Frances Bell

home at last – for all the mes


Is Education Technology a Discipline? and does it matter?


Discipline by Brendan Lynch CC BY-NC 2.0

I noticed the recent discussion on whether or not Education Technology is a discipline at Martin Weller’s blog post.

When I read the article that prompted the whole EdTech as discipline discussion, I wondered what was behind the claim that a discipline was emerging.

As Georgetown University prepares to launch a master’s degree program in Learning and Design, a new academic discipline built around the study of education technology, learning analytics and instructional design is starting to take shape.


Martin gave us a discipline check list –  journals, conferences, professional accreditation, professional (I would say scholarly) society and degree programmes. As he pointed out, in the UK Association for Learning Technology (ALT) provide all except the last.

At this point, I pondered the parallels in my own home discipline Information Systems that started up in the 1970s and spent the next twenty years doing good work and engaging in identity struggles around method, epistemology and ontology between North American and European flavours of Information Systems,as it matured as a discipline.

Definition of Information Systems

Information systems are the means by which people and organisations, utilising technologies, gather, process, store, use and disseminate information.

The flavour  of IS I came to know and love, although it was applied, recognised that social and organisational aspects are important, as well as the technology. Critical approaches found a home here, and within my group of colleagues, undergraduate and postgraduate students were exposed to theories and engaged in practical critique, as well as learning about technology. We were confident that they left us as more informed and questioning practitioners.

My personal interest in education or learning technology was sparked by an opportunity I had in the mid 90s to share resources and support student discussion on a Lotus Notes server. I was hooked by the ease of publishing via Notes to the extent that I even learned HTML when deprived of the Notes server by one of many university reorganisations. When the LMS arrived at our university, my initial optimism waned as I saw the worst features of package software prevail. On the plus side, Blackboard was a great teaching case for student critique as they experienced it, likewise Turnitin.

In my last 5-10 years as an academic, numbers on Information Systems programmes generally declined and research had to fit in with changing organisational structures (publishing in the ‘right’ journals). Being assimilated into a Business School or Computer Science or other departments was common. Perhaps, as information technologies were absorbed into business sectors and other academic disciplines the Information Systems discipline has become disciplined by others.

So my reflections lead me to wonder if the question of Ed Tech as a discipline is the right one to ask. There seems little consensus in the current debate about what a discipline is but if we think about issues of power and economics that help make some disciplines sustainable in universities then research and teaching income are important, as well contribution to the university’s identity. That Edtech has few courses, and many staff who identify as learning technologists are on professional or academic-related contracts (in the UK at least) puts it at a disadvantage in claiming to be a discipline in the current Higher Education (HE) environment. Of course, learning technologists are doing great work in HE but trying to establish themselves as a discipline in their current contexts may be like beating your head against a brick wall, a not unfamiliar feeling.

For me, a far more important issue is the role of criticality in ed/learning technology, acknowledged by Martin and several of his commenters, and very powerfully by Audrey Watters in her recent keynote, a brilliant read . Audrey urges us to put criticism at the centre of our work.

I have a theory about why criticality may not come easily to those who include learning technology in their job descriptions (like me who was dubbed Learning Technology Fellow or learning champion at different times) or mainstream learning technologists. I suspect that when advocacy for learning technologies is part of your job, it can be difficult to reconcile that with engaging in critique of those technologies. And of course, many of us like the shiny stuff.

How many, like me, in the noughties flew under the radar of the ‘official’ LMS into the arms of the fun Web 2.0 apps to support learning activities? What began by seeming like harmless experiments either inconveniently disappeared  or morphed into ubiquitous platforms that eat our data (even when we delete it) and use it to sell advertising services. Here’s my full rant on that subject if you are interested.

One of things that troubles me about focussing on Edtech as a discipline is that it may reinforce some silos that already exist. Some of the great critical voices are already known in Edtech (for example Audrey Watters and Laura Czerniewycz) but there are others, sometimes in Education Departments or Institutes e.g.  Richard Edwards, Lesley Gourlay and Sian Bayne who are mentioned less often. Surely educational researchers talking sensibly and knowledgeably about technologies are good people to talk to.

Let’s open the door and risk the discipline.

#edtechALTcriticalitydisciplineinformation systemslearning technology

francesbell • October 5, 2016

Previous Post

Next Post


  1. Sheila MacNeill October 5, 2016 - 9:30 am Reply

    Hi Frances

    Thank you for this considered response. I have been watching this debate unfold on Martin’s blog, and on twitter. I have very mixed feelings about this. My main concern is any discipline called “ed tech” would be hijacked by the “tech” – or conversely get so critical as to be of no relevant to learning and teaching. Also, we (the tribe/nomads banded finding common ground as learning technologists) need to make sure that we are actually having an impact on practice, that technology is actually making a constructive contribution to learning. Like you I see the discipline of education as a natural home.


    • francesbell October 5, 2016 - 10:13 am Reply

      I like the idea of the band of nomads having some common identity and engaging with education, each on their own terms. I don’t think that’s happening yet. For example, I loved my first time at OER16 but was quite surprised at the fewness of references to the Learning Media and Technology Special Issue on Critical Approaches to Open Education published in good time for submitters of OER16 abstracts . Somehow I feel that Edtech forming a discipline with its own canon and cumulative tradition could make the siloing worse, and be a frustrating, unproductive experience to boot. But perhaps, others have a different idea of discipline.
      I always think about the questions What aren’t we saying? Who aren’t we talking to? Works for teaching and research 🙂

  2. Paul Hollins October 5, 2016 - 11:44 pm Reply

    I too have very mixed feelings about the emergence of “Ed Tech” discipline. I worked for many years with Oleg Liber who for the time I worked with him was very critical of the Ed Tech discourse as having no “deep theoretical underpinning” (He, of course, used the cybernetic lens for much of his work) and for years I’m not sure I fully understood his concern. I think I am just beginning to understand his perspective now , just as my useful life contribution to ED Tech is, perhaps, beginning to wane. Does Ed Tech need to be a discipline ? I think not, critical yes and multi disciplinary critique an even bigger yes. For me Cybernetics helps (though it has its failings) for you Information systems for Sheila Education . I’d rather be nomadic with the pitfalls and benefits of lack of discipline and question if the distinctions and regulatory control imposed by “discipline” would help us move our domain of study forward (Did I mange to get that one in without comment) though it might help me find the correct location for the REF !

    • francesbell October 6, 2016 - 7:31 am Reply

      Support for theoretical underpinning is one of the aspects that an academic discipline can supply and the same applies to methodology(ies). But of course, theory and method can also be the sites for turf wars and power struggles, as I observed in the Information Systems discipline. I always thought of cybernetics as a theory that was useful/used across multiple disciplines (not surprisingly perhaps as it’s a systems theory +), it was certainly used by people who might see themselves as in Information Systems. And for myself, I sort of drifted to the edge of Information Systems and remained on the boundaries of different disciplines and fields of work and study 🙂
      I’m giving a big Yes! to your closing remarks. Moving forward domains of study (themselves dynamic) in the context of institutions like universities and the REF/RAE is a challenge. Retiring and doing part-time unfunded research has been freeing and revealing. Unfortunately, this freedom does not necessarily help one’s research achieve impact, or even Impact in REF terms 🙂

  3. Fostering Permeability in Academia – ProfHacker - Blogs - The Chronicle of Higher Education

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published / Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.