Pedagogy and technology from a postdigital perspective

Image Credit: Remix by Joe Arton. Originals: Ales Nesetril Unsplash, Xavier L. Unsplash.

In this post, Deputy Programme Director of the MSc in Clinical Education and part-time tutor on the MSc in Digital Education Tim Fawns describes a postdigital view of pedagogy and technology in which technology and digital “things” are seen as always connected to the settings, people and practices in which they are situated…

(Thanks to Gill Aitken, Derek Jones and Michael Gallagher for their input to this post).

I have heard lots of colleagues over the years say that pedagogy should drive technology, rather than vice versa. This is neatly illustrated by Michael Sankey’s image of the horse of pedagogy driving the cart of technology. However, for me, this is a false dichotomy. Pedagogy and technology are not separate because pedagogy is not just method, and technology is not just a vehicle for performing that method. I would argue that (horse + cart) is the pedagogy, and technology is wrapped up inside that. One cannot first choose a pedagogy and then a technology; pedagogy is the thoughtful combination of methods, technologies, social and physical designs and on-the-fly interactions to produce learning environments, student experiences, activities, outcomes or whatever your preferred way is of thinking about what we do in education. All elements inevitably shape the ways in which the other elements are used and experienced.

Having spoken to lots of lecturers about online teaching and course design lately, I have noticed that the issue is not so much to do with people first choosing a technology and then thinking about what to do with it (although this is certainly a challenge of having to use central systems like LEARN). The bigger issue, for me, is that teachers will often choose a method (e.g. lecture, tutorial, simulation, essay, exam) before (or without) thinking enough about the purpose of their teaching. The choice of technology then becomes shaped by what is possible and available in this already-constrained conception of teaching. By choosing methods first, particularly traditional ones, we may reinforce teaching practices that are unsuitable in online contexts.

In our talk on “Explaining and applying a postdigital perspective on curriculum design and teaching” at the learning and teaching conference (follow the link for a 15 minute presentation), Gill Aitken, Derek Jones and I discussed the disadvantages of talking about digital education, and technology more generally, as if it is separate from the physical and social activity in which it is embedded. Firstly, separating technology out from pedagogy or human activity more generally makes us susceptible to both instrumentalism and determinism. Crudely, instrumentalism is the idea that tools are neutral, and we exercise rational control over them and over the outcomes of their use. Determinism, on the other hand, is the idea that technology drives change, and that tools themselves are responsible for the outcomes of their use. Both views are problematic, because, in reality, the effects of technology cannot be separated out from the diverse ways in which people actually interact with them, in situations that are also shaped by environment, culture, policy, economics, etc. Rather than assuming that particular combinations of method and technology (e.g. remotely invigilated exams; synchronous videoconferenced tutorials; assessment of discussion forums to disincentivise “lurking”) will result in particular outcomes for every student, we might need to take account of the ways that diverse personal circumstances, study environments, etc. might make some activities problematic and may further increase the drive for students to subvert expectations.

From our postdigital view, in which technology and digital “things” are seen as always connected to the settings, people and practices in which they are situated, it is important to consider how different tools are integrated into the social and material learning environment. In part, this involves recognising that there is only a loose connection between how you intend or expect your students to engage with particular technologies, and what they will actually do (or even which technologies they will actually use). Indeed, what you intend or expect students to do more generally is only loosely connected to what they will actually do. The design of teaching is very important, but you cannot design learning experiences, only tasks for students to (hopefully) do (Goodyear, 2015). Design then needs to be followed up by thoughtful “orchestration” or the responsive guiding and scaffolding of learning as the course unfolds (Goodyear & Dimitriadis, 2013). While the teacher’s actions during a course might stop students from straying too far from the design intentions, there is still a limit to the control that the teacher has over what students actually do. Students will interpret instructions and goals according to their own understandings, beliefs, goals and motivations. All of this is part of the reason that technologies (or even teaching methods) cannot realistically be evaluated for their effectiveness in isolation of the context in which they are embedded. So, perhaps context and purpose should be the primary considerations when thinking about how technology is used in your teaching as an integrated part of a pedagogical approach? In other words,

(context + purpose) drives (pedagogy [which includes actual uses of technology])

You can listen to a recording of our presentation here:

For more on the theory behind our postdigital perspective, see:

For more on the importance of purpose:

Other references:

  • Goodyear, P. (2015). Teaching as design. HERDSA Review of Higher Education Volume 2, 2, 27–50.
  • Goodyear, P., & Dimitriadis, Y. (2013). In medias res: reframing design for learning. Research in Learning Technology, 21, 1–13.

Tim Fawns

Dr Tim Fawns is Deputy Programme Director of the MSc in Clinical Education and part-time tutor on the MSc in Digital Education. He is also the director of the international Edinburgh Summer School in Clinical Education. His main academic interests are in education, technology and memory.


  1. I’d like to listen to the recording of your talk, but the link takes me to a university page which requires logging in. Is there a way around this? Thanks.

  2. Sorry Sue, the video of our talk seems to be shy and keeps changing itself back to “private”! I’ve fixed it again for now, hopefully it will stay public this time.

    • Hi Roger. I’d say it’s more relevant than ever. There are always lots of design possibilities even in what might seem like a constrained set of technological and physical choices. Thinking about the educational purpose and context, and the situations and practices of students and teachers help us to see that the way tech influences teaching and learning is complex and emergent. We still need to think about what students might do to learn what they need to learn, and guard against assuming that a particular method is the default option. Whatever the trend, I would say that the principle is still true that online learning is not just digital but also social and material.

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