Theory. Where is it and has anything changed?

Person stands with a flaming torch at the mouth of a catacomb

Introduction

For many learning technologists a major part of the role is communicating research evidence to educators and fund holders. But have you ever searched the literature on something – voting systems, lecture capture, audio feedback, for example – and found yourself caught between a bunch of articles which are hard to synthesise, or a review which is hard to relate to your own context? Or are your colleagues sometimes sceptical about the evidence?

Theory can help with interpreting research evidence within a conceptual framework. It can help with tackling questions which can’t be answered with more empirical data – questions which require somebody to take a position about what is desirable and why (Bennett and Oliver, 2011). Examples include Mayer’s Dual Coding Theory, Mishra’s and Koehler’s Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge, and Gazzaley’s and Rosen’s marginal value theory of digital distraction.

While this month’s readings are ostensibly about digital education research, they illuminate a field preoccupied with the practical and instrumental, generating evidence to support decisions which have sometimes already been made, often in the absence of a consciousness of, or critical approach to, larger purposes. As such they prompt readers to examine the contexts of digital education practice.

Key texts

If you can only read one, read the Bennett and Oliver.

Bennett, S., & Oliver, M. (2011). Talking back to theory: The missed opportunities in learning technology research. Research in Learning Technology, 19(3).

In 2011 Bennett and Oliver took a sounding on the extent to which learning technology research engages with theory. The article introduces different traditions of research and identify instrumental, pragmatic concerns as dominant. To illustrate alternative possibilities they include three case studies of different theories in action.

Hew, K. F., Lan, M., Tang, Y., Jia, C., & Lo, C. K. (2019). Where is the “theory” within the field of educational technology research? British Journal of Educational Technology, 50(3), 956–971.

This year Hew and colleagues analysed the presence of theory in empirical research articles from three leading educational technology journals and categorised how it was used. Within the article is a table summarising prevalent theories, some of which were ‘born’ in ed tech research and more which come from wider social science. The discussion considers why ed tech research is still under-theorised.

Some questions we’ll consider

  • Can you think of examples where educational technology research, and by implication practice, are under-theorised today?
  • Do you agree that a sector-wide emphasis on pursuing evidence for design theories has had the side effect of marginalising explanatory and emancipatory theories?
  • What aspects of digital education do you think are in most need of theorising?
  • For those who read both articles, does anything seem to have changed between 2011 and 2019? Why or why not?
  • In your context, are there any theories which have particular usefulness?
  • Can learning technologists retrospectively bring theories to published research which may itself be under-theorised? Where can we find theories to work with?

Joining instructions

The nearest tube stations are Holborn and Temple. To find the room – (SE)1.06 in the South East wing of Bush House, 30 Aldwych, WC2B 4BG – see S on this campus map [PDF].

Photo by Linus Sandvide on Unsplash.

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