The importance of a good opening line

This post asks the question,

How does the order of questions in a test affects how well students do?

The answer is “significantly.”

The post points to a paywalled study that shows, fairly conclusively, that starting with simpler questions in a typical academic quiz (on average) improves the overall results and, in particular, the chances of getting to the end of a quiz at all.  The study includes both an experimental field study using a low-stakes quiz, and a large-scale correlational study using a PISA dataset. Some of the effect sizes are quite large: about a 50% increase in non-completions for the hard-to-easy condition compared with the easy-to-hard condition, and a about a 25% increase in time on task for the easy-to-hard condition, suggesting students stick at it more when they have gained confidence earlier on. The increase in marks for the easy-to-hard condition compared with the hard-to easy condition is more modest when non-completions are excluded, but enough to make the difference between a pass and a fail for many students.

I kind-of knew this already but would not have expected it to make such a big difference.  It is a good reminder that, of course, objective tests are not objective. A quiz is a kind of interactive story with a very definite beginning, middle, and end, and it makes a big difference which parts of the story happen when, especially the beginning. Quizzes are like all kinds of learning experience: scaffolding helps, confidence matters, and motivation is central.  You can definitely put someone off reading a story if it has a bad first paragraph. Attitude makes all the difference in the world, which is one very good reason that such tests, and written exams in general, are so unfair and weak at discriminating capability, and why I have always done unreasonably well in such things: I generally relish the challenge. The authors reckon that adaptive quizzes might be one answer, and would especially benefit weaker students by ramping up the difficulty slowly, but warn that they may make things worse for more competent students who would experience the more difficult questions sooner. That resonates with my experience, too.

I don’t give marks for quizzes in any of my own courses and I allow students to try them as often as they wish but, even so, I have probably caused motivational harm by randomizing formative questions. I’m going to stop doing that in future. Designated teachers are never the sole authors of any educational story but, whenever they exert control, their contributions can certainly matter, at small scales and large. I wonder, how many people have had their whole lives changed for the worse by a bad opening line?

Source: It’s a question of order – 3-Star learning experiences


Some meandering thoughts on ‘good’ and ‘bad’ learning

There has been an interesting brief discussion on Twitter recently that has hinged around whether and how people are ‘good’ at learning. As Kelly Matthews observes, though, Twitter is not the right place to go into any depth on this, so here is a (still quite brief) summary of my perspective on it, with a view to continuing the conversation.

Humans are nearly all pretty good at learning because that’s pretty much the defining characteristic of our species. We are driven by an insatiable drive to learn at from the moment of our birth (at least). Also, though I’m keeping an open mind about octopuses and crows, we seem to be better at it than at least most other animals. Our big advantage is that we have technologies, from language to the Internet, to share and extend our learning, so we can learn more, individually and collectively, than any other species. It is difficult or impossible to fully separate individual learning from collective learning because our cognition extends into and is intimately a part of the cognition of others, living and dead.

However, though we learn nearly all that we know, directly or indirectly, from and with other people, what we learn may not be helpful, may not be as effectively learned as it should, and may not much resemble what those whose job is to teach us intend. What we learn in schools and universities might include a dislike of a subject, how to conceal our chat from our teacher, how to meet the teacher’s goals without actually learning anything, how to cheat, and so on. Equally, we may learn falsehoods, half-truths, and unproductive ways of doing stuff from the vast collective teacher that surrounds us as well as from those designated as teachers.

For instance, among the many unintended lessons that schools and colleges too often teach is the worst one of all: that (despite our obvious innate love of it) learning is an unpleasant activity, so extrinsic motivation is needed for it to occur. This results from the inherent problem that, in traditional education, everyone is supposed to learn the same stuff in the same place at the same time. Students must therefore:

  1. submit to the authority of the teacher and the institutional rules, and
  2. be made to engage in some activities that are insufficiently challenging, and some that are too challenging.

This undermines two of the three essential requirements for intrinsic motivation, support for autonomy and competence (Ryan & Deci, 2017).  Pedagogical methods are solutions to problems, and the amotivation inherently caused by the system of teaching is (arguably) the biggest problem that they must solve. Thus, what passes as good teaching is largely to do with solving the problems caused by the system of teaching itself. Good teachers enthuse, are responsive, and use approaches such as active learning, problem or inquiry-based learning, ungrading, etc, largely to restore agency and flexibility in a dominative and inflexible system. Unfortunately, such methods rely on the technique and passion of talented, motivated teachers with enough time and attention to spend on supporting their students. Less good and/or time-poor teachers may not achieve great results this way. In fact, as we measure such things, on average, such pedagogies are less effective than harder, dominative approaches like direct instruction (Hattie, 2013) because, by definition, most teachers are average or below average. So, instead of helping students to find their own motivation, many teachers and/or their institutions typically apply extrinsic motivation, such as grades, mandatory attendance, classroom rules, etc to do the job of motivating their students for them. These do work, in the sense of achieving compliance and, on the whole, they do lead to students getting a normal bell-curve of grades that is somewhat better than those using more liberative approaches. However, the cost is huge. The biggest cost is that extrinsic motivation reliably undermines intrinsic motivation and, often, kills it for good (Kohn, 1999). Students are thus taught to dislike or, at best, feel indifferent to learning, and so they learn to be satisficing, ineffective learners, doing what they might otherwise do for the love of it for the credentials and, too often, forgetting what they learned the moment that goal is achieved. But that’s not the only problem.

When we learn from others – not just those labelled as teachers but the vast teaching gestalt of all the people around us and before us who create(d) stuff, communicate(d), share(d), and contribute(d) to what and how we learn – we typically learn, as Paul (2020) puts it, not just the grist (the stuff we remember) but the mill (the ways of thinking, being, and learning that underpin them). When the mill is inherently harmful to motivation, it will not serve us well in our future learning.

Furthermore, in good ways and bad, this is a ratchet at every scale. The more we learn, individually and collectively, the more new stuff we are able to learn. New learning creates new adjacent possible empty niches (Kauffman, 2019) for us to learn more, and to apply that learning to learn still more, to connect stuff (including other stuff we have learned) in new and often unique ways. This is, in principle, very good. However, if what and how we learn is unhelpful, incorrect, inefficient, or counter-productive, the ratchet takes us further away from stuff we have bypassed along the way. The adjacent possibles that might have been available with better guidance remain out of our reach and, sometimes, even harder to get to than if the ratchet hadn’t lifted us high enough in the first place. Not knowing enough is a problem but, if there are gaps, then they can be filled. If we have taken a wrong turn, then we often have to unlearn some or all of what we have learned before we can start filling those gaps. It’s difficult to unlearn a way of learning. Indeed, it is difficult to unlearn anything we have learned. Often, it is more difficult than learning it in the first place.

That said, it’s complex, and entangled. For instance, if you are learning the violin then there are essentially two main ways to angle the wrist of the hand that fingers the notes, and the easiest, most natural way (for beginners) is to bend your hand backwards from the wrist, especially if you don’t hold the violin with your chin, because it supports the neck more easily and, in first position, your fingers quickly learn to hit the right bit of the fingerboard, relative to your hand. Unfortunately, this is a very bad idea if you want a good vibrato, precision, delicacy, or the ability to move further up the fingerboard: the easiest way to do that kind of thing is to to keep your wrist straight or slightly angled in from the wrist, and to support the violin with your chin. It’s more difficult at first, but it takes you further. Once the ‘wrong’ way has been learned, it is usually much more difficult to unlearn than if you were starting from scratch the ‘right’ way. Habits harden. Complexity emerges, though, because many folk violin styles make a positive virtue of holding the violin the ‘wrong’ way, and it contributes materially to the rollicking rhythmic styles that tend to characterize folk fiddle playing around the world. In other words, ‘bad’ learning can lead to good – even sublime – results. There is similarly plenty of space for idiosyncratic technique in many of the most significant things we do, from writing to playing hockey to programming a computer and, of course, to learning itself. The differences in how we do such things are where creativity, originality, and personal style emerge, and you don’t necessarily need objectively great technique (hard technique) to do something amazing. It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it, that’s what gets results. To be fair, it might be a different matter if you were a doctor who had learned the wrong names for the bones of the body or an accountant who didn’t know how to add up numbers. Some hard skills have to be done right: they are foundations for softer skills. This is true of just about every skill, to a greater or lesser extent, from writing letters and spelling to building a nuclear reactor and, indeed, to teaching.

There’s much more to be said on this subject and my forthcoming book includes a lot more about it! I hope this is enough to start a conversation or two, though.


Hattie, J. (2013). Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. Taylor & Francis.

Kauffman, S. A. (2019). A World Beyond Physics: The Emergence and Evolution of Life. Oxford University Press.

Kohn, A. (1999). Punished by rewards: The trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A’s, praise, and other bribes (Kindle). Mariner Books.

Paul, A. M. (2021). The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain. HarperCollins.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2017). Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. Guilford Publications.


Slides from my ICEEL 22 Keynote, November 20, 2022

ICEEL 22 keynote

Here are the slides (11.2MB PDF) from my opening keynote yesterday at the 6th International Conference on Education and E-Learning, held online, hosted this year in Japan. In it I discussed a few of the ideas and consequences of them from my forthcoming book, How Education Works: Teaching, Technology, and Technique.

Title: It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it, that’s what gets results

Abstract: In an educational system, no teacher ever teaches alone. Students teach themselves and, more often than not, teach one another. Textbook authors and illustrators, designers of open educational resources, creators of curricula, and so on play obvious teaching roles. However, beyond those obvious teachers there are always many others, from legislators to software architects, from professional bodies to furniture manufacturers . All of these teachers matter, not just in what they do but in how they do it: the techniques matter at least as much as the tools and methods.  The resulting complex collective teacher is deeply situated and, for any given learner, inherently unpredictable in its effects. In this talk I will provide a theoretical model to explain how these many teachers may work together or in opposition, how educational systems evolve, and the nature of learning technologies. Along the way I will use the model to explain why there is and can be no significant difference between outcomes for online and in-person teaching, why teaching to perceived learning styles research is doomed to fail, why small group tutoring will always (on average) be better than classroom teaching, and why quantitative research methods have little value in educational research.

Ernst & Young fined $100 million after employees cheated in exams

Not just any exams: ethics exams.

These are the very accountants who are supposed to catch cheats. I guess at least they’ll understand their clientele pretty well.

But how did this happen? There are clues in the article:

“Many of the employees interviewed during the federal investigation said they knew cheating was a violation of the company’s code of conduct but did it anyway because of work commitments or the fact that they couldn’t pass training exams after multiple tries.” (my emphasis).

I think there might have been a clue about their understanding of ethical behaviour in that fact alone, don’t you? But I don’t think it’s really their fault: at least, it’s completely predictable to anyone with even the slightest knowledge of how motivation works.

If passing the exam is, by design, much more important than actually being able to do what is being examined, then of course people will cheat. For those with too much else to do or too little interest to succeed, when the pressure is high and the stakes are higher, it’s a perfectly logical course of action. But, even for all the rest who don’t cheat, the main focus for them will be on passing the exam, not on gaining any genuine competence or interest in the subject. It’s not their fault: that’s how it is designed. In fact, the strong extrinsic motivation it embodies is pretty much guaranteed to (at best) persistently numb their intrinsic interest in ethics, if it doesn’t extinguish it altogether. Most will do enough to pass and no more, taking shortcuts wherever possible, and there’s a good chance they will forget most of it as soon as they have done so.

Just to put the cherry on the pie, and not unexpectedly, EY refer to the process by which their accountants are expected to learn about ethics as ‘training’ and it is mandatory. So you have a bunch of unwilling people who are already working like demons to meet company demands, to whom you are doing something normally reserved for dogs or AI models, and then you are forcing them to take high-stakes exams about it, on which their futures depend. It’s a perfect shit storm. I’d not trust a single one of their graduates, exam cheats or not, and the tragedy is that the people who were trying to force them to behave ethically were the ones directly responsible for their unethical behaviour.

There may be a lesson or two to be learned from this for academics, who tend to be the biggest exam fetishists around, and who seem to love to control what their students do.

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Solving The Wrong Problems: Why Online Education Is and Must Be Different from In-Person Education – slides from my invited talk at ICEMI 2022


These are the slides from my invited talk at the 11th International Conference on Education and Management Innovation (ICEMI 2022), June 11th. The talk went down well – at least, I was invited to repeat the performance at a workshop (where I gave a very similar presentation today – if you’ve seen one, you probably know the content of the other!) and to give a keynote later in the year.

It’s about how methods of teaching that solve problems for in-person teachers don’t apply online, and it provides a bit of advice on online-native approaches. I’ve talked quite a bit about this over the past decade so there’s not much new in it apart from minor refinements, though I have put a greater emphasis on what goes on outside the classroom in physical institutions because I’m increasingly thinking that this matters way more than we normally acknowledge. Notably, I discuss the ways that physical institutional structures and regulations provide significant teaching functions of their own, meaning that in-person teachers can be absolute rubbish or (in some subject areas or topics) even fail to turn up, and students can still learn pretty well. This helps to explain the bizarre phenomenon that, across much of in-person academia, professors and lecturers are not expected to learn how to teach (and many never do).

Here’s the abstract…

In-person educational institutions teach, at least as much as the individual teachers they employ. Students are taken out of their own environments and into that of the institution, signalling intent to learn. The physical environment is built for pervasive learning, from common rooms, to corridors, to campus cafes; students see one another learning, share learning conversations, learn from one another. Even the act of walking from classroom to classroom makes events within them more salient. Structures such as courses, timetables, semesters, and classes solve problems of teaching efficiently within the constraints of time and space but impose great constraints on how teaching occurs, and create multiple new pedagogical and management problems of their own. The institution’s regulations, expectations, and norms play a strong pedagogical role in determining how, and when learning occurs. Combined with other entrenched systems and tools like credentials, textbooks, libraries, and curricula, a great deal of the teaching process occurs regardless of teachers. What we most readily recognize as ‘good’ teaching overcomes the problems caused by these in-person environments, and exploits their affordances.

Online institutions have radically different problems to solve, and radically different affordances to exploit, so it makes no sense to teach or manage the learning process in the same ways. Online, students do not inhabit the environment of the institution: the institution inhabits the environment of the student. It is just one small part of the student’s physical and virtual space, shared with billions of other potential teachers (formal or not) who are a click, a touch, or a glance away. The institution is just a service, not the environment in which learning occurs. The student picks the time, the space, the pace, and virtually all the surrounding supports of the learning process. Teachers cannot actively control any of this, except through the use of rewards, punishments, and the promise of credentials, that force compliance but that are antagonistic to effective or meaningful learning. In this talk, I will discuss the implications of this inverted dynamic for pedagogy, motivation, digital system design, and organizational structures & systems for online learning.




English version of my 2021 paper, “Technology, technique, and culture in educational systems: breaking the iron triangle”

Technology, technique, and culture in educational systems: breaking the iron triangle

This is the (near enough final) English version of my journal paper, translated into Chinese by Junhong Xiao and published last year (with a CC licence) in Distance Education in China. (Reference: Dron, Jon (2021).  Technology, technique, and culture in educational systems: breaking the iron triangle (translated by Junhong Xiao). Distance Education in China, 1, 37-49. DOI:10.13541/j.cnki.chinade.2021.01.005).

The underlying theory is the same as that in my paper Educational technology: what it is and how it works (Reference: Dron, J. Educational technology: what it is and how it works. AI & Soc 37, 155–166 (2022). direct link for reading, link to downloadable preprint) but this one focuses more on what it means for ways we go about distance learning. It’s essentially about ways to solve problems that we created for ourselves by solving problems in the context of in-person learning that we inappropriately transferred to a distance context.

Here’s the abstract:
This paper presents arguments for a different way of thinking about how distance education should be designed. The paper begins by explaining education as a technological process, in which we are not just users of technologies for learning but coparticipants in their instantiation and design, implying that education is a fundamentally distributed technology. However, technological and physical constraints have led to processes (including pedagogies) and path dependencies in In-person education that have tended to massively over-emphasize the designated teacher as the primary controller of the process. This has resulted in the development of many counter technologies to address the problems this causes, from classrooms to grades to timetables, most of which have unnecessarily been inherited by distance education. By examining the different strengths and weaknesses of distance education, the paper suggests an alternative model of distance education that is more personal, more situated in communities and cultures, and more appropriate to the needs of learners and society.

I started working on a revised version of this (with a snappier title) to submit to an English language journal last year but got waylaid. If anyone is interested in publishing this, I’m open to submitting it!

Higher Education: an Owner's Guide – slides from my Times Higher Ed Student Festival keynote

Higher Education: an Owner’s Guide, slides from my keynote at the THE Student Festival, UK, 2021

With a possible audience of thousands, and without a clue they were there because the Zoom output was streamed to a different site (weird), I talked very fast about my experience of higher education for about 20 minutes at the THE UK Student Festival yesterday. The talk was recorded and will be used again for the THE Canada Student Festival later in the month. It’s a huge event – over 8000 enrolled (though not all attending every session) – with quite a lot of other keynotes and a great many other talks, panels, and discussions, aimed at helping students starting out in higher education. The audience was very different from those I normally talk to, and the  (very sensible) strict 20-minute format gave me a lot less leeway than the usual hour allowed, so I found it interestingly challenging. These are the slides I used.

The brief I was given was not to preach, but to share my experience of higher education, as a student and as an educator. My personal agenda was to talk about why and how online learning is worth doing (especially at AU), so I tried (a bit clunkily) to aim my story in that direction. I failed to remember to mention some key things, I spent too long on others, and I suspect that the most memorable message that came through was, for in-person students living on campus, to get a kettle (it’s a great way to make lots of new friends fast) but, hopefully, my bigger message got through to some. kettle

The essential point of my wild ramble was not that kettles are the solution to success in higher education, but that students and the rest of us should take ownership of our own education: it should be done by us, not to us. We should learn the way we want to learn, and we should learn what we want to learn; we should seek adventure and challenge rather than easy pickings; and we should hang out with interesting people and/or those we care about, because that’s how most learning happens, as well as being a large part of what makes it meaningful. I noted that we should focus on learning and should to try to ignore grades as much as possible, because grades destroy the love of doing something simply because we enjoy it. Essentially, my advice was about finding the things that intrinsically motivate us and reducing the effects of things that demotivate us. My own educational journey, and (I think) that of most committed educators, has largely followed that path: that’s how we thrived in a system not conducive to intrinsic motivation, and it’s the path we try to encourage our own students to take. I observed that it is much easier to own your own education when it is done online, at least if it is done in ways that take advantage of the medium, and not through a pale simulacrum of in-person teaching, because the teacher cannot be in control, the level of challenge is much more controllable, and there are way more people (online and in your own environment) who can support you.

Challenges of the Physical: slides from my keynote at XII Conferência Internacional de Tecnologias de Informação e Comunicação na Educação, September 2021

Here are the slides from my opening keynote today for the XII Conferência Internacional de Tecnologias de Informação e Comunicação na Educação in Portugal. first slide of the presentation

The conference theme was ‘challenges of the digital’ so I thought it might be fun to reverse the problem, and to think instead about the challenges of in-person education. In this presentation I imagined a world in which in-person teaching had never been invented, and presented a case for doing so. In fairness, it was not a very good case! But I did have fun using some of the more exotic voice changing features of my Voicelive Play vocal processor (which I normally use for performing music), presenting some of the arguments against my suggestions in different voices using a much better mic than my usual (pretty good) Blue Yeti. I might not use the special effects again that often, but I was quite impressed with the difference the better microphone made.

My central points (mostly implicit until the end) were:

  • That the biggest challenge of the digital is all the baggage that we have inherited from in-person teaching, and our continuing need to interoperate with in-person institutions.
  • That pedagogies are neither universal nor neutral. They are solutions to problems of learning in a particular context, in assembly with countless constraints and possibilities provided by that context: people, tools, structures, methods, systems, and so on.
  • That solutions to learning in a physical context – at least in the one-to-many model of traditional education systems – inevitably lead to a very strong power imbalance between teacher and learner, where the teacher is in control of every moment that the teaching event occurs. This has many repercussions, not least of which being that needs for autonomy and competence support are very poorly addressed (though relatedness comes for free), so it is really bad for intrinsic motivation.
  • Thus, the pedagogies of physical spaces have to compensate for the loss of control and achievable challenge that they naturally entail.
  • That the most common approach – and, again, an almost inevitable (i.e. the shortest path) follow-on from teaching a lot of people at once – involves rewards and punishments, that massively impair or destroy intrinsic motivation to learn and, in most cases, actively militate against effective learning.
  • That the affordances of teaching everyone the same thing at once lead fairly naturally to credentials for having learned it, often achieved in ‘efficient’ ways like proctored exams that are incredibly bad for learning, and that greatly reinforce the extrinsic motivation that is already highly problematic in the in-person modality. The credentials, not the learning, become the primary focus.
  • That support for autonomy and competence are naturally high in online learning, though support for relatedness is a mix of good and bad. There is no need for teachers being in control and, lacking most of the means of control available to in-person teachers, the only reliable way to regain it is through rewards and punishments which, as previously mentioned, are fatal to intrinsic motivation.
  • That the almost ubiquitous ways that distance educators inherit and use the pedagogies, methods, and structures of in-person learning – especially in the use of coercion through rewards and punishments (grades, credentials, etc) but also in schedules, fixed-length courses, inflexible learning outcomes, etc – are almost exactly the opposite of what its technologies can best support.

Towards the end, acknowledging that it is difficult to change such complex and deeply entangled systems (much though it is to be desired) I presented some ways of reducing the challenges of the physical in online teaching, and regaining that lost intrinsic motivation, that I summarized thus:

  • Let go (you cannot and should not control learning unless asked to do so), but stay close;
  • Make learning (not just its products) visible (and, in the process, better understand your teaching);
  • Make learning shared (cooperation and, where possible, collaboration built in from the ground up);
  • Don’t ever coerce (especially not through grades);
  • Care (for learners, for learning, for the subject).

It’s a theme that I have spoken and written of many, many times, but (apart from the last few slides) the way I presented it this time was new for me. I had fun pretending to be different people, and the audience seemed to like it, in a challenging kind of a way. There were some great questions at the end, not all of which I had time to answer, though I’m happy to continue the conversation here, or via Twitter.

Mediaeval Teaching in the Digital Age (slides from my keynote at Oxford Brookes University, May 26, 2021)

 front slide, mediaeval teaching

These are the slides from my keynote today at the Oxford Brookes “Theorizing the Virtual” School of Education Research Conference. As theorizing the virtual is pretty much my thing, I was keen to be a part of this! It was an ungodly hour of the day for me (2am kickoff) but it was worth staying up for. It was a great bunch of attendees who really got into the spirit of the thing and kept me wide awake. I wish I could hang around for the rest of it but, on the bright side, at least I’m up at the right time to see the Super Flower Blood Moon (though it’s looking cloudy, darn it).  In this talk I dwelt on a few of the notable differences between online and in-person teaching. This is the abstract…

Pedagogical methods (ways of teaching) are solutions to problems of helping people to learn, in a context filled with economic, physical, temporal, legal, moral, social, political, technological, and organizational constraints. In mediaeval times books were rare and unaffordable, and experts’ time was precious and limited, so lectures were a pragmatic solution, but they in turn created more problems. Counter-technologies such as classes, classrooms, behavioural rules and norms, courses, terms, curricula, timetables and assignment deadlines were were devised to solve those problems, then methods of teaching (pedagogies) were in turn invented to solve problems these counter-technologies caused, notably including:
· people who might not want (or be able) to be there at that time,
· people who were bored and
· people who were confused.
Better pedagogies supported learner needs for autonomy and competence, or helped learners find relevance to their own goals, values, and interests. They exploited physical closeness for support, role-modelling, inspiration, belongingness and so on. However, increasingly many relied on extrinsic motivators, like classroom discipline, grades and credentials to coerce students to learn. Extrinsic motivation achieves compliance, but it makes the reward or avoidance of the punishment the goal, persistently and often permanently crowding out intrinsic motivation. Intelligent students respond with instrumental approaches, satisficing, or cheating. Learning seldom persists; love of the subject is subdued; learners learn to learn in ineffective ways. More layers of counter-technologies are needed to limit the damage, and so it goes on.
Online, the constraints are very different, and its native forms are the motivational inverse of in-person learning. An online teacher cannot control every moment of a learner’s time, and learners can use the freedoms they gain to take the time they need, when they need it, to learn and to reflect, without the constraints of scheduled classroom hours and deadlines. However, more effort is usually needed to support their needs for relatedness. Unfortunately, many online teachers try (or are required) to re-establish the control they had in the classroom through grading or the promise of credentials, recreating the mediaeval problems that would otherwise not exist, using tools like learning management systems that were designed (poorly) to replicate in-person teaching functions. These are solutions to the problems caused by counter-technologies, not to problems of learning.
There are better ways, and that’s what this session is about.

front slide, mediaeval teaching

Educational technology: what it is and how it works | AI & Society

This is a link to my latest paper in the journal AI & Society. You can read it in a web browser from there, but it is not directly downloadable. A preprint of the submitted version (some small differences and uncorrected errors here and there, notably in citations) can be downloaded from The published version should be downloadable for free by Researchgate members.

This is a long paper (about 10,000 words), that summarizes some of the central elements of the theoretical model of learning, teaching and technology developed in my recently submitted book (still awaiting review) and that gives a few examples of its application. For instance, it explains:

  • why, on average researchers find no significant difference between learning with and without tech.
  • why learning styles theories are a) inherently unprovable, b) not important even if they were, and c) a really bad idea in any case.
  • why bad teaching sometimes works (and, conversely, why good teaching sometimes fails)
  • why replication studies cannot be done for most educational interventions (and, for the small subset that are susceptible to reductive study, all you can prove is that your technology works as intended, not whether it does anything useful).


This theoretical paper elucidates the nature of educational technology and, in the process, sheds light on a number of phenomena in educational systems, from the no-significant-difference phenomenon to the singular lack of replication in studies of educational technologies.  Its central thesis is that we are not just users of technologies but coparticipants in them. Our participant roles may range from pressing power switches to designing digital learning systems to performing calculations in our heads. Some technologies may demand our participation only in order to enact fixed, predesigned orchestrations correctly. Other technologies leave gaps that we can or must fill with novel orchestrations, that we may perform more or less well. Most are a mix of the two, and the mix varies according to context, participant, and use. This participative orchestration is highly distributed: in educational systems, coparticipants include the learner, the teacher, and many others, from textbook authors to LMS programmers, as well as the tools and methods they use and create.  From this perspective,  all learners and teachers are educational technologists. The technologies of education are seen to be deeply, fundamentally, and irreducibly human, complex, situated and social in their constitution, their form, and their purpose, and as ungeneralizable in their effects as the choice of paintbrush is to the production of great art.

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