Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

Postman’s – 5 things to know about technological change and e-learning

In doing a quick search for references to help out in the last post, I came across this page, which appears to be a transcript of a speech given by Neil Postman title “Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change”. According to this post (that page has gone away, so a new link to a transcript)it “was delivered by Postman in 1998 to a gathering of theologians and religious leaders in Denver, Colorado.”

Given my current and recent fascination with “Past Experience and e-learning, I particularly like these couple of quotes from Postman’s address.

Experiencing technological change as sleep-walkers

In the past, we experienced technological change in the manner of sleep-walkers. Our unspoken slogan has been “technology über alles,” and we have been willing to shape our lives to fit the requirements of technology, not the requirements of culture. This is a form of stupidity, especially in an age of vast technological change. We need to proceed with our eyes wide open so that we many use technology rather than be used by it.

And this one on who should be allowed to talk about new information technologies.

One might say, then, that a sophisticated perspective on technological change includes one’s being skeptical of Utopian and Messianic visions drawn by those who have no sense of history or of the precarious balances on which culture depends. In fact, if it were up to me, I would forbid anyone from talking about the new information technologies unless the person can demonstrate that he or she knows something about the social and psychic effects of the alphabet, the mechanical clock, the printing press, and telegraphy. In other words, knows something about the costs of great technologies.

I do believe that Postman is often thought as a simple Luddite. As against technology entirely. There are almost certainly other limitations on his work, however, the following quote suggests he’s not a Luddite

We must not delude ourselves with preposterous notions such as the straight Luddite position.

The 5 things

You really should read the address, but here’s a summary.

  1. Culture always pays a price for technology.
    e.g. cars and pollution (and many other less obvious examples).
  2. There are always winners and losers in a technological change.
  3. Every technology embodies a philosophy, an epistemological, political or social prejudice.
    The printing press de-values the oral tradition.
  4. Technological change is not additive, it is ecological.
    The invention of the printing press in Europe, did not create “old Europe + the printing press”. It created a new and different Europe.
  5. Technology becomes mythic, it becomes seen as part of the natural order of things.

Application to e-learning

How might this apply to e-learning – I don’t have time right now – but you might wish to take a look at this post which leverages Postman’s points into a series of questions for the use of ICTs in schools

One quick example before I go, in terms of technology being mythic, see what happens when you suggest to a university that they get rid of their learning management system. Even more mythic, what do you think would happen if you suggested getting rid of lecture theatres?


Cognition – we're not rational and how it impacts e-learning


Making the LMS/VLE "mythic"


  1. qadmon


    Thanks for pointing out Postman’s speech. I have read a few of his books, and I have to say that he looks like anything but a Luddite. Maybe a voice way too critical in our tech obsessed world.

    I found your blog through your last year’s presentation on PLE at CQU. Very interesting info.

    Keep up the good work, and greetings from Colombia!


    • G’day Diego,

      Funny you mention Postman being too critical. Increasingly over recent years I’ve felt as if my role has changed. Back in the early 90s I was the techie keen on the promise of the Internet/Web etc. and just about everyone else was the Luddite.

      These days it feels like I’m the one questioning some of the assumptions where just about everyone else is blindly accepting the benefits of technology. They just don’t seem to be reflecting on what has happened and what is likely. I’m interested in Postman’s list as a way to get people thinking more about the potential downsides of technology.

      Am keen to read more of your blog – find out what and why Columbia is doing things. Will provide an interesting alternate perspective.


  2. qadmon


    I’m on the same page as you. Here I’m questioning what’s the purpose of education (and discovering that both Postman and Holt talked about those issues 40 years ago, with no apparent impact), while everyone else is talking about metadata, repositories, and how e-learning will “brigde the digital divide”…

    By the way, I really don’t think Postman is too critical. It’s just not an easy reading if you’re too geeky… 😀

    What makes me hopeful is that today we have a tool neither Postman nor Holt had, so maybe we have a chance to spread that message to more people. Or maybe not.

    Postman’s “The End of Education” and Edgar Morin’s “Seven complex lessons in education for the future” are, to me, very good discussion starters, and a provocative way to address issues of change in teaching practices.

    From what I can perceive, what you’re doing at CQU is really interesting. I’d point also what Bennington College has been doing for the past (almost) 20 years. The way they seem to empower students is fantastic, but it seems it was possible only by firing almost 30% of the teachers. What a way to fight resistance!

    Since 2007, we started to explore a different way to address the paradigm shift in teaching (we call that Educamp), getting teachers to learn about web 2.0 in an unstructured and very messy environment in 1-day workshop. The results are very positive, so now we’re trying to get info on the impact those workshops had on the teaching practices.

    I really think we need to think, um, “outside the box?”, in order to send the message. We just can’t keep doing teacher training in a conventional classroom, telling them to do things they are not living. Maybe we need to be exposed to new patterns in order to change our ideas…

    Anyway, I’m really enjoying your blog. I write mostly in Spanish (my fault), but I’ll be happy to keep the conversation going.

    Greetings from ColOmbia!


    • G’day Diego,

      Thanks for the recommendations for Postman’s book and Morin’s essay. I’ve downloaded a PDF of Morin’s essay and plan to add “The end of education” to my Amazon wish list. Of course, my supervisor is likely to come hunting for you, the phrase “stop reading” had been used increasingly regularly by her as I try to get the thesis finished. I may have to ignore this reading.

      I follow Stephen Downes a bit, so I was aware of the Educamp work. Have found your English blog and read some of the reports you’ve written up there. I plan to return to them post thesis, as I expect this area will be my focus for the next couple of years. As some of my recent posts might suggest.

      Just now I was thinking about how to describe the focus, initial I though “how do you encourage academics to adopt innovative (and effective) ways of teaching”. On quick reflection I’m wondering if it is better phrased “how do you enable academics to develop innovative (and effective) ways of teaching”?

      The “getting them to adopt”, the diffusion approach to innovation, currently seems to have too much of the perspective that I know what is innovative and my task is to get the “bad” academics to adopt them. The other phrasing emphasis the contextual nature of innovation, the problem is more getting the academics to develop approaches that are innovative and appropriate within their context….more thought to go on that one.

      I agree 110% with your point about thinking “outside the box”. Traditional approaches to academic staff development, just seem so out-dated and ineffective, and yet they continue to be used – mainly because they are simple to implement. Which I think represents the “level 2” thinking I talk about in terms of reflective alignment…..

      A point of disclaimer, in terms of what we’re doing at CQU. Currently, I think the best that can be said is that we talking about doing it. For various contextual reasons I don’t think we’re doing too much at the moment. Hopefully that can change.

      Thanks for making the connection. I hope to follow up more on what you’re doing. Have you heard of the following two resources/projects? – an approach to improve an aspect of teaching through teacher inquiry. Haven’t looked too far, but it sounds interesting. – Part of the EDUCAUSE top teaching and learning challenges for 2009 – This one is focused on how to encourage academics (again within universities) to adopt innovative technology. To some extent the quick skim I’ve seen seems to be using very traditional staff development approaches, the type I don’t like. Discussion and collaboration might be possible in this group – they’ve certainly using lots of “web 2.0” tools.


  3. there are alot of excellent points here but can someone please help me on understanding the 3rd idea more. im not really sure what it means and maybe a few examples wil help thanks

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