I’m continuing a series of blog posts on ethics and educational technology, this time with a discussion of a recent open access paper by Tim Fawns called “An Entangled Pedagogy: Looking Beyond the Pedagogy—Technology Dichotomy.”
This paper doesn’t provide a framework for thinking about ethical considerations in educational technology, but rather talks about the importance of considering how technology and pedagogy are entangled with each other, and also with broader contexts and values, including ethical ones. It helps me think further about how ethics and other values are already embedded in educational technology decisions and uses, and also adds complexity to how I’ve been thinking about this topic–after reading and reflecting on this article I am thinking even more about how ethical evaluation of ed tech tools may differ across different types of uses, contexts, and pedagogical purposes.
I’m going to use this post to take some notes for myself on points from the article I am finding particularly generative at the moment, and then do some reflections on implications for thinking about ethical principles or a framework for an ethical approach to educational technology at a post-secondary institution.
Also, I’m excited that there is a workshop about entangled pedagogy, led by Tim Fawns and Maha Bali, as part of MYFest 2022. I’m really looking forward to digging into these ideas further then!
Caveat: this is an incredibly rich article with some complexity that I’m still not sure I fully understand. And I am only going to be able to do a rough summary of many of the author’s very insightful arguments. If anyone reads things differently, or thinks something else is more prominent in the article than I’m indicating here, I’m happy to discuss further in comments!
Some notes on the article
Entangling pedagogy and technology
Fawns begins by noting that it is fairly common for educators and educational technologists to speak of the importance of pedagogy driving choices and use of technology, in order to avoid the idea that the technology should drive pedagogical goals and methods. He argues, though, that things are more complicated than that, that the two are much more entangled with each other, and with other things as well.
Fawns notes that a pedagogy first approach could lead one to consider pedagogical methods in a standalone, decontextualized fashion, disconnected from the purposes and contexts in which they are used, as well as the technology involved in using them. Fawns points to the common experience during emergency remote teaching in the Covid-19 pandemic in which educators often took whatever technology was available and used it in ways to imitate the in-person teaching methods they had used previously. According to Fawns, this is an example of how “choices about technology, tasks, social configurations and resources . . . [can be] restricted by what is possible within an already-constrained conception of teaching.” (Note, this article is online only at this time, and even the PDF does not have page numbers, so I am not including page numbers for quotes.)
Of course, in the early days of the pandemic folks had to change very quickly with little notice, and doing whatever one could in the time one had makes complete sense! Still, it bears considering that when one has the time and supports to design and teach an online course carefully, trying to replicate teaching methods from the in-person experience may miss some opportunities to do different things that a certain kind of technology may allow, and may not support approaches that work better for an online environment than an in-person one.
Instead of considering either technology or pedagogy as distinct and decontextualized elements, Fawns argues that it makes more sense to focus on their relationships with each other: “Taking neither individual teachers nor technology, as the unit of analysis, but a holistic view of entangled elements, provides a stronger basis for taking complexity into account (Edwards 2010; Fenwick 2015).”
Illusion and reality: Entangled pedagogy
Both pedagogical methods and technology, though, are also entangled with broader contexts–for example, with the people, organizations, systems, and practices in which they are embedded, as well as the purposes and values that shape and are shaped by those contexts. Not recognizing this complexity can lead to what Fawns calls two illusory views:
- Technology drives pedagogy with little to no agency on the part of individual educators, and little reference to differences based on contexts.
- Fawns lists as an example, among other things, “claims about universal qualities or impacts of online learning (e.g. Zimmerman 2020), [and] attributions of outcomes or student experiences to technological platforms (Aitken and Hayes 2021)” as if those outcomes or experiences could be tied to the platforms alone and wouldn’t differ across contexts.
- Pedagogy drives technology with educators having a lot of agency and technology being chosen and used only as support to decontextualized notions of pedagogical approaches already considered by themselves as good.
Instead of these illusory views, Fawns argues that an “entangled pedagogy” model is more accurate to reality. In this model, technology and pedagogy are connected, as noted above: “Since technology is entangled within pedagogy, it is not possible to first choose a pedagogy and then a technology, nor can pedagogy be tacked onto an existing instantiation of technology.”
But also, both are entangled with purposes, values, and contexts in which teaching and learning take place. How pedagogical methods and technologies are used or taken up, for example, is connected to purposes that educators and learners have in relation to them (and of course, those purposes may differ). These are also connected to the values that educators and learners have, which may not always be consciously recognized, and to the specific context in which they take place (e.g., institutional policies, practices, systems of governance, technology that is or is not available, and more).
I find this extended quote from Fawns’ article particularly helpful:
Teaching, in this model, is not just done by teachers but by a range of stakeholders in a combined, mutual effort (Dron 2021; Fawns et al. 2021a). Students co-configure and co-design as they reinterpret and complete teachers’ plans (Dron 2021; Fawns et al. 2022; Goodyear 2015). Learning technologists and information technology staff procure and configure platforms that enable and constrain local teaching. Administrators influence processes and relationships between teachers and students. Policymakers shape culture and practice. Educational activity is emergent, and the roles of teachers and technologies are entangled within a broader conception of pedagogy, along with methods, purposes, values and context . . . .
An aspirational view
The above reflects what Fawns argues is the current reality, but he also adds an aspiration that purposes, values, and contexts should be emphasized over both pedagogy and technology. There is a need, Fawns argues, to “intentionally and regularly revisit purposes, values and contexts, to ensure that they meaningfully and iteratively inform choices around [pedagogical] methods and technology, whilst also recognising the shaping role of technology and methods as part of the pedagogical mix.”
As part of this aspiration, Fawns focuses in particular on the importance of considering ethics in relation to educational technology, while also pointing to considerable complexity in doing so. It involves considering what happens when technologies are integrated in specific ways, in specific contexts, because “technologies are not fixed, homogenous things with generalisable characteristics or consequences (Chandler 1995).”
Further, Fawns argues, ethics shouldn’t just be something considered by the educator who is choosing to use technology in a particular way, but also by many others at institutions. For example,
The higher-level configurations of VLEs [what in North America are called Learning Management systems], learning analytics interfaces, videoconferencing software, etc. should be understood by members across educational institutions, not just in terms of economics, legality, data security or technical support, but also in ethical and pedagogical terms (Williamson 2016).
In the aspirational view, teachers, students, and others at the institution frequently revisit purposes, values, and contexts, including ethical values, as they make choices about how to select and use both pedagogical methods and technologies.
Fawns’ arguments in this article make a lot of sense to me. I hadn’t quite thought of it in this way before, but the idea of pedagogy driving technology choices, as if they were independent of each other and independent of broader contexts, systems, goals, values, rules and practices, does seem incorrect when I think about it more deeply, which this article sparked me to do.
It is not uncommon in discussions of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning to recognize that the efficacy of pedagogical approaches can differ significantly based on how they are implemented in a particular discipline or course. Case studies based on methods used in a limited context can be helpful for some purposes, but not necessarily generalizable. And many folks would recognize and attest that a particular kind of educational technology tool can be useful for learning, or not, depending on how and in what kind of course or discipline it’s used, and for what purposes.
It’s interesting to me to reflect, then, on why the idea of pedagogy driving technology doesn’t more commonly include discussions of how the two are entangled together. Fawns notes that this is likely in response to concerns about things going the other way around: “‘Pedagogy first’ has become a mantra against worries that technology might overly influence education (Cousin 2005; Tsui and Tavares 2021).” And yet, many of us can probably name one or more examples where what is possible using some technology may shape teaching and learning activities in ways that can be more effective (and behind all this, of course, is the point that “technology” is a very broad term that can include paper, pens, chalkboards, etc.).
But, as Fawns argues, in trying to avoid technological determinism (where technology has too much influence over shaping how we teach and learn), it’s problematic to then go to the other extreme towards pedagogical determinism, in which “pedagogy is attributed with unassailable, decontextualised characteristics (Berg 1998) and technology’s influence on thinking and practising is neglected (Chandler 1995; Kanuka 2008).”
Finally, I’m writing this post as part of a series on ethics in educational technology; this article is making me realize how complex it is going to be to try to come up with a set of ethical principles and practices for decisions around which learning technology to develop, license, and use (and how it’s used). Some tools may have some generally harmful or beneficial aspects or impacts (e.g., some may fulfill WCAG guidelines and/or make is easy for users to make their content accessible), but for others it’s going to depend on how they’re used, for what purposes, and in which contexts. What data is collected and how it’s used for what purposes will also be important, and may differ across various parts of an institution.
What we will probably need to do is come up with a set of somewhat abstract values and principles, against which particular implementations or uses of a tool could be evaluated to make decisions–and this will never be a simple matter of clear-cut deduction from principle to judgment of the ethical status of this particular action. And when making decisions about purchasing, developing, or supporting particular educational technology, what will be most often be needed are considerations of various possible ways the tools could be used and for what purposes in what contexts, and what harms there could be or how the tools could support ethically better outcomes. This could actually be fairly similar to how such judgments are already made about possible pedagogical benefits of tools being used in different possible contexts, so may not be that complicated after all (and is probably already happening in many people’s minds and discussions, even without a specific set of ethical principles being established at an institution).
I really appreciated this article, and am finding it quite generative to reflect on the arguments here and possible implications for generating ethical principles for selecting, developing, supporting, and using educational technology. As noted above, if anyone interprets things differently, or has other comments to add, please do so below!
Aitken, G., & Hayes, S. (2021). Online postgraduate teaching: Re-discovering human agency. In T. Fawns, G. Aitken, & D. Jones (Eds.), Online Postgraduate Education in a Postdigital World: Beyond Technology (pp. 139–159). Cham: Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-77673-2_8.
Berg, M. (1998). The politics of technology: On bringing social theory into technological design. Science Technology and Human Values, 23(4), 456–490. https://doi.org/10.1177/016224399802300406.
Chandler, D. (1995). Technological or media determinism. http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/tecdet/tecdet.html.
Cousin, G. (2005). Learning from cyberspace. In R. Land & S. Bayne (Eds.), Education in cyberspace (pp. 117-129). London: Routledge.
Dron, J. (2021). Educational technology: What it is and how it works. AI and Society. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00146-021-01195-z.
Edwards, A. (2010). Being an Expert Professional Practitioner. New York: Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-90-481-3969-9.
Fawns, T., Aitken, G., & Jones, D. (2021). Ecological teaching evaluation vs the datafication of quality: Understanding education with, and around, data. Postdigital Science and Education, 3(1), 65-82. https://doi.org/10.1007/s42438-020-00109-4.