What is a learning technology? More musings

I’ve been spending a lot of time over the past couple of years thinking about what we mean when we talk about ‘learning technologies’. Here’s a thought or two to conjure with…

Is an abacus a technology? I’d say no. It’s a tool. It is only when we use it for a purpose, utilising the principles that it embodies that it becomes a technology. We could use it to hit someone on the head and it would not be the same technology as when we use it to perform addition or subtraction, even though it would be the same tool. What makes it the technology we call an abacus is that we can use the tool to exploit ways that numbers work to perform operations on them.

What if we imagine an abacus in our heads? There is no physical tool, just a representation of that tool in our minds. I think I can do that. I can certainly perform mental arithmetic by imagining and remembering the various rows and beads of a simple abacus. I think that means that it is still a technology even though there is no actual tool present. In fact, I can do that without telling anyone that I have done so, so there doesn’t need to be any actual manifestation of the technology in any form save what goes on in my brain, and it actually works, just like a physical abacus. It is a lot harder than using an actual abacus though.

Taking that further, the ways that we are taught to add, subtract, multiple and divide are using pretty much the same underlying abstract principle as that of the abacus. Those methods are therefore technologies and, if I do them in my head, they remain so. Again, using paper is easier, but they remain technologies even if no writing is involved. So, a thinking process can be a technology. Interesting. Especially as it is possible to think of a computer as a glorified abacus in some senses.

Is this a universally applicable rule to all technologies? No.

If I imagine a four-wheeled, petrol-driven road vehicle in my head, is that a technology? Absolutely not. If it were, I would just be able to imagine driving from A to B and I would magically find myself transported to B, along a road, by the power of thought alone. The difference between the cases is in the phenomena I am exploiting in using the technology. For all that I wish it would, my brain is not able to directly exploit internal combustion, friction, momentum and so on. It might handle the rules of the road and driving skills on its own but much of the technological assembly that defines a car is beyond the power of thought to create. It needs metal, rubber, glass, manufacturing machinery, asphalt, amongst other things. The abacus is a technology for improving thinking and it therefore occupies a special position in the world of possible technologies inasmuch as the phenomena that it utilises and the uses to which we put it are all to do with thought and cognition. Which is, of course, quite a bit of what is involved in learning.

There are things that we call learning technologies that are all about thought, but there are also other things that are more car-like inasmuch as they cannot live entirely inside our heads. Foremost among those are technologies of communication (one sense in which a computer is absolutely not just a glorified abacus). If I get some time I’ll be writing more about that soon.


I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor and Associate Dean, Learning & Assessment, at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology, and I teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems. I am a proud Canadian, though I was born in the UK. I am married, with two grown-up children, and three growing-up grandchildren. We all live in beautiful Vancouver.

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