Disciplining educational technology

Georgetown stairs

Always a treat to visit the Exorcist stairs, which are adjacent to the CNDLS building.

Earlier this month I met with several dozen people at Georgetown University to discuss an unusual question: should educational technology become an academic discipline?  Carl Straumsheim wrote up a fine account, not to mention the bits where he interviewed me.

The meeting raised some rich questions, and the main topic is quite stimulating, so I wanted to share various thoughts.

Some background:

The meeting was premised on a sense of recent education and technology history.  Organizers noted that the past few years have seen serious growth in online learning, combined with a new look at redesigning digital pedagogy, on top of recent concerns about the quality of undergrad education.  The meeting also drew on the recent MIT report about online learning, specifically its call for connecting the emergent science of learning to pedagogical design.  (Although the Georgetown group was, on the whole, nonplussed about the very MIT call for labeling people “learning engineers”)

What present work responds to this set of developments?  The organizers also drew attention to paracurricular centers, such as teaching and learning campus centers, which they saw as progressive, but not doing enough.  Specifically, they needed to scale up, professionalize, and form a networked community of practice.  (Is this accurate?  I’m not sure, to be honest.)  Educational technology could be the profession for taking things forward, but it needs to be fortified with design thinking and especially learning science.  In that new form it could become a new academic discipline.

That’s where this meeting took off.  I need to say it was ably hosted by Georgetown’s Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship (some yeoman work, seriously) and facilitated brilliantly. Eddy Maloney was grand, juggling more than most humans could handle. The meeting’s organizers asked as excellent questions, and we worked energetically at answering them.  That’s what the majority of the event was about.

I admit to being skeptical.  I have enough poststructuralism under my belt to view the very idea of discipline with political resistance or at least ironic detachment.  More to the point, the components assembled on the table didn’t connect together clearly.  Nothing necessarily leads educational technologists to design thinking or, especially, to the new science of learning.  Even less leads learning scientists to educational technology.  As I brooded to Carl, “it felt like we were duct-taping two worlds together.”

horizontal line through windows

A Georgetown wall.

Further, we weren’t fully convinced that there had to be such a discipline.  One reason to create one was to win academic legitimacy.  This makes sense, especially given IT’s intellectual marginalization in the academy (hint: that’s what happens when you make something a utility).  But we weren’t convinced this could actually happen, at least not for a long time.  Consider the field of education, which very few outside of it really take seriously.  Or consider my duct-tape problem; why shouldn’t academics simply pay attention to learning science (assuming they ever do) on its own terms, in its current housing in psychology and neurobiology?

Moreover, a discipline must exclude, by definition.  What would this field lose in the process of formation?  For instance, the plethora of “accidental technologists” who currently work in ed tech could become marginalized, and non-professionally-trained but interested and capable people discouraged – i.e., amateurs blocked out by professionalization.  Alternatively, the new field could settle firmly on certain approaches to the negation of others.  Think of controversies, such as social media versus the LMS, or pro- and anti-gamification.  Would the new discipline include all sides?

Over at the IHE article one commentator raised yet another objection:

Kyforever • 2 days ago The "new discipline" already exists. Why not take advantage of the 200 existing programs in instructional design & technology/learning sciences/educational technology/instructional systems and add the analytics as a fundamental component?

Kyforever: “The “new discipline” already exists. Why not take advantage of the 200 existing programs in instructional design & technology/learning sciences/educational technology/instructional systems and add the analytics as a fundamental component?”

Perhaps those programs are where this discipline is arising.  Notice how many terms Kyforever had to boxcar together.  Maybe the discipline is just an act of naming and maybe some basic organizational connection.

Back in Georgetown, I played a mean trick on my collaborators.  Before the meetings began I thought that this hypothetical discipline resembled the library profession, with its combination of technical skill, a service orientation, and a sense of its own academic mission and issues.  Unusually, I didn’t say anything, and waited to see if the parallel occurred to anyone else.  Not only did nobody share the same idea, but not once (in my hearing) did anyone mention the library field.  One IHE commentator saw the link, and that’s about all.  Which made me sad as a library supporter.  This instance of professional invisibility doesn’t bode well for the hypothetical discipline.

However, those same colleagues were more productive than I.  They addressed one prompt in particular so very well:

“What are the core questions this discipline seeks to answer?”

(Compare with biology, which wants to know: what is life?)

We broke into groups to address this, and mine offered some solid answers.  They are threefold:

  1. How can academic institutions best improve teaching and learning?
  2. How should academic institutions  position themselves to respond to external changes?
  3. What are the aims of higher education?

What I like about how my confreres framed this is, first, it connects micro and macro.  Answering #1 can occur at any scale, including a single class.  #2 drives thought to the level of institutional transformation.

Second, this trio of deep questions is quietly ethical and political in nature.  Imagine posing #1+2 to, say, a group of the 1%, and they end up answering by forming a rich kids’ academy staffed solely by Uber-ized adjuncts for the benefit of a hedge fund.  That would be a sound answer, formally.  #3 forces the designers to be open about the solution.  Ethical and political answers to #3 could drive interesting responses to #1+2.

So should this go forward?  Must we discipline ourselves?

Potomac River from Key bridge

Crossing an actual bridge to get to the meeting.

I hate to play a classic humanities card, but it works here.  The question and resulting discussion are interesting and productive enough at the present, without committing to a strategic decision.  They summon up good considerations of professionalization, ethics, technology, institutional politics, etc,  We can ride with these for now and enrich the field.  Then let’s see what surfaces.


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24 Responses to Disciplining educational technology

  1. David Edwin Stone says:

    A few years back M. David Merrill wrote about “The Proper Study of Instructional Design” http://mdavidmerrill.com/Papers/ProperStudy.pdf and pointed out that the majority of design work in is done by “designers-by-assignment”, rather than those trained in the design of instruction.
    In my graduate Instructional Design and Technology experience I saw educators (K-12 teachers mostly) entering a IDT program to pick up the technology side of things and instructional design and then another group of technologists (Information Technology, Computer Science or others) who were seeking to learn more about teaching and learning. Most of the professionals working in educational technology related roles I encounter are from varied undergraduate or professional backgrounds. This is both a strength and a dividing factor for this “:space” (to borrow the imprecise language of the corporate environment).

    In my own research I saw a major gap in higher education administration research related to technology and the adaption of technology higher education institutions. Most of the research was focused on the context of individual class redesigns or technology implementations within a single course or departmental context. When looking at academic programs where this kind of research would live, I found few academic programs that would be a good fit. Information Systems and Technology programs have a decidedly business focus (as many evolved from business schools), while the Information Technology programs are focused more on the technology and the management of services and technology.

    • Lots of gaps and imbalances, David.
      Would a discipline solve that?

      • Dr. David Edwin Stone says:

        I think a discipline would help. I view the current graduate programs as imparting a tool bag of theories and applications to allow the graduates to fit within different areas of specialty. There are some key theories and frameworks for the field, but many graduates go off to very specific work environments. Bloomsburg University, a university to which many of the Penn State Instructional Designers have a connection, has three tracks for their program: Corporate, Instructional Technology Specialist, and eLearning Developer. The program I went through at Georgia State also served these audiences as well. This fractured purpose works well for career transition purposes, but I am not sure it helps build a stable field. Going back to Merril’s paper, I found the following quote pretty damming “Instructional design theory is sufficiently immature that there has not yet been a general agreement on the conditions that have been found to be most useful nor has there been a general agreement on the terminology used to identify these instructional events or conditions.”.

        Educause seems to be tackling some of the higher education and technology challenges in the area of Educational Technology. I suspect that the desire to be closer to the core business and part of the strategy decisions is what is pushing many people in technology roles to try and learn more about academic leadership and get closer to the core business of the institution. This is at the same time as many technology services are being outsourced and technology services in general are trending towards a utility service. You don’t need staff to locally manage systems and servers when remote hosting is easier in many ways. There has been much written over the years about CIOs gaining access to the table for senior level strategy discussions.

        Another of the challenges I see with building a higher education focus is that many of the faculty teaching in instructional design and technology programs are not higher education administrators nor have they had much experience in higher education leadership positions. I suspect that the reward structure for teaching students after assuming administrative roles would be an inhibiting factor. I don’t know if a higher education focused field would be better built within a Higher Education administration program. The hard line of teacher certification also makes it more difficult for professionals with instructional design and technology backgrounds transition between Higher Education and K-12 contexts.

      • David, thank you for these generous and thoughtful comments. Between the two of us we’re 1/2way to an article.

        I like your point about an academic discipline giving coherence to what’s on the ground, especially given that powerful slam by Merrill.

        Perhaps that institutional leadership element will be the largest and most difficult to integrate.

  2. I just have to jump in to say that at Lane Community College the Academic Technology Center and the Library not only banded together to deliver services to both students and faculty, but with a new remodel, they moved into the same building and together designed what is now a beautiful and impressive learning commons. However, there are other areas that fall under the Tech banner that have nothing directly to do with teaching and learning like maintenance of internal servers, websites, etc.

    RE: the topic on the table…I both hope for and fear for the well being of the bootstrapped learner who became a faculty Ed Tech Specialist like me. I WAS marginalized up until the point where I had enough chops to get hired. But we really are the product of the emerging web; the people coming up behind us have had or will have had in some misty future, “formal” training in high school and college.

    Plenty is missing that could be filled in by getting mainstreamed as a discipline. I think about all I don’t know that could have been filled in by the availability of an actual program to go through, and then I think the reason I learned at all was because I was marginalized as a part time pink collar offshore worker into taking the crap jobs the full time English faculty didn’t have to take, which were the online classes. I became UNmarginalized when I knew enough tech in a world that respected tech that I became more valuable/useful and was hired as a Faculty Tech plus Writing Teacher in a cobbled together contract.

    I’d like to think having access to more and better organized training would help others move forward faster. But that’s the part of my head that is still brainwashed by the academy structure.

    The other part critiques the silo structure of the academy and says we don’t need yet another silo. But not adding another silo does nothing to dismantle the current model.
    If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

    But to return where I began, I AM proud of Lane’s ATC/Library partnership and think that joining forces rather than further siloing is a progressive model for others.

    • Sandy, I wrote up a reply, but it seems to have vanished. Which is weird.
      To recap:

      Kudos on that Lane project, which sounds excellent. We need more of those.

      Thank you for reflecting on your career. Many lessons for us all to bear in mind.

      I don’t think you’re brainwashed. Your suggestion sounds like practical politics.

  3. When considering instructional design, you may also want to consider institutional design – i.e. the design of institutions of higher education.

    The work of an instructional designer depends on the role she plays in an institution; and, that role depends on the governance structure of the institution.

    Here’s a blog post that provides an overview of organization analysis and design.

    Mintzberg’s Taxonomy of Organizational Forms

    It contains links to three slide shows that analyze alternative university structures with Mintzberg’s Taxonomy.

    The first compares the governance structure of the traditional university with that of the British Open University.

    The other two depict alternative approaches for developing and maintaining course materials:
    1. The Lone Ranger Approach
    2. The Professional Development Team Approach

    In my experience, the traditional university typically employs the lone ranger approach (i.e. the professor as lone ranger and a graduate student as Tonto).

    The British Open University’s governance structure, and its economy of scale, enable it to use the Professional Development Team approach.

    Note also that the governance structure of the British Open University was designed in a top-down fashion. In particular, it was designed to develop and maintain online course materials and lesson plans. Subject matter experts (i.e. faculty) are specifically hired to work with teams of other professionals to develop and maintain content and lesson plans. Further, the content is owned by the British Open University, much like the software developed by programmers working for Microsoft is owned by Microsoft.

    Also note that teaching faculty who work for the British Open University are subordinated to the senior faculty who develop lesson plans. So to a large extent they are obliged to use the content and lesson plans developed by the senior faculty.

    At a traditional research university, senior faculty are mostly concerned with research. Some professors do decide to write textbooks, but the university does not own the textbook. Further, textbook publishers typically provide a development team of experts to supplement the work of the textbook author. Some textbooks do include lesson plans, But, when textbooks are selected by faculty at other schools, they are not obligated to use the lesson plan(s) provided by the textbook.

    One might say that the traditional university really isn’t in the business of developing and maintaining online content and lesson plans. Typically, the faculty are not obliged to develop textbooks or online courses. In the case of textbooks, if they do develop one, they typically claim ownership of the material.

    However, as more and more schools try to transition into the world of online learning, they may benefit by studying the governance structure of the British Open University, which was designed to develop and maintain online content and lesson plans.

    • Dr. David Edwin Stone says:

      I often wonder about the long term sustainability of building separate organizational structures within Universities for the purpose of building and managing online content and lesson plans. By separating the development and delivery process from the role of faculty you are gaining some ease of management in exchange for less faculty engagement with teaching. Faculty teaching courses that have been designed and authored by others must live with decisions that were made without their input. Long term this is reducing the flexibility of programs and the faculty engagement with the programs. As the tools used to manage content and a trend towards more modularized content, I suspect that the need to separate online program development from face to face programs will be reduced.

      • Dr. Stone,

        Thank you for your response to my comment.

        There is at least one problem with putting the control of the development of educational technology in the hands of those who are directly involved in teaching. Here it is: Why would anyone want to innovate themselves out of a job?

        I don’t condemn Luddites. It’s a quite understandable part of the human condition. But, since faculty can use the power of shared governance to block technological progress that could benefit society, but might threaten their job security, then society has a problem.

        Two very important historical examples of this kind of technological advance are:
        1) the development of writing, which put many storytellers out of a job and
        2) the invention of the printing press, which put many scribes out of work.

        More recently, we can see another example of where faculty rigidity toward working on the development of cost saving educational technology has become a problem. A few years back, California Governor Jerry Brown had pushed through a tax increase to provide public higher education with additional funding.

        As a Regent of the U. of California, Brown asked if the UC system could develop ways to use information technology to reduce (or at least control) the cost of education. Janet Napolitano brushed him off with the offhand remark that online education is no silver bullet. It was as if she wants someone to bring the UC system a silver bullet solution on a silver platter. Apparently, she does not see online education as something work working on to develop a solution to the problem of rapidly rising costs.

        For more on this story, see:

        UC System in Financial Trouble Again, but
        Still Questions the Potential of Online Education

        And, the Luddite problem leads to additional problems. Since EdTech support staffs at traditional schools need to maintain the support and cooperation of the faculty, they tend to become sycophants and flatterers. As Machiavelli noted long ago, when those in power surround themselves with flatterers, they tend to develop a distorted view of reality.

        Here’s a blog post with more to say on the problem of luddites and sycophants:

        Machiavelli on the Problem of Luddites and Sycophants

        And, here’s a specific case where the EdTech support staff at Berkeley openly sided with the Luddite tendencies of the faculty, and became their sycophants. The details of how this came about are revealed in an email exchange between William Bowen, president emeritus of Princeton University, and C. Judson King. At the time, King was provost and senior vice president – academic affairs, emeritus, University of California, and director, Center for Studies in Higher Education, Berkeley,

        Reducing the cost of education with technology as an anti-goal.

        Finally, on your point that modularized content and the tools to manage said content will enable lone ranger style content development in many cases is well taken. This kind of development is especially important for courses that are part of the “long tail” of the curriculum.

        As I understand it, the British Open University maintains around 200 year-long courses. So, their Professional Development team approach works in these cases. However, at Berkeley, we taught around 3,500 courses (there are about 7,000 courses on record, but only half will ever be taught again). If you sort by enrollment size, about 110 courses account for 50% of the enrollment. These are the big courses that are typically taught with textbooks. My guess is that the OU’s 200 courses could be used to develop online textbooks for these course.

        But, then there’s the long tail – i.e. all the courses taught at Berkeley and elsewhere that are not covered by the British Open University. In these cases we do need to support the Lone Ranger approach. I’ve blogged on this point at:

        Legos for Long Rangers


    • Frederick, many thanks for this rich comment. I was unfamiliar with that taxonomy, and find it both elegant and illuminating.

      The Open University is one underappreciated institution in the US.

  4. Pingback: Bryan Alexander on the “name game” of Instructional Technology | Carpet Bomberz Inc.

  5. Here’s my own program: http://www.brandeis.edu/gps/student-courses/programs/listings/instructional-design.html Strong on the tech, includes analytics and lots of online design, and current pedagogical thought, but still not there as a full discipline perhaps.

    Interestingly enough, here at Brandeis, our Academic Technology department sits in the same open office area as both the Center for Teaching and Learning -and- the Research and Instructional Services Librarians. So we not only recognize your parallel we embody it.

  6. amichaelberman says:

    I would prefer to keep “Educational Technology” as an application domain rather than a discipline, and to continue to incorporate the best research from the many areas that touch upon it. I don’t think offering Ph.D.’s and establishing new journals in Educational Technology is going to help students learn more, better, or faster.

    • Maha Bali says:

      Well and also as mentioned before, these already exist. I don’t really understand the question about discipline. Is there some central body that decides something is a discipline in and of itself? Isn’t education an interdisciplinary field that came out of psychology but also involves socio/anthropology and some other stuff too? Isn’t educational technology (and it’s journals and graduate degrees and branches and different camps and all that) a sub-domain of education? Why would we want to take it out of there? It’s not like it’s non-existent… I am unsure what the question really is here.
      I am also quite annoyed by the set of 3 questions the group came up with because those are broad education questions and NOT specific to edtech. Which implies there’s no separate discipline again…just a different context to apply broader educational questions.

      The conflicts/controversies in edtech aren’t really that far removed from those in the education and IT disciplines more broadly, with some leaning more edu and others more tech. So…again… Not sure what formalizing it as a discipline would entail? Edtech departments that were separate from Education? What would that achieve? (serious not rhetorical question).

      I remember when I was doing my PhD someone asked what my PhD was in and I said “education”. They were like “yes, but what’s it a PhD IN?” and I was frustrated and said “just like u have a PhD in engineering I am doing a PhD in education!”

      I guess at some point engineering split off from sciences as a more applied field. And computer science split off from engineering as a more software field…education split off from psychology (i think)… Does edtech need that? I don’t know

      • Good questions, Maha. I can answer them as a participant, not as a partisan. I’m also speaking within the US context.

        Our conversations didn’t focus too much on education as a broader field. Within the US other disciplines rarely take education seriously as an academic discipline, preferring instead to follow their own research.

        For academic technology, there’s a sense that it’s not taken seriously as an intellectual enterprise. It’s often folded into IT operations, rather than seen as an academic peer. Infusing it with learning science and design thinking could boost its reputation.

        This new educational technology field would be very interdisciplinary in its roots.

        • Maha Bali says:

          I don’t understand how u expect edtech to be taken seriously when education isn’t (I didn’t know that). And I also don’t understand what the threshold is for something to be considered an academic discipline – beyond having graduate degrees in it and peer-reviewed journals?
          The other question that comes up is – you just referred to education as a field where people do research about other disciplines. You’re referring to people who aren’t in schools of education. But there are schools of education and those people do educational research. There’s an AERA and everything. It’s fine that lots of people teach but don’t do research on education. It’s got issues with it as a model, but isn’t necessary. In the same way lots of educators do edtech stuff but not all of them need to be researching edtech. And to be honest, lots of edtech is NOT an intellectual enterprise. I don’t fully understand why the folks considering making it a discipline want to focus on design thinking and learning sciences specifically? Those aren’t currently the main premises of edtech, if at all…nor do I see design thinking as an established discipline (and I co-teach a course on Creative Thinking and Problem-Solving, where my co-teacher focuses on design thinking). It’s that reductionist perspective on what an edtech discipline could/should be that’s raising all kinds of Foucauldian objections in my head. I know you’re already thinking of them and of exclusions and such.

  7. iwdouglas2202 says:

    See: http://aect-president-2009-2010.blogspot.com/2010/06/is-educational-technology-discipline.html
    Note this was written five years ago by the president of a professional organization that was established in 1923.

    The discipline does not need to be established, but it may be in need of updating for the Internet age. It certainly needs more publicists.

    • nwis says:

      I’ll second this comment. I earned a master’s degree in educational technology – in 1975 – and later taught applications of educational technology to undergraduates in a library science program for 27 years. I shared with my students that educational technology was an emerging discipline at the intersection of educational psychology (grounded in the work of Gagne’, Bruner, and others ), communications (Schramm and others), and the study of technology (Minsky and many others). Journals like ETR&D (in publication since the 1950s), the Educational Media & Technology Yearbook (since the 1970s), and the online international journal ETHE are examples of movement toward the features of a traditional discipline. But as something that continues to exist on the edge, educational technology is messy and unclear – and that’s what makes it exciting and important.

      • Dr. David Edwin Stone says:

        I have been a member of AECT for years and I am familiar with the organization. Part of the issue I see is that there isn’t much cross pollination between the educational technology industry and academia. It would I found it interesting when at the height of the MOOC interest in 2012 Sebastian Thurn noted during his Sloan Consortium (Now Online Learning Consortium) keynote that nobody from a College of Education had reached out to him about his work with MOOCs. If I recall properly, this was during a Q&A. I think to a large extent that the educational technology entrepreneurs, publications, and investors are unfamiliar with the organization and existing disciplines within Higher Education that have frameworks that would advance the financial goals of their companies. I suspect that working with the slow moving bureaucratic structures of Higher Education Institutions as well as the (perceived) interest in maintaining the status quo is enough to drive away entrepreneurial engagement.

      • Dr. David Edwin Stone says:

        FYI. here is the presentation by Thurn I referenced in my last reply. http://events.mediasite.com/Mediasite/Play/82b693c44d94441ba4b9c08c75df31351d

  8. Re: The meeting also drew on the recent MIT report about online learning, specifically its call for connecting the emergent science of learning to pedagogical design.

    You might be interested in reading this post by Tony Bates in which he asks:

    Why is MIT ignoring 25 years of research into online learning and 100 years research into how students learn in its design of online courses?


  9. Pingback: Tomorrow: should educational technology become an academic discipline? | Bryan Alexander

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