Who are the Learning Technologists? (Part 1)

For my third EdD essay, I wanted to look at my context as a learning technologist to answer two questions. One was around how critical theory could be used to bridge the gap between theory and practice and the other question was around how critical theory could be used to illuminate professionalism. However, this post is not about critical theory but what I learnt about the genesis of learning technology and learning technologists in particular.

David Hopkins, a learning technologist at the University of Leicester has written quite extensively in his blog around the question of “What is a Learning Technologist?” and he is currently participating in some research between Loughborough College and the University of Leicester in “Exploring the identity of a Learning Technologist through the analysis of language”, so to some extent this post will hopefully contribute to that debate. This is the first in a series of short posts concerning the field of educational (or learning) technology and the people who are practitioners and theoreticians within the field.

The Evolving Definition

The first thing you soon discover is that there are many labels or slogans for learning technology; these include educational technology, academic technology and instructional technology to name but a few. You quickly learn that learning technology doesn’t really feature in UK  HE discourse until the mid-to-late 1990s following on from the Dearing Report (NCIHE, 1997) and a string of ambitious UK Government projects like the Connecting the Learning Society (DfEE, 1997), where many UK HE Institutions (HEIs) were being challenged to:

harness both the communications infrastructure and the growing and developing collections of high quality learning materials within a management strategy capable of being responsive to the needs of staff, students and other stakeholders in higher education” (NCIHE, 1997, ch.13.12).

But I digress, in the United States (US), an internationally renowned professional body called the Association for Educational Communications and Technology (AECT) offered the following baseline definition:

Educational technology is the study and ethical practice of facilitating learning and improving performance by creating, using, and managing appropriate technological processes and resources” (AECT, 2008).

This definition has gone through many iterations since it’s’ inception in the 1970s and as such have caused a number of commentators to pick up on the phrase “improving performance” that had crept into this latest iteration of the definition (Hlynka & Jacobsen, 2009). In the United Kingdom (UK), the Association of Learning Technology (ALT) offered their interpretation:

Learning technology is the broad range of communication, information and related technologies that can be used to support learning, teaching, and assessment” (ALT, 2013).

In a report called “The positioning of educational technologists in enhancing the student experience”, Browne & Beetham (2010) begin their report using the ALT definition of learning technology and then continue to use the term educational technology throughout most of the report. The authors wryly observe:

Astute readers will also note that the term ‘learning’ is used above rather than ‘educational’. Whist it is recognised that different terms can bring varying nuances, for simplicity, except where quotes are given verbatim, the term ‘educational technologist’ is consistently used throughout this Report” (Browne & Beetham, 2010:6).

I felt it was a shame that the authors could not elaborate as to what they saw were the “nuances” between the terms to be.  According to Hlynka (2003) this could be partially explained in that educational technology is perceived as being a “culturally biased phenomenon”  with the current discourse, far from being universal, is orientated towards a “unique United States” perspective which seems to be wrapped up in “particular idea of progress” (i.e. making education quicker, simpler and more efficient). As Lawless and Kirkwood (1976) had noted:

Just as it is difficult to define educational technology, so it is almost impossible to identify an educational technologist” (p.54)

Paul Saettler, a renowned historian of educational technology, offers his definition of educational (or instructional) technology as being “the practical art of using scientific knowledge about education” (Saettler, 1968).

As society, technology, culture, politics and the economy shifts and develops, it would be expected that the definition of educational (or learning) technology will evolve to reflect the times. In part 2, we will look at a brief history of educational technology


Association for Educational Communications and Technology (AECT). (2008). Definition. In: Januszewski, A and Molenda, M. (eds.), Educational Technology: A definition with commentary. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Association for Learning Technology (ALT). (2013). What is Learning Technology?. Oxford, England: Association for Learning Technology. Available at: http://www.alt.ac.uk/about-alt/what-learning-technology [Accessed 22.11.2013].

Browne, T. & Beetham, H. (2010). The positioning of educational technologists in enhancing the student experience. Report funded by The Higher Education Academy under their Call4: Enhancing Learning and Teaching through the use of Technology. Oxford, England: Association for Learning Technology (ALT) and The Higher Education Academy (HEA). Available at: http://repository.alt.ac.uk/831/ [Accessed 23.11.2013].

Department for Education and Employment (DfEE). (1997). Connecting the Learning Society. London, England: Crown Copyright. Available at: https://www.education.gov.uk/consultations/downloadableDocs/42_1.pdf [Accessed 22.11.2013].

Hlynka, D. (2003). “The Cultural Discourses of Educational Technology: A Canadian Perspective”. Educational Technology, July-August. 41-45. Available at: http://www.umanitoba.ca/centres/ukrainian_canadian/hlynka/papers/Cultural_Discourses.pdf [Accessed 24.11.2013].

Hlynka, D. & Jacobsen, M. (2009). “What is educational technology, anyway? A commentary on the new AECT definition of the field”. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology, 35(2). Available at: http://www.cjlt.ca/index.php/cjlt/article/view/527/260 [Accessed 30.10.2013].

Lawless, C. & Kirkwood, A. (1976). “Training the Educational Technologist”. British Journal of Educational Technology, 7(1), pp. 54–60. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8535.1976.tb00188.x [Accessed 24.11.2013].

National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education (NCIHE). (1997). Higher Education in the Learning Society (Dearing Report). London, England: HMSO. Available at: http://www.leeds.ac.uk/educol/ncihe/ [Accessed 22.11.2013].

Saettler, P. (1968). A History of Instructional Technology. New York: McGraw-Hill.

One thought on “Who are the Learning Technologists? (Part 1)

  1. Hi Wayne, great post, thank you. There have been many discussions on the difference between ‘education technologist’ and ‘learning technologist’ which have never really summed up an adequate definition, or difference. It seems quite obvious, however, that personal preference has as much to do with it as anything more defined or constructive.

    We had a Twitter discusison about this very topic on November 7th – https://twitter.com/HeyWayne/status/398476849476415488 – which had some useful comments and additions from respective contacts online.

    All the best, David

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