Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

Tool users, research, hammers and the law of instrument

The following quote is from (Hirschheim, 1992) and is questioning the practice of research/the scientific method

Within this context the researcher should be viewed as a craftsman or a tool builder – one who builds tools, as separate from and in addition to, the researcher as tool users. Unfortunately, it is apparent that the common conception of researchers/scientists is different. They are people who use a particular tool (or a set of tools). This, to my mind, is undesirable because if scientists are viewed in terms of tool users rather than tool builders then we run the risk of distorted knowledge acquisition techniques. As an old proverb states: ‘For he who has but one tool, the hammer, the whole world looks like a nail’. We certainly need to guard against such a view, yet the way we practice ‘science’ leads us directly to that view.

Using a hammer to make an omelete

I’ve used this image in a recent presentation as a background to an important point that I’ve hammered again and again and again. “If all you have is a hammer, then everything is a nail”.

Apparently this is called the law of instrument and came from Abraham Kaplan’s The conduct of inquiry: Methodology for behavioural science. Apparently first published in 1964.

Information technology

There is a false dichotomy often trotted out in the practice of information technology: buy versus build. The impression being that “building” (being a tool builder) is a bad thing as it is wasteful. It’s seen as cheaper and more appropriate for the organisation to be a tool user.

As the “buy” option increasingly wins over the “build” option I believe I am increasingly seeing the law of instrument raise its ugly head within organisations. The most obviously bad example of this I’ve seen is folk wanting to use a WebCT/Blackboard course site for a publicity website. But there are many, many others.


You can see this in the group of staff (and institutions) who have “grown up” in e-learning with learning management systems. Their hammer is the LMS. The LMS is used to beat up on every learning problem because it is seen as a nail.

This is especially true of LMS support staff who do not have a good foundation knowledge in technology and learning and teaching. Every problem becomes a question of how to solve it with in the LMS. Even though the LMS may be the worst possible tool – like making an omelette with a hammer.

Asking tool users what they’d like to do

A common research method around new types of technology in learning and teaching sees the researcher developing a survey or running focus groups. These are targetted at group of people who are current tool users. For example, students and staff of a university currently using an LMS. The research aim is to ask these “tool users” what they would like to do with a brand new tool, often one based on completely different assumptions or models from the tool they are using.

This approach is a bit like giving stone age people a battery powered (was going to use electric knife, but no electricity – the point is the knife is powered and cuts “by itself”) knife. They’d simply end up using it like they use their stone axes (they would bang what they are cutting). They have been shaped by their tool use. They will find it difficult to imagine the different affordances that the new tool provides until they’ve used it.


I believe this was the context in which Kaplan first originated the law of instrument. Folk who get so caught up in a particular research methodology that they continue to apply it in situations where it no longer works.


The model underpinning blackboard and how ACCT19064 uses it


More on the expert designer – efficiency and effectiveness

1 Comment

  1. beerc

    I find this interesting and it reminds me of something that used to happen in my previous job. It was a common occurrence that used to be joked about regularly. The guys who came through the company during the mechanical/ elctro-mechanical era used to trouble shoot equipment faults with a bias toward mechanical / power supply solutions whereas the younger guys tended to pursue electrical / logic / computer issues. The logistics planning department actually confirmed this by noticing that, in general, the parts holdings of the older guys tended to contain more mechanical components than the younger guys sharing the same equipment distribution profile. I guess we are all victims of our prior experience.

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