Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

Edupunk rules: Technology I, II and 3 – understanding and improving the practice of instructional technology

The following is a summary and perhaps a bit of a reflection on McDonald and Gibbons (nd). This is a journal article that has been accepted, but not yet officially published. It appears to be based on the PhD thesis of McDonald.

The paper uses the criteria of technology I, II and III to examine differences between researchers description of a theory and how practitioners implement it. This identifies 3 reasons for technological gravity and 3 approaches to avoid it.

As I’ve read the paper and connected that with stuff I’m talking about and reading at the moment, this has evolved into something that makes connections between Technology III and the Edupunk movement. Somewhat off topic, but it looks like a connection.

My take on the paper

This paper resonates a lot with me and my experience. It offers a useful insight and some significant literature that I can draw on both now and into the future. It also raises a range of questions and observations about the practice of improving learning and teaching within universities.

Connections with Edupunk

For me, the ideas of Technology I, II and III definitely connects or might form part of the Edupunk movement. This quote from Jim Groom really illustrates a connection with Technology I (my emphasis added)

This passage brings into sharp focus a scary reality that often gets overlooked (or is it intentionally downplayed?) in educational technology, namely that the Utopian, blue sky ideas of technology as a singular harbinger of possibility and liberation

This “Technology I” view is what the corporates are pushing. It’s a major part of what I see Edupunk rebelling against. What is Edupunk? “Edupunk is student-centered, resourceful, teacher- or community-created” from Leslie Brooks. The student-centered aspect ties directly to Technology III. Learner control is a core component of Technology III.

But wait, there’s more

In Technology III, practitioners do not use technologies or design processes only because some instructional theory specifies it, but because characteristics of the local situation lead them to believe that a certain technique or tool will have a practical, positive influence in solving a defined problem. (McDonald and Gibbons)

A key part of this emphasis on the local situation is the idea that any technique, from anywhere can be useful. The following quote, from an earlier developer of the Technology III idea, illustrates this and seems even more directly connected to the image of a Edupunk. The Technology III practitioner

Is not one who follows all of the known rules, not even one who follows all of the known rules well. . . . [but is someone who] breaks known rules and creates new rules, thus enabling [a type of instructional technology] not possible through the application of known, status quo, systematic rules. (Beckwith 1988, p. 16)


Technology I and II directly connects with my thoughts about the almost universal acceptance of fads and fashions in higher education, especially around e-learning.

Task corruption

Task corruption, work-arounds and “gaming the system” have been a topic I’ve been thinking about recently. Much of what I see in L&T at universities is about gaming the system. Being seen to do the right thing, even though you’re not.

The points made in this article about Technology I and II and how technological gravity sucks people down to that level connects directly with the ideas of task corruption and workarounds.

But it also points to broader possibilities about who is “working around” things:

  • The poor teacher – sure coal-face academics workaround things to get by in the world. This is well known.
  • The educational technologists/learning designer etc.
    One of the toughest and most uncertain, in terms of position and future, jobs at universities is that of learning designer or educational technologist. Given the difficulty and uncertainty, is it any surprise that these folk will be tempted to simplify and routinise what they do? Even if they do understand completely “Technology III” technological gravity will suck them down to technology I or II.
  • Educational researchers.
    Developing a new learning theory, process or technology is hard, especially one that will make a significant difference to learning. However, academics and researchers are evaluated on how well they achieve this, arguably, impossible goal. Is it any surprise that they seek to corrupt their task? Make it a bit easier to achieve?

    For example, design and test a theory that works well for my classes, but not so well in real life or for others. Take on research that avoids the difficulties and complexities of real life?

Examples of Technology I and II

I’m struggling to think of any recent, long-term examples of Technology III in my experience. Almost all of them, at least to me, appear to be examples of Technology I and II. Some of the examples:

  • LMS/e-portfolio/insert technology here will save the world.
    I’ve written about this one before. The new technology will save us!!!
  • PBL/constructive alignment/insert process here will save the world.
    I’ve seen this regularly. Someone reads a body of research around process X, thinks that’s great. Then begins to trumpet how process X, when applied to every course at the university, will radically improve the quality of L&T.
  • Bastardisation of process and technology.
    I’ve seen this one again and again. Even if you accept a certain technology or process as being an example of Technology III, the principles associated with it soon become bastardised beyond all appropriateness. For example, a committee focusing on ensuring that the verbs and phrasing of learning objectives is approriate but without any idea of assessment of teaching practice are appropriate to supporting those.

There are more, but time to get onto the summary


Makes the point that instructional designers/researchers develop detailed plans and specifications for creating “high-quality instruction”. Yet, when implemented, practitioners are unable to keep it going

Essential principles of an instructional approach sometimes seem to be lost as it is translated from the original theory into practice, and it instead becomes a formulaic technique for imitating common instructional structures that do not meet the goals expressed by either the practitioner or the theorist

Suggests that this may be one reason for the fad/fashion cycle in instructional ideas.

Suggests one reason for this may be the assumptions instructional technologists hold about the their field and its practice. References some literature suggesting unexamined assumptions about a discpline can negatively influence its theory and practice as they lmit peoples’ understanding to what is familiar. Assumptions that can lead to a reductive or even inaccurate view about what is involved in effective learning.

Refer to the Technology I, II and III work done by a range of folk to organise qualities of practice around three major assumptions that either limit practice or help encourage a rigorous and reflective practice. Describes each of these as:

  • Technology I – assumes media devices automatically lead people to develop quality instruction.
  • Technology II – assume design formulas/techniques automatically lead people to develop quality instruction.
  • Technology III – quality of instruction measured by consequences of instruction with students and within the larger system
    Actually, the above is the description in the journal paper. The abstract from the PhD thesis puts it this way

    Technology III was the belief that good instruction could consist of many different product or process technologies, but that technology use alone did not define good instruction. Rather, good instruction was the realization of improved systems in which learning could take place

The theorists behind this “framework” suggested that practitioners with a focus on I or II assumed they could find a technology or an instructional formula. This leads them to adopt uncritically that innovation regardless of whether or not it is compatible with any instructional principles, goals or context.

Authors suggest that their study reinforced the value of this framework. Also, it identified a “technological gravity” that pulls practitioners away from II towards I or II. They have developed strategies for mitigating the gravity. Evaluating the criteira of I, II and III can help. Doing so may help address the fundamental problems faced by the field.

Comment: The authors are using a strange mix of “practitioner” and “instructional technologists”. Hard to pick exactly who they are talking about. Front line acacdemics as practitioners. Or the instructional technologists helping them – or both?

Seems as the rest of the paper examines

  • More indepth look at I, II and III
  • Discussion of technology gravity
  • Avoiding technology gravity

Technology I

This is the “tools approach”. An approach I’ve argued against previously. If you adopt a technology, wonderful educational improvement will happen, all by itself.

This view is linked to the idea that teaching activities cause learning to take place. i.e. if the teacher is seen as a potter, moulding the students – then new tools for the potter improve the product.

The authors then connect this with the information transmission view of teaching. I’m not sure this is the only connection. Much of what I see from the eportfolio community, at least to me, strikes me as suffering the same problem and even I don’t think those folk see teaching as information transmission.

Authors now seek to describe how this view leads practitioners down the path of not maintaining the quality of innovative pedagogical approaches because “the essential principles of those approaches cannot be easily expressed using only technological tools”. The problems with and impacts of this view continue

  • quote – if you begin with a device, you develop the teaching program to fit the device.
  • learning and instructioanl problems defined in terms of latest innovation
  • instructional technology in danger of being defined by these devices.

They now raise the argument that this explains why instructors reuse old approaches with new technology. This seems somewhat counter-intuitive to me – or at least how I’ve interpreted the previous argument. At least at first. I think I see it now.

Technology II

This is the “methdological, rule-based” approach to improving instruction. Use the right design process/technique and you’re away. Assumes that design techniques/processes have an intrinsic ability to solve educational problems.

This fails because the principles of innovation teaching approaches cannot be expressed using only the known design processes and formulas.

It is important to note that Technology II is not an attack on the techniques or processes used to develop instruction, per se. Technology II criticizes a type of practice in which people view only certain methods as the legitimate way to develop instruction, and as a result overlook critical features of the instructional situation.

Bit of discussion about how the simplification of design processes/approaches lead to a translation of the process. The thing being used, isn’t exactly like what was proposed. Intenionally or not, the person implementing the process will emphasise some aspects over others.

Technology III

Ahh, this is the good (where good is purely defined as reinforcing what I believe – the authors are obviously very intelligent if they agree with me 😉 )stuff.

In Technology III, practitioners do not use technologies or design processes only because some instructional theory specifies it, but because characteristics of the local situation lead them to believe that a certain technique or tool will have a practical, positive influence in solving a defined problem.

These folk do not believe that good learning experiences can be reduced to, nor controlled by, any technology of process.

The authors include a full quote from one of the originators of the idea using chess as a metaphor

[Technology III is like] a chess game, in which players engage in an intellectual activity for which there is no one set of appropriate moves. . . . The order, and manner, in which [instructional systems are created] depends upon the character of the problem, and the aim in mind. There is no one best way, and no one way of proceeding. Neither is there one optimal solution. Everything depends upon the situation, and the skills available. (Davies 1978, pp. 22–23)

As part of this perspective, there is no one right solution. There are many suitable solutions. There is also a call to look for insight beyond the instructional technology field. A part of this view is a focus on the learners’ agency as an essential part of learning.

This broader, more open view is said to make such folk more flexible, free to change and respond to circumstances. They don’t follow the rules, the break known rules and create new ones.

Technology Gravity

Propose and explain technological gravity as

We believe our metaphor is apt because, just like physical gravity, our observation of technological gravity seems to show that invisible and perhaps near-irresistible forces act on instructional technologists to pull them towards a common point

Reference others that talk about “alluring and captivating” traps that folk fall into because they seem logical/offer security and comfort.

The authors believe that technological gravity can be avoided (a type of anti-gravity), not be developing another process for design and development, but on exposing and discussing the phenomenon to encourage reflection and examination of practices and beliefs.

They refer to the PhD thesis for more information on technological gravity

Using PBL to illustrate

I find this interesting, they use a study of PBL to examine technological gravity. The reasons given are

We chose PBL to illustrate technological gravity because of its promotion as a revolutionary development in instructional theory, its wide adoption among instructional technologists and teachers in general, and the complaints raised since its introduction that many examples of PBL practice do not implement the essential principles of the approach that originally led to its success

There method appears to have been take an original description of the PBL idea (Barrows 1986) and then look at published reports by PBL adopters. They’ve categorised Barrows principles into Technology I, II and III and found it to be clearly an example of technology III. They offer a few paragraphs explaining this claim. One of the important ones was that Barrows believed students could learn without the instructor, that in fact the best learning happened when they took control.

They chose 6, purposely sampled published reports which they characterised as:

  1. Barrows own implementation of PBL.
  2. A PBL exemplar implementation by another researcher.
  3. An implementation that was initial less than successful, but then went on to implement PBL effectively.
  4. An implementation that explicitly states that implementation was different from Barrow, but that they still expected to achieve the same outcomes.
  5. Two implementations with initial alignment with Barrows but which drifted away from those principles, eventually returning to traditional instruction.

They also performed another literature search, afterwards, to confirm their observations.

Three reasons for technological gravity

Use Beckwith (1988) for “status quo adherence” and the description that the three reasons

are presented as separate categories
to ensure comprehensiveness and to facilitate discussion. [They] are not intended to
be seen as mutually exclusive. Approach them as a set of interrelated and interdependent [influences]

Reason Definition Indicators
Distracted focus Rejecting Technology III in pursuit of other rewards Focusing on other interests; primary concern for financial rewards
Status quo adherence Searching for practices that are legitimate, professional, respectable, or traditional. Unsettling change or organizational stress; no urgent reason to change; personal identity that is threatened by Technology III.
Over-simplification Losing Technology III in the pursuit of routinization Unpredictability; overreaction to problems.

Some expansion on the reasons:

  • Distracted focus.
    e.g. teachers pursuing research rather than ed tech.
  • status quo adherence
    The way we’ve always done things around here. Can be emphasized by local uncertainty – restructures etc. What we do at the moment is okay response. Identity threatened by new approaches.

    Mentions an example of task corruption

    Yet in some of the reports we studied, practitioners still applied
    the terminology of PBL to their more traditional and formula-driven behaviors, leading to what Chen et al. (1994) called the ‘‘jargon’’ approach to PBL practice, which did little more than ‘‘re-define existing educational approaches’’ (p. 9) in language that appeared to be more innovative or forward-thinking (see also Abrandt Dahlgren and Dahlgren 2002; Herreid 2003; Kovalik 1999)

  • Over-simplification
    Fear that practice of innovation can’t be sustained unless simplified and made routine.

Avoiding technological gravity

Method How it helps
Practice legitimate evaluation Legitimate evaluation helps practitioners continually align technology or technique use with the goals they have for their practice.
Adopt guiding principles about one’s practice Strong beliefs and values help practitioners make decisions, view constraints in creative ways, and solve problems without abandoning important goals they are trying to achieve.
Cultivate opinion leaders Good opinion leaders can help alter the culture of the field, leading to Technology III becoming a more accepted alternative.

The three approach arise from their study of PBL. In more detail:

  1. Practice legitimate evaluation.
    Arose out of seeing practitioners who continually and rigorously corrected their implementations. Legitimate is used to mean not collecting data to simply justify the course of action being taken. You have to ask difficult questions, you have to want to prove that your stuff is not working and obviously you also need to have the drive to change when it isn’t working. Gives example of how Barrows kept asking questions about a part of PBL.
  2. Guiding principles.
    As a barrier against losing focus or as a crutch to use when having to make difficult trade-offs. Principles help guide decisions and prevent “back sliding”. Though I imaging this might be difficult. It’s also about having principles that are appropriate for your local context that can be used to guide modifications to the approach being adopted.
  3. Opinion leaders.
    This is perhaps the weakest of the three and is drawn from Rogers’ work on innovation diffusion. It assumes that all innovation/change is good and can also be problematic. Still a consideration.


A basic summary of the paper


McDonald, J. and A. Gibbons (nd). “Technology I, II, and III: criteria for understanding and improving the practice of instructional technology” Educational Technology Research and Development.


Early indications of "blame the student" that continues today


Post to fix the feed


  1. jkmcdonald

    David, I enjoyed reading this summary of our article. I’m impressed you read it closely enough to write this much of a summary! You picked up on some interesting connections, some of which were intentional on our part and some of which were unintentional but nonetheless I find informative.

    I also appreciate your broad interpretation of some of our points (e.g. the tools approach correlates to an information-transmission model of teaching, but probably not exclusively). I don’t think I disagree. Any time we artificially constrain ourselves we are in danger of limiting our effectiveness. That’s the point we’re trying to make.

    Good luck completing your degree!

    • G’day Jason,

      Talk about a small world – I came across your “storytelling” paper from the Educational Media International Journal just yesterday, via another thesis related literature trial. The role of story is a nascent and under-fed interest of mine, and will remain so for a while, but I’ve forwarded the paper onto a colleague.

      Glad I haven’t gotten anything glaringly wrong in my interpretation and summary of your work.

      As my new job gets moving over the next 6 months I am particularly interested in thinking more about technology gravity. I see it as a particular problem as my current institution and am keen to identify ways to reduce it.

      Any pointers more than welcome. I’m planning on looking through your thesis at a later date.

      Thanks for your work.


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