Entangled pedagogy, design and the messiness of education

In a recently published open access paper on “entangled pedagogy” (Fawns, 2022), I presented a diagram of a few views of the relationship between technology and pedagogy.

This was an attempt to show some problems with emphasising one over the other (e.g. putting technology or pedagogy first or last). I sympathise with the desire of many educators for pedagogy to drive technology, rather than vice versa, particularly amongst the hype of EdTech solutions and a broad perception of dissatisfaction with recent trends in online learning. However, this would involve holding technology and pedagogy as separate concepts, which can lead to attributing too much or too little agency to designers, teachers, or technology.

Technology is always, and has always been, entangled in pedagogy (Dron, 2021). Pens, paper, chairs, and rooms shape our actual and possible approaches and experiences, and our approaches and experiences shape how we understand and engage with those technologies. Further, technologies are encountered in combination, rather than as single things. A car is a combination of wheel, window, door, engine, etc. Our experience of a car often includes other things that are not integral to it (e.g. a radio station, a water bottle, a mobile phone) but that nevertheless shape the experience of using a car. In education, there are always multiple technologies in play, even if students do not actually use some of them (e.g. Turnitin, and a grading system, and a feedback platform, and an assignment dropbox, and word processors, email, discussion board, Google, library catalogues, online journals, Sci Hub, CourseHero, Chegg, AI essay writers, WhatsApp, YouTube, podcasts, mobile phones, laptops, exam boards, accreditation systems, and even desks, fans, coffee mugs, and doors that can be closed or left open).

No single technology, nor combination of technologies, is ever a solution or a problem, independent of the situation in which it is entangled. For example, dissatisfaction with online learning during the Covid-19 pandemic was not simply due to a problem with technology. For many students, being forced to “go online” conflicted with their purposes and values. In many cases, there was not enough negotiation of this with educators, largely because of the context (time pressure, inexperience in online design and teaching, infrastructure, and other factors). Students had to reconfigure their learning environments (including technology) and may not have had sufficient knowledge, support or resources to do this easily or successfully. Technology did not solve any of these problems either. There may have been successful uses of Zoom, etc., but these involved careful alignment of context, purposes, values and teaching methods with specific configurations of (multiple) technologies. Yet, technology is not neutral either; it is not a set of tools over which teachers or students have control and through which they can achieve their aims. Harms and benefits manifest through the combination of specific technological arrangements, pedagogical approaches (including teaching methods) and other factors.

From an entangled view of design, ethics is a complex process of tracing relations across different levels of the institution and across different contexts, including the actual, emergent activity of teachers and students. For this to be possible, the responsibility for ethics is distributed across different educational stakeholders, all of whom need to value and learn about ethical implications of they are to contribute to this distributed understanding. In other words, ethics is never someone else’s job, it is always everyone’s collective job. This is important if we are to value inclusivity, diversity, privacy, social justice, or care, for example, because it is only through a tracing of complexity that we can see how different decisions and actions play out in real situations for real students. This then forms part of an ecological evaluation (Fawns, Aitken and Jones, 2019) that can take entanglements into account rather than settling for simplistic and reductive metrics in relation to satisfaction or linear conceptions of learning achievement.

If technology could drive pedagogy, teachers and designers would just need to wisely choose and use tools. If pedagogy could drive technology, they would just need to wisely choose methods, and then use tools to support those methods. From an entangled view, many things need to come together.

Seeing technology and pedagogy as entangled highlights the kinds of knowledge and considerations that are required in educational design and practice. If technology could drive pedagogy, teachers and designers would just need to wisely choose and use tools. If pedagogy could drive technology, they would just need to wisely choose methods, and then use tools to support those methods. From an entangled view, many things need to come together, including: the design of tasks and social and material arrangements that fit the (somewhat unpredictable and somewhat diverse) situations teachers and students will find themselves in (Goodyear, Carvalho and Yeoman, 2021); the configuration, by teachers, students and others, of shared and individual technologies and environments (Sun and Goodyear, 2020); and the orchestration of methods, technologies and practices towards negotiated aims and values (Nardi & O’Day, 1999). This includes considering, primarily in design but also in orchestration, what is available and how it fits with the immediate and institutional infrastructure and culture. It also involves looking at how things are entangled over time (e.g. how different sessions and activities mutually shape the learning that is derived from each) and across settings (e.g. how learning in a classroom spills out into digital activity and how digital activity spills out into social and material relations) (Fawns, 2019).

An entangled view suggests that design is not done in a fixed order. It involves the iterative reconfiguring of elements in relation to each other.

Pragmatically, an entangled view suggests that design is not done in a fixed order. It involves the iterative reconfiguring of elements in relation to each other. We make and change, and then go back and think about how this aligns with the purposes, values and context, and what the implications are for our configurations of technology and teaching methods. And repeat, until we are satisfied that it all makes sense as a whole. Designers probably do this already, but entangled pedagogy makes this iterative checking of relations explicit and necessary, and broadens out the kinds of relations and iterations involved (e.g. beyond the usual sets of activities, roles, and considerations).

In short, we cannot put technology aside while designing, just as we cannot put aside our repertoires of teaching methods, or our purposes, values, and considerations of context. Entangled design takes account of all of these elements, through iterative consideration of relations between them. For example, we might think about how a particular technology, used in a particular method, for a particular purpose, fits what we think is important (i.e. our values). We might also think about this in relation to the level of education, discipline, and institutional culture (i.e. our context) we are designing for. We might continue to iterate through these relations until we have a design that we think is likely to be workable in most predictable cases. However, since any practitioner has only a limited view, such a process might usefully involve a range of practitioners who can contribute their understanding of other relations (e.g. how a task fits with a wider programme, what happens with student data, how to align creative approaches with inflexible policy). This also applies to those external to the institution, such as EdTech developers (e.g. developing better products and relationships with educational institutions involves collaborating with the roles mentioned above so each stakeholder’s contribution can complement others).

Photo by Jan Canty on Unsplash

About the author

Tim Fawns

Dr Tim Fawns is a Co-Programme Director on the MSc in Clinical Education at the University of Edinburgh. Teaching on this programme involves development of an online, distance learning curriculum, as well as teaching, assessment, student support and dissertation supervision of a wide range of healthcare professionals involved in undergraduate and postgraduate education. He also leads the international Edinburgh Summer School in Clinical Education and leads a course on Postdigital Society for the Edinburgh Futures Institute. Tim's main academic interests are in clinical, professional and higher education, technology, and memory.

Published by Tim Fawns

Dr Tim Fawns is a Co-Programme Director on the MSc in Clinical Education at the University of Edinburgh. Teaching on this programme involves development of an online, distance learning curriculum, as well as teaching, assessment, student support and dissertation supervision of a wide range of healthcare professionals involved in undergraduate and postgraduate education. He also leads the international Edinburgh Summer School in Clinical Education and leads a course on Postdigital Society for the Edinburgh Futures Institute. Tim's main academic interests are in clinical, professional and higher education, technology, and memory.

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