Who are the Learning Technologists? (Part 5)

In part 1, I looked at the shifting definition of educational (or learning) technology; in the second part, I looked at a brief history of educational technology; part 3 explored the rise of the “new professional”; the fourth part discussed the “bipolarisation” of the “new professional”. This is the fifth 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.

Troublesome Knowledge

In parts 3 and 4, I said that learning technologists had issues around credibility and legitimacy within their institutions and the wider Higher Education community. Some of this professional unease comes from epistemological shifting sands in which the foundation of educational technology knowledge and expertise sits and rests. As Conole (2004) noted:

This is clearly due, at least in part, to the fact that the discipline is still in its infancy and feels the need to justify itself as a legitimate research field.”

The “field” has been described by various authors as being a “relatively new discipline” (Conole et al., 2003), interdisciplinary (Jones, 2004), multidisciplinary (Whitworth & Benson, 2004), or trans-disciplinarity (Strathern, 2005). There is also some debate as to whether educational technology can be classified as a “field” or as a “discipline”. One is reminded of Bourdieu (2004) and his description of a “discipline”:

…a relatively stable and delimited field, easy to identify, has an academically and socially recognised name (e.g. found in library classifications) inscribed in institutions, labs universities, international journals, conferences, procedures.”

Ely (1999) offers his thoughts on what constitutes a “discipline”:

The term, discipline, is usually reserved for areas of inquiry and application that have been established over time and follow established paradigms. There is likely to be a consistency in their basic beliefs, rationales and common principles that define the scope and structure of the discipline.”

As Czerniewicz (2008) quite rightly observes:

Stability, recognition and boundaries are therefore generally associated with the concept of a discipline. Given that these are still so contested, it is unsurprising that educational technology seems more often referred to as a field than as a discipline.”

It is this fluid, “disjointed” (Bruce & Levin, 1997), “divergent” (Becher & Trowler, 2001) and “amorphous” (de Vaney & Butler, 1996) nature of educational technology that places it at an epistemologically disadvantage compared to other disciplines and, perhaps, making learning technologists feel “ontologically insecure” (Unwin, 2007). Indeed, it has been compared to the same struggles in “defining itself and substantiating its foundations” that are located within the social sciences and the applied social sciences (Luppicini, 2005).

Denning (2001) identifies “four hallmarks” that constitutes a profession, these include:

  1. A durable domain of human concerns.
  2. A codified body of principles (conceptual knowledge).
  3. A codified body of practices (embodied knowledge including competence).
  4. Standards for competence, ethics, and practice.

Denning (2001) goes on to say that:

A profession includes institutions for preserving the knowledge and the practices, enforcing the standards, and educating professionals. Health care, law, and libraries are three prominent examples that illustrate these principles.”

Hodgkinson-Williams & Czerniewicz (2007) have also tackled this notion of what makes a “profession”, with particular reference to the emergent of educational technology, the list the following “key dimension”:

  • working in a knowledge-based occupation;
  • providing expert advice using expert knowledge;
  • having access to a wide range of discursive repertoires; and
  • dealing with risk and uncertainty.

They go on to argue that learning technologists’ “practices are complex and involve a great deal more than simply ‘doing a job’“. By way of addressing this “ontologically insecurity” amongst learning technologists, both the Association of Learning Technology (ALT) and Staff and Educational Development Association (SEDA) have developed accredited programmes and professional awards to allow for greater recognition and development opportunities. Similarly, learning technologists can align themselves to the Higher Education Academy’s (HEA) Fellowship scheme or the British Computer Society’s (BCS) Chartership as a mark of professional integrity, dedication, values and trust. There are, of course, routes into Masters and Doctoral qualifications that are associated with a subject discipline.

Furthermore, over the last fifty-odd years, the field of educational (or learning) technology has aligned itself to a number of national and international societies, networks and associations such as: Association for Learning Technology (ALT); Association for Educational Communications and Technology (AECT); Australasian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education (ASCILITE); Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC); Learning and Teaching Support Network (LTSN); British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTa); Further Education Resources for Learning (FERL); National Learning Network (NLN); European Distance and E-Learning Network (EDEN); International Consortium for Educational Development (ICED); International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (ISSOTL); Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (STLHE); Society for Research into Higher Education (SRHE); and Staff and Educational Development Association (SEDA).

Moreover, a number academic journals relating to “technology enhanced learning” (TEL) have appeared over this fifty-odd year period which have contributed towards our understanding of educational technology, these have included: British Journal of Educational Technology; Journal of Computer Assisted Learning; Association for Learning Technologies Journal; Learning Media and Technology; Distance Education; Technology, Pedagogy and Education. For more educational technology related journals, do check out the TLRP/TEL website at: http://www.tlrp.org/tel/journals/.

The path towards professional identity and academic acceptance has proven to be a turbulent and contested one for the field of educational technology, the struggle is far from over.


Becher, T. & Trowler, P. (2001). Academic Tribes and Territories. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Bourdieu, P. (2004). Science of Science and Reflexivity. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Bruce, B. & Levin, J. (1997). “Educational Technology: media for inquiry, communication, construction and expression”. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 17(1), pp. 79-102. Available at: http://hdl.handle.net/2142/13421 [Accessed 21.10.2013].

Conole, G. (2004). “The Role Of Learning Technology Practitioners And Researchers In Understanding Networked Learning”. In: Proceedings of the Third International Conference on Networked Learning 2004. Lancaster University, England, UK, 5-7 April 2004. Available at: http://www.networkedlearningconference.org.uk/past/nlc2004/proceedings/symposia/symposium1/conole.htm [Accessed 23.11.2013].

Conole, G., Ingraham, B. & Cook, J. (2003). “Learning technology as a community of practice”. Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, 11-13 September 2003. Available at: http://www.leeds.ac.uk/educol/documents/00003204.htm [Accessed 21.10.2013].

Czerniewicz, L. (2008). “Distinguishing the Field of Educational Technology”. The Electronic Journal of e-Learning, 6(3), pp. 171-178. Available at: http://www.ejel.org/volume6/issue3/p171 [Accessed 23.10.2013].

Denning, P.J. (2001). “The profession of IT: Who are we?”. Communications of the ACM, 44(2), pp. 15-19. Available at: http://denninginstitute.com/pjd/PUBS/CACMcols/cacmFeb01.pdf [Accessed 19.12.2013].

de Vaney, A. & Butler, R. 1996. “Voices of the Founders: Early discourses in educational technology”. In: Jonassen, D. (Ed.). Handbook of research in educational technology. New York: Macmillan.

Ely, D. (1999). “Towards a philosophy of instructional technology: thirty years on”. British Journal of Educational Technology, 30(4), pp. 305-310. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/1467-8535.00120 [Accessed 21.10.2013].

Jones, C. (2004). “Theory and the Practices of Learning Technology”. In: Proceedings of the Third International Conference on Networked Learning 2004. Lancaster University, England, UK, 5-7 April 2004. Available at: http://www.networkedlearningconference.org.uk/past/nlc2004/proceedings/symposia/symposium1/jones.htm [Accessed 21.10.2013].

Strathern, M. (2005). “Anthropology and Interdisciplinarity”. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 4(2), pp. 125-135. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1474022205051961 [Accessed 21.10.2013].

Unwin, A. (2007). “The professionalism of the higher education teacher: what’s ICT got to do with it?”. Teaching in Higher Education, 12(3), pp. 295-308. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13562510701278641 [Accessed 22.10.2013].

Whitworth, A. & Benson, A. (2004). An e-learning research agenda. Swindon, England: Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).