, followed by “Improve learning performance” with 23%. If we employed ed tech with these two goals clearly in mind that wouldn’t be a bad thing, I’d suggest.

You can probably think of more, and perhaps some more examples can be included under these headings. The point is we can often engage with educational technologies, and hold one or more of these goals implicitly, while others may have different expectations and goals. But as higher ed moves to a future where technology is more deeply embedded across many of its functions, it might be worth asking ourselves, what do we want from it exactly? Because if we don’t ask that question, some different agenda may arise.

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