Understanding Technology in Education

By 01/03/2018 December 2nd, 2019 Education, Technology Enhanced Learning

In this post, I’m going to talk about technology in education, but let’s start on shared ground. Now, be honest, at some point in our career, we have had an experience where someone has been talking about something (it can be anything, not necessarily  education or technology related) and we have :

  1. Not had a clue what the person was talking about.
  2. Kept silent, so to not alert others to our knowledge gap.
  3. Experienced impostor syndrome (which is a mix of 1 and 2 when in a professional context, but is also coupled with a not-too-helpful dose of guilt)

As a computing lecturer, educational technologist and Foundation Degree in Computing Director , I have been in places where I have felt completely out of my depth. Mostly when talking to people who work in the IT industry. They can take programming to levels that I have no real need to and their knowledge of computer languages far outstrips my own. At this point impostor syndrome will kick in and I will still have that feeling of inadequacy and worthlessness.

I remember these moments because this can be how some teachers can feel about technology in education. They are experts in their own field, have an expert level of knowledge and passion in their own subject areas, but the paralysis still sets in when we talk about using technology in education. Part of the problem is the fault of the IT industry. It moves so fast that it can be impossible to keep up, so it very easily get’s to the point where we ask: why bother? Another aspect of the problem is government funding (don’t worry I’m not going to go any further than mentioning it), and a third part of the problem is in the school structure-management simply allow no time for staff development, or to be a bit fairer, they have no room in their budget to allow staff time for staff development.

There are a myriad of issues at play here, but it remains a problem. We all reach a point where we categorically refuse to go any further with technology. We could think of it like a technological torture rack. It moves in small increments but we all reach a threshold where we surrender and say no more:

“PowerPoint?” “Yes, I’m use that a lot.”

“Email?” “Yes, even I can use that!”

“Twitter?” “I use it a little, but I’m not sure how it could be used in my classroom.”

“Facebook?” “I can use it for my family and friends, but no, definitely not in school. The kids will bully each other!”

And there we have it. We all reach a point where we no longer feel in our comfort zone, or we reach the end of our knowledge and we say no more. But, at no point have we even mentioned the learner. Re-read the five lines of speech…we were always talking about what you can do, not what the student needs to know.

The simple truth is that it doesn’t have to be that way.

Starting small, we can move through the world of educational technology and implement small changes in your teaching pedagogy and how you work in the classroom and suddenly within 6 months you will find learners engage in your class teaching in ways that you maybe haven’t seen before.

But let’s start at the beginning.

Choosing technologies for teaching and learning: the challenge

In this current digital age, technology reaches most parts of our life and is increasing at a frightening rate. Siri, Google Voice and Alexa are quickly filling the space in our homes in the Internet of Things. Mobile technology is hitting new highs in implementing new technologies like fingerprint technology, mobile wallets and facial recognition. Education, although often very slow in technology adoption, is nevertheless no exception. Learning is also a fundamental human activity that can function quite well (some would argue better) without technological intervention. So in our modern society, immersed in technology as it is, what is the role for technology in education? What are the strengths  and what are the limitations of technology in education? When should we use technology, and which technologies should we use for what purposes?

The aim of this post is to provide some models for decision-making that are both soundly based on academic pedagogy and research but are also pragmatic within our context of education.

This will not be a straightforward process. There are educational, technical and pragmatic challenges in trying to provide a model or set of models that are flexible but practical enough to handle the huge range of factors involved. For instance, pre-existent theories and beliefs about education will strongly  influence the choice and use of the various technologies on offer. On the technical side, it is becoming increasingly more difficult to classify or categorise technologies, not just because they change so fast, but also because technologies have many different qualities that change according to the contexts in which they are used. On the pragmatic side, it would be a mistake to focus solely on the educational characteristics of technologies. There are social, organisational, cost and accessibility issues also to be considered. The process of selecting and using technologies for teaching and learning is driven, equally by context, values and beliefs as by empirical scientific evidence or academic theory. So there will not be one ‘best’ framework or model, simply the best one that fits your educational context. With the rapidly escalating range of technologies, educators are open to technological determinism (MOOCs, for example?) or a total rejection of technology for teaching, unless there are established models to provide guidance for their selection and use.

In fact, there are still some fundamental questions to be answered regarding technology for teaching, including:

  • what type of teaching and learning is best done face-to-face, which is best online, and in what particular contexts?
  • what is the role of the teacher, and can/should/will the teacher be replaced by technology?

These are questions that will be tackled in later posts, but if we consider a teacher facing a group of students and a curriculum to teach, or a learner seeking to develop their own learning, the practical guidance is needed now when they consider whether or not to use one technology or another.

Media or technology?

Defining media and technology in education

Philosophers, scientists and academics have discussed the nature of media and technology over a very long period. The distinction and definition is challenging because in our everyday use of language, we tend to use these two terms interchangeably. For instance, television is often referred to as both a medium and a technology. Is the Internet a medium or a technology? More importantly, does it really matter?

I will put forward the point that there are differences, and it is important to distinguish between media and technology, particularly if we are looking for guidelines on when and how to use them. There is a danger in looking too much at the raw technology, and not enough at the personal, social and cultural contexts in which we use that technology, especially in education. The terms ‘media’ and ‘technology’ represent different ways altogether of thinking about the choice and use of technology in teaching and learning.


There are many definitions of technology (see Wikipedia for a good discussion of this). Essentially definitions of technology will range from the basic concept of tools, to systems which employ or exploit technologies. Therefore:

  • technology refers to tools and machines that may be used to solve real-world problems‘ is a simple definition;
  • the current state of humanity’s knowledge of how to combine resources to produce desired products, to solve problems, fulfill needs, or satisfy wants‘ is a more complex and grandiose definition (and has a smugness about it that I think is undeserved – technology often does the opposite of satisfy wants, for instance.).

In terms of educational technology we need to take a broad definition of technology. The technology of the Internet involves more than just a collection of tools, but a system that combines computers, telecommunications, software and rules and procedures or protocols. However, I don’t agree with the very broad definition of the ‘current state of humanity’s knowledge‘. Once a definition begins to incorporate several different aspects of life it becomes unwieldy, ambiguous and unhelpful.

I prefer to think of technology in education as items or tools that are used to support teaching and learning. Therefore, computers, software programmes such as a learning management system, or a transmission or communications network, are all technologies. A printed book is a form of technology. Technology often includes a combination of tools with particular technical links that enable them to work as a technology system, such as the telephone network or the Internet.

However, technologies or even technological systems do not communicate themselves or create meaning. They will sit there until commanded to do something, until they are activated or until a person starts to interact with the technology. At this point, we start to move into media.


Media is another word that has many definitions and I will believe that it has two distinct meanings relevant for teaching and learning, both of which are different from the definitions of technology.

Media requires the active act of creation of content and/or communication, and someone who receives and understands the communication, as well as the technologies that carry the medium.

Media linked to senses and ‘meaning’.

We use our senses, such as sound and sight, to interpret media. In this way, we can consider text, graphics, audio and video as media ‘channels’, in that they intermediate concepts and images that convey meaning. Every interaction we have with media, in this sense, is an interpretation of reality, and again usually involves some form of human intervention, such as writing (for text), drawing or design for graphics, talking, scripting or recording for audio and video. Note that there are two stages in media: the ‘creator’ who constructs information, and the ‘receiver’, who must receive and interpret it.

Media depends upon technology, but technology is only one element of media. Therefore, we can think of the Internet as a technological system, or as a medium that contains unique formats and symbol systems that help convey meaning and knowledge. These formats, symbol systems and unique characteristics (e.g. the character limit in Twitter) are deliberately created and need to be interpreted by both creators and end users. Furthermore, at least with the Internet, people can be at the same time both creators and interpreters of knowledge.

Computing can also be considered a medium in this context. I use the term computing, not computers, as although computing uses computers, computing involves some kind of intervention, construction and interpretation. Computing as a medium would include animations, online social networking, using a search engine, or designing and using simulations. Google uses a search engine as its primary technology, but we will classify Google as a medium, since it needs content and content providers, and an end user who defines the parameters of the search, in addition to the technology of computer algorithms to assist the search. Thus the creation, communication and interpretation of meaning are added features that turn a technology into a medium.

How do these findings apply to online learning?

Online learning can incorporate a range of different media: text, graphics, audio, video, animation, simulations. We need to understand better the affordances of each medium within the Internet, and use them differently but in an integrated way so as to develop deeper knowledge, and a wider range of learning outcomes and skills. The use of different media also allows for more individualization and personalisation of the learning, better suiting learners with different learning styles and needs. Most of all, we should stop trying merely to move classroom teaching to other media such as MOOCs, and start designing online learning so its full potential can be exploited.

Implications for education

If we are interested in selecting appropriate technologies for teaching and learning, we should not just look at the technical features of a technology, nor even the wider technology system in which it is located, nor even the educational beliefs we bring as a classroom teacher.  We also need to examine the unique features of different media, in terms of their formats, symbols systems, and cultural values. These unique features are increasingly referred to as the affordances of media or technology.

The concept of media is much ‘softer’ and ‘richer’ than that of ‘technology’, more open to interpretation and harder to define, but ‘media’ is a useful concept, in that it can also incorporate the inclusion of face-to-face communication as a medium, and in that it recognises the fact that technology on its own does not lead to the transfer of meaning .

As new technologies are developed, and are incorporated into media systems, old formats and approaches are carried over from older to newer media. Education is no exception. New technology is ‘accommodated’ to old formats, as with clickers and lecture capture, or we try to create the classroom in virtual space, as with learning management systems. However, new formats, symbols systems and organizational structures that exploit the unique characteristics of the Internet as a medium are gradually being discovered. It is sometimes difficult to see these unique characteristics clearly at this point in time. However, e-portfolios, mobile learning, open educational resources such as animations or simulations, and self-managed learning in large, online social groups are all examples of ways in which we are gradually developing the unique ‘affordances’ of the Internet.

More significantly, it is likely to be a major mistake to use computers to replace or substitute for humans in the educational process, given the need to create and interpret meaning when using media, at least until computers have much greater facility to recognize, understand and apply semantics, value systems, and organizational features, which are all important components of ‘reading’ different media. But at the same time it is equally a mistake to rely only on the symbol systems, cultural values and organizational structures of classroom teaching as the means of judging the effectiveness or appropriateness of the Internet as an educational medium.

Thus we need a much better understanding of the strengths and limitations of different media for teaching purposes if we are successfully to select the right medium for the job. However, given the widely different contextual factors influencing learning, the task of media and technology selection becomes infinitely complex. This is why it has proved impossible to develop simple algorithms or decision trees for effective decision making in this area. Nevertheless, there are some guidelines that can be used for identifying the best use of different media within an Internet-dependent society. To develop such guidelines we need to explore in particular the unique educational affordances of text, audio, video and computing, which is the next task of this chapter.

Broadcast vs communicative media

Understanding the characteristics or affordances of each medium or technology that influence its usefulness for education will help clarify our thinking of the possible benefits or weaknesses of each medium or technology. This will also allow us to see where technologies have common or different features.

There is a wide range of characteristics that we could look at, but I will focus on three that are particularly important for education:

  • broadcast (one-way) or communicative (two way) media;
  • synchronous or asynchronous technologies, including live (transient) or recorded (permanent) media;
  • single or rich media.

We shall see that these characteristics are more dimensional than discrete states, and media or technologies will fit at different points on these dimensions, depending on the way they are designed or used.

Broadcast or communicative media

A major structural distinction is between ‘broadcast’ media that are primarily one-to-many and one-way, and those media that are primarily many-to-many or ‘communicative’allowing for two-way or multiple communication connections. Communicative media include those that give equal ‘power’ of communication between multiple end users.

This dimension is not a rigid one, with necessarily clear or unambiguous classifications. Increasingly, technologies are becoming more complex, and able to serve a wide range of functions. In particular the Internet is not so much a single medium as an integrating framework for many different media and technologies with different and often opposite characteristics. Furthermore, most technologies are somewhat flexible in that they can be used in different ways. However, if we stretch a technology too far, for instance trying to make a broadcast medium such as an xMOOC also more communicative, stresses are likely to occur. So I find the dimension still useful, so long as we are not dogmatic about the characteristics of individual media or technologies. This means though looking at each case separately.

Thus I see a learning management system as primarily a broadcast or one-way technology, although it has features such as discussion forums that allow for some forms of multi-way communication. However, it could be argued that the communication functions in an LMS require additional technologies, such as a discussion forum, that just happen to be plugged in to or embedded within the LMS, which is primarily a database with a cool interface. We shall see that in practice we often have to combine technologies if we want the full range of functions required in education, and this adds cost and complexity.

Web sites can vary on where they are placed on this dimension, depending on their design. For instance, an airline web site, while under the full control of the company, has interactive features that allow you to find flights, book flights, reserve seats, and hence, while you may not be able to ‘communicate’ or change the site, you can at least interact with it and to some extent personalize it. However, you cannot change the page showing the choice of flights. This is why I prefer to talk about dimensions. An airline web site that allows end user interaction is less of a broadcast medium. However it is not a ‘pure’ communicative medium either. The power is not equal between the airline and the customer, because the airline controls the site.

It should be noted too that some social media (e.g. YouTube and blogs) are also more of a broadcast than a communicative medium, whereas other social media use mainly communicative technologies with some broadcast features (for example, personal information on a Facebook page). A wiki is clearly more of a ‘communicative’ medium. Again though it needs to be emphasized that intentional intervention by teachers, designers or users of a technology can influence where on the dimension some technologies will be, although there comes a point where the characteristic is so strong that it is difficult to change significantly without introducing other technologies.

The role of the teacher or instructor also tends to be very different when using broadcast or communicative media. In broadcast media, the role of the teacher is central, in that content is chosen and often delivered by the instructor. xMOOCs are an excellent example. However, in communicative media, while the instructor’s role may still be central, as in online collaborative learning or seminars, there are learning contexts where there may be no identified ‘central’ teacher, with contributions coming from all or many members of the community, as in communities of practice or cMOOCs.

Thus it can be seen that ‘power’ is an important aspect of this dimension. What ‘power’ does the end-user or student have in controlling a particular medium or technology? If we look at this from an historical perspective, we have seen a great expansion of technologies in recent years that give increasing power to the end user. The move towards more communicative media and away from broadcast media then has profound implications for education (as for society at large).

We can also apply this analysis to non-technological means of communication, or ‘media’, such as classroom teaching. Lectures have broadcast characteristics, whereas a small seminar group has communicative characteristics. In Figure 6.4.3, I have placed some common technologies, classroom media and online media along the broadcast/communicative continuum.

When doing this exercise, it is important to note that:

  • there is no general normative or evaluative judgement about the continuum. Broadcasting is an excellent way of getting information in a consistent form to a large number of people; interactive communication works well when all members of  a group have something equal to contribute to the process of knowledge development and dissemination. The judgement of the appropriateness of the medium or technology will very much depend on the context, and in particular the resources available and the general philosophy of teaching to be applied;
  • where a particular medium or technology in education is placed on the continuum will depend to some extent on the actual design, use or application. For instance, if the lecturer talks for 45 minutes and allows 10 minutes for discussion, an interactive lecture might be further towards broadcasting than if the lecture session is more of a question and answer session;
  • I have placed ‘computers’ in the middle of the continuum. They can be used as a broadcast medium, such as for programmed learning, or they can be used to support communicative uses, such as online discussion. Their actual placement on the continuum therefore will depend on how we choose to use computers as a technology in education;
  • the important decision from a teaching perspective is deciding on the desired balance between ‘broadcasting’ and ‘discussion’ or communication. That should then be one factor in driving decisions about the choice of appropriate technologies;
  • the continuum is a heuristic device to enable a teacher to think about what medium or technology will be most appropriate within any given context, and not a firm analysis of where different types of media or technology in education that belong on the continuum.

Thus where a medium or technology ‘fits’ best on a continuum of broadcast vs communicative is one factor to be considered when making decisions about media or technology for teaching and learning.


Bates, A. (2012) Pedagogical roles for video in online learning, Online Learning and Distance Education Resources

Clark, R. (1983) ‘Reconsidering research on learning from media’ Review of Educational Research, Vol. 53, pp. 445-459

Kozma, R. (1994) ‘Will Media Influence Learning? Reframing the Debate’, Educational Technology Research and Development, Vol. 42, No. 2, pp. 7-19

Leitonen, T. (2010) Designing Learning Tools: Methodological Insights Aalto, Finland: Aalto University School of Art and Design

LinkedIn: Media and Learning Discussion Group

Michael Johnston

About Michael Johnston

I'm a Lecturer in Computing and the Foundation Degree Director in Computing for the Northern Regional College in Northern Ireland. My research interests in the areas of technology enhanced learning, how we interact with technology, blended learning and professional development. Michael currently specialises in the computing areas of web development technologies, cyber security, software development and IoT. Michael has worked in a range of different roles in IT-from teaching roles to running his own web design company, Michael is equally at home working with theory, as he is conducting research, or building a bespoke IT solution. Michael is currently studying a PhD in Cyberpsychology.

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