Question Concerning Educational Technology

Can’t we just ignore history and get on with the educational media and technology show? To what degree ought we pay attention to history? Who cares about old media— the future is in new media, isn’t it?

‘Who controls the past,’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’ says George Orwell in 1984. The discourse around educational technology often touts technological advancements as the future of education. However, the future cannot be constructed without understanding the past. The present is always conflicted between the intractable, deterministic drive of an id-like past and the aspirational ambitions of a super-ego-like future. The present, ego-like, must be the mediating agent that understands the drive of history (and its impacts) to help us better navigate the road to the future. It is only by understanding and dissecting history that we can perceive the future as a network of choices rather than a destined, immutable inevitability. The past, the present and the future become the past, the present and the possible in light of history. This understanding allows us to evaluate and pursue options with greater understanding and responsibility. Jacques Ellul might argue that examining the historical dimension of technology allows us the true freedom of evaluating technology from a moral and ethical perspective, thus enabling a freedom that the interminable drive of technology seeks to suppress by valuing mechanistic efficiency above reflection.

Has educational media and technology paid off over time? Has teaching labour been historically displaced by educational media and technology? What exactly is educational technology as far as history is concerned?

In keeping with the Marxist undertones of this week’s discussion, an evaluation of history of technology in light of “the machinery question” seems most appropriate. Paul & Petrina’s audio documentary regarding the history of technology in education and the video viewings for this week (esp. Skinner’s teaching machine) demonstrate the drive of capitalist forces to mechanize learning. These viewings also demonstrate the trend of shifting the decision making regarding educational technology implementation away from the instructors and towards the administrators. Thus, educational technology is often implemented with the goal of offering mass produced courses to a mass audience in order to meet the profit motives of the the administrators rather than the educational ambitions of educators (and learners). The instructor’s role is diminished to that of a “guide on the side” – the instructor has become the facilitator in service of the technology that was designed to facilitate their “production”.  In Marxist terms, this is analogous to the decision making by capitalists to increase the ratio of fixed inputs (capital/technology) to variable inputs (labour) in the production process. Capitalists then exploit labour to extract greater value from the mechanized production process. Skinner’s teaching machine is an extreme example from this exploitative framework. Skinner, although arguing the benefits of the teaching machine for learners, never mentions the effect on teachers and how the introduction of technology influences the power dynamics in the classroom. Once the teaching machine has mechanized the task of “teaching” and “learning” the instructor can only employ residual power in the classroom and their position is secondary to the machine. Tufte’s dissection of PowerPoint as a teaching tool that has monopolized the use of slideware as educational technology. PowerPoint, Tufte argues introduces a cognitive style which is not conducive to higher-order thinking and it also displaces the instructor into a secondary position in the power dynamics of the classroom. Friesen argues that the lecture is a transmedial pedagogical method that promotes educational discourse even with the advent of educational technology. However, the power dynamics of a classroom are always negotiated between the instructors, learners and the technology. PowerPoint introduces a new dynamic which places the technology at the centre of the dynamic and displaces both the ‘living’ elements. In light of this analysis, educational media ad technology has reconfigured the education matrix in favour of technology and the administrators and at the cost of teachers and learners.

Educational Technology can be traced as far back as stone/clay tablets, to papyrus, stencils, the codex, textbooks, pencils etc. Educational technology is a tool (or set of tools) either developed exclusively for the purpose of facilitating education or appropriated for that purpose. Educational technology also includes the strategies and techniques for employing the tools in the learning process. Educational technology is also the framework and discipline (or field) that develops, evaluates and implements educational technology tools and techniques.


What is the philosophy of technology?

Philosophy of technology studies the impacts of technology, its social effects, ontology, ethics and concepts such as determinism. Ellul, as a philosopher of technology, analyzes moral and ethical dimensions, Heiddenberg takes a more existential view and also examines the essence of technology from a Greek perspective, and Feenberg focuses on ontological, social and political questions. A Marxist analysis also politicizes technology and examines its role in the production process.


What are the key insights of Heidegger’s QCT?

Heidegger’s Question Concerning Technology aims to find the essence of technology in light of the Plato’s Theory of Forms. Heidegger argues that an understanding of technology based on its visible forms (or manifestations) as an instrument and means is not adequate for understanding its true essence. He argues that an understanding of the essence of technology will help us understand (and answer?) questions about technology. Heidegger never explicitly states what the question is, but it is implicitly indicated that he is seeking an understanding of the essence of technology – in Plato’s language; he is seeking its true form. At this point, he jumps to a discussion of Aristotelian causality and elaborates on the concepts of material cause (the silver used for making a silver chalice), formal cause (that which causes the shaping of the silver chalice into a form based on an idea/essence), efficient cause (the craftsman who creates the chalice), and final cause (the purpose, or destined end). From an examination of causality and the etymology of the Greek work techne, Heidegger establishes a definition for the essence of technology – bringing into appearance or enframing.

Heidegger’s claim that the essence of technology is not technological is one of his biggest contentions in this essay. In analyzing technology from an ontological perspective he examines technological determinism (formal cause) and he makes his biggest insight when he claims that technology, as a bringing into appearance, is specific to a period in history. (So, for example the revealing of crude oil, is not technology until it is a standing reserve or resource that can be employed in production. Does this make his definition instrumentalist?)

Heidegger’s examination of etymology, causality and the ontology of technology allows him to examine technology with a broad, philosophical approach. However, his attempt to reach a definition of the essence of technology only raises a nebulous cloud around the term and the concept.


What is the philosophy of educational technology?

The philosophy of educational technology has much in common with the philosophy of technology. Both philosophies are concerned with impacts of technology, its social effects, ontology, ethics and concepts such as determinism. Philosophy of educational technology can also apply a Marxist framework to analyze the social, political and economic power dynamics. However, not everybody is convinced that educational technology merits a philosophical analysis. Ely states that educational technology has not yet experienced adequate maturity to be examined as a discipline. It can only be classified as a field. He also states that any philosophy of educational technology will be tentative because the field is still undergoing rapid evolution. Ely also stresses the importance of a behavioural science framework rather than a physical science framework for understanding educational technology and that technology (however it is defined) will serve as the central concept in creating a philosophy of educational technology. Although Ely raises some valid arguments and stands by them in an essay written decades later, I believe that the philosophy of technology developed by Marx, Heidegger, Marcuse, Ellul, Feenberg and others can be extended to develop a philosophy of educational technology. In fact, Feenberg writes extensively on the topic of educational technology, although his writing is more from the perspective of a strategist and educator (i.e. a practitioner) rather than a theorist or philosopher.

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Adams, C. (2008). The poetics of PowerPoint. Explorations in Media Ecology, 7(4), 283–289. Library Portal Access.

Bellow, Adam (2009, May 15) A Brief History of Technology in Education. [Video file] Retrieved from

Borges, Herminio (2007, April 2) Skinner and teaching machine. [Video file] Retrieved from

Dreyfus, H. (2001). How far is distance learning from education? Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, 21(3), 165-174.  [pdf]

Ely, D. P. (1971). Toward a philosophy of instructional technology. British Journal of Educational Technology, 1(2), 81-95.

Ely, D. P. (1999). Toward a philosophy of instructional technology: Thirty years on. British Journal of Educational Technology, 1(2), 305-310. [pdf]

Friesen, N. (2011). The lecture as a transmedial pedagogical form: A historical analysis. Educational Researcher, 40(3), 95-102. Library Portal Access.

Heidegger, M. (1953/1977). The question concerning technology. In M. Heidegger, The question concerning technology and other essays (trans. W. Lovitt) (pp. 3-35). New York: Harper & Row.

Heinich, R. (1991). A comparative analysis of models of instructional design. In G. J. Anglin (Ed.), Instructional technology: Past, present, and future (pp. 61-83). Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited.

IndyWhitings (2009, April 7) History of IST. [Video file] Retrieved from

Paul, R. (Executive Producer) & Petrina, S. (2002, October 11). The Magic Box: Technology in education (Sound Recording). Washington, D.C.: National Public Radio, Sound Prints.

postciv (2009, September 10) Jacques Ellul – The Betrayal by Technology part 1 of 6 [Video file] Retrieved from

Retterer, Oscar (2008, April 17) Instructional Technology: Looking Backward, Thinking Forward. [Video file] Retrieved from

Tufte, E. R. (2003, September). PowerPoint is evil. Wired, 11(9).

Tufte, E. R. (2006). The cognitive style of PowerPoint: Pitching out corrupts within. Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press.

University of California Television (2008, January 10) The Essential Marcuse. [Video file] Retrieved from

Vygotsky, L. (1930/1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes (pp. 52-57, 79-91). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


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