PJ Evans

What is wrong with ‘Technology Enhanced Learning’

Posted on | October 4, 2014 | No Comments

Last Friday I attended a Digital Cultures & Education research group presentation by Sian Bayne on her recent article What’s the matter with ‘Technology Enhanced Learning’?

These are my notes taken during the presentation and then tidied up later – so they may well be limit, partial and mistaken!


16th century French cypher machine in the shape of a book with arms of Henri II. Image from Uploadalt

While Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) is a widely used term in the UK and Europe, the presentation positions TEL as an essentially conservative term that discursively limits what we do as researchers and researchers in the field of digital education and learning. Sian’s critique draws on three theoretical perspectives:

* Science & Technology Studies (STS) for a critique of ‘Technology
* Critical posthumanism for a critique of ‘Enhancement
* Gert Biesta’s language of learning for ‘Learning

For Technology, we dont tend to define it but rather black box it as unproblematically in service to teaching practices. This black-boxing of technology as supporting learning and teaching creates a barrier between the technology and the social practices of teaching. As Hamilton & Friesen discuss, two main perspectives on technology as either as an essentialist perspective of unalienable qualities of the technologies or we treat it instrumentally as a neutral set of tools. I both cases technology is understood as being independent of the social context in which it is used. Hamilton & Friesen argue we need to take a more critical stance especially in terms of technology as the operationalisation of values and to engage in larger issues such as social justice, the speed of change and globalisation, the nature of learning or what it is to be human.

By using the term, Enhanced, TEL adopts a conservative discourse as it assumes there is no need to radically rethink teaching & learning practices but just a need to enhance of tinker with existing practice. So enhancement aligns with Transhumanism – a humanist philosophy of rationality and human perfectibility where technological advances remove the limitations of being human (Bostrom 2005)
Critical post-humanism (Simon 2003) is a philosophical critique of the humanism of the Enlightenment and its assumptions on human nature and the emphasis on human rationality. arguing that these assumptions are complicit in dominatory practices of opporession and control. The human being is just one component in complex ecology of practice that also includes machines, non-human components in symmetry. So post-humanism is more about humility and appreciation of that our involvement as humans in our context is complex and inter-related and interactional. Yet TEL buys into a dominant Transhumanism emphasising the cognitive enhancement of the mind and so could include the use of drugs as a ’technology’ to enhance learning. The Technology Enhanced Learning System Upgrade report.
Transhumanism positions technology as an object acted on by human subject so ignoring how humans are shaped by and shape technology and does not ask Is ‘enhancement’ good, who benefits from enhancement and is enhancing is context specific? It is argued that TEL could learn from the post humanist critique of Transhumanism

The ‘problem’ of Learning draws on Gert Biesta’s writing on the new language of learning and more specifically, the ‘learnification’ of discourses of education. This involves talking about “learning” rather than “teaching”, or “education”. Learning as a terms is used as a proxy for education that takes discussions away from considerations of structures of power in education itself. So learnification discursively instrumentalises education – education is provided/ delivered to learners based on predefined needs rather than needs emerging and evolving over time. So learners are positioned as customers or clients of education ‘providers’ and TEL gets bound up with this neo-liberal discourse/ perspective

So the label of TEL tacitly subordinates social practice to technology while also ontologically separating the human from the non-human. The TEL discourse is aligned with broader enhancement discourse that enrols transhumanism and instrumentalisation so entrenching a particular view of the relationships between education, learning and technology.

Rather, education technologies involve complex assemblages of human and non-human components and as practitioners and researcher, we need to embrace that complexity. Posthumanism as a stance, is a way of doing this and understanding learning as an emergent property of complex and fluid networks of human and non-human elements coming together. In posthumanism, the human is not an essence but rather a moment.


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