Connections, People, and Learning: The Meaning and Purpose We Find in Educational Technology


Adam Davi (University of Arizona) and Madeline R. Shellgren (Michigan State University)

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Adam Davi of the University of Arizona and Madeline R. Shellgren of Michigan State University, both active members of the OLC community who have served on conference planning committees, join us to reflect on what the term edtech means to them.

As members and friends of the Online Learning Consortium (or someone who is otherwise interested in the topic of educational technology), we recognize that the term might not always coincide with the same meaning for everyone and that from individual to individual, what we associate with “educational technology work” varies. As such, in this blog post, we reflect on what the term means to us and share a bit about what it means to some of our colleagues. 

When did we first realize we were interested in educational technology?


I first jumped into the world of educational technology when I was teaching 7th grade roughly a decade ago.  I started looking for ways to keep my students engaged and maintain rigorous and relevant lessons. While collaborating with colleagues I was introduced to webquests and wikis, and I was hooked.  I was suddenly opened up to all these possibilities for learning to take place in dynamic ways both in and out of the classroom. My students were creating utopian societies, writing newspaper articles, filming advertisements, and developing more ownership over their work while connecting and collaborating with one another.  For me, it injected new life into my teaching as I was able to weave technology in to assess outcomes in more creative and relevant ways, and I grew more passionate about creating meaningful lessons… And suddenly I became a first adopter for new technology at my school. From there it was a quick jump to Edmodo, Glogster, Animoto, and more.

When I made the jump to higher education, I became more interested in how technology impacts education.  Working directly with students, I saw the need for educators to think more critically about how to engage students with technology.  That is when I decided I wanted to work more closely with instructors to develop ways to integrate technology in more impactful ways.  So I enrolled in an Educational Technology Masters program. That decision ultimately led me to my current role as an Instructional Designer and into opportunities like the Technology Test Kitchen.  Within that program, I had the chance to reevaluate my teaching philosophy and further define what ed tech means to me.      


For me, my interest and involvement with educational technology came during my time as a Graduate Student. Though looking back, I was always interested in it…I was that grad student that intentionally incorporated and played around with different technologies knowing that they all had different impacts on learning. This interest, however, didn’t become apparent to me until I was tasked with helping other instructors think critically about their uses of technology in their course designs. At the time I was serving as a Graduate Assistant for the Academic Technology sub-unit for the College of Arts and Letters (which I was and am a member of). Being surrounded by colleagues who regularly thought about uses of technologies (but did so in really critical ways) lead to my realization that this was not only something I was intrinsically interested in, but also something I was naturally good at (translating between technology and pedagogy…helping others think critically and establish outcomes for learning…tying in choice of technology to scholarly frameworks, etc.). I had also gone through and attended a program called the Certification in College Teaching Institute two years back-to-back and around the same time as holding that Graduate Assistantship, transitioned into helping to facilitate aspects of the program (including the “Teaching with Technology” portion). The session forefronts the importance of considering learning outcomes when choosing technologies. I remember thinking “well, duh” only to then realize that not everyone thought about technologies in that way. And then to add more depth to the story, this was also the time period where I dove head-first into the Online Learning Consortium through programming and leadership opportunities like the Technology Test Kitchen. So all that to say that while I might have been a few years back from Adam in discovering my passion for educational technology work, it grew for me as quickly and dynamically as it did for Adam.

So what does ‘educational technology’ mean to you?


When we think about educational technology now, we tend to think about computers, phones, and software.  But technology can come in many forms. Eyeglasses were once a technological advancement. So when we think about technology, we need to go beyond the digital world, and think about the way tech, in all its forms, is used to help learners make meaningful connections.  I realize I’m saying this as I work in a digital world, but, to me, the most impactful aspect of educational technology is the way that it can connect learners to content and their peers. Creating connections, applying knowledge to real world situations, and challenging the ways we think about the world are just a few of the ways technology can impact education.  But ultimately, educational technology is a tool to enhance learning. We can use technology to supplement the learning that takes place in the classroom, whether that classroom be physical or digital. We can use technology to meet students where they are. We can use technology to create ownership over learning. We can use technology to connect. I keep coming back to connections because that is what educational technology means to me.  It is a way to connect learning, people, ideas, and more.  


It is funny and not overly surprising to me that after reading Adam’s response to this question…it appears we have a lot in common about our views on educational technology. Many of us in this work have likely heard the word “technology” as immediately associated with digital forms…when in reality the pencil sitting right next to me on my desk is also a piece of technology. When you think about this, it is easy to laugh it off and think, “Ok yeah, but fundamentally there must be something different about a learning management system or a content management system, right?” And while, yes…there are certainly differences (they were created for different reasons, with different audiences and goals in mind, and are designed very differently), at their core they are also all tools which can be leveraged to accomplish goals and contribute to learning in specific ways (resulting in a variety of potential outcomes…both negative and positive, depending on their use). Adam highlights connections and the work that educational technologies can do and the capacity that they can have for learning. And while this certainly comes to mind, when I first sat down and thought about the term “educational technology,” I was reminded that to me it is a useful lens for helping educators more critically approach their teaching and contribute to meaningful learning spaces (as well as for helping learners retain agency in their own developmental pursuits). To me, I wouldn’t be doing my job well if I didn’t consider learning. That “educational” part of the term asks me to critically consider things like learning outcomes, the learning contexts, and the institutional structure. It asks me to consider stakeholders (who am I as an educator, who is the instructor/educator I am working with, who are the students in their learning spaces, and where are they at in their learning processes?). And it asks me to consider this: if a given technology is not going to meaningfully contribute to the needs of that space or the needs of a learner (including instructors), then I am forced to reconcile why I am so intent on using it in the first place and if I even should? So, while there are many ways folks approach work in/around ed tech and many frameworks they bring in for doing this work, I like viewing it as a challenge to ultimately be learner-centered with the goal of more accessible, inclusive, and equitable educational environments and I believe technology does and can play a huge role in accomplishing those goals.

What else might ‘educational technology’ mean to folks?

Knowing that we are only two in this work, we reached out to our colleagues to see what they thought about the term and their work. Adam reached out first via Slack (which his unit uses for internal team communications), by asking his office mates “What does Ed Tech mean to you?”  Two responses were particularly of note to Adam:  

Krys Ziska Strange, Learning and Innovation Designer at University of Arizona:

Ed tech can be everything from the technology that supports us as we teach and learn (Google Apps for Education, Excel, Word, cell phones, laptops, AR/VR equipment, etc) to the technology-based infrastructures that guide our practices and implementations.  Ed Tech is what allows us to engage our students where they are, provide them with experiences that help them grow and shape their worldview, and helps us manage and deliver quality, effective, and efficient instruction.

Angela Gunder, Director of Instructional Design and Curriculum Development at University of Arizona: 

Education Technology is the connective framework that supports the linkage between innovative practices and teaching and learning.

These responses resonate with our own views of educational technology and the ways in which we approach our work.  Krys highlights the “technology-based infrastructures that guide our practices and implementations,” which we find important to emphasize as a way that technology has become ingrained within education.  Working within those infrastructures helps guide our work as we look at the impact to both students and instructors, and how those stakeholders connect. Angela highlights the “connective” nature of this work…and this is something we have heard often (that those of us who work in educational technology are in the work of ‘connecting,’ as well).  We both discuss connections as ways that technology has impacted education and something that we strive for in our work.  

Moving to Twitter, Maddie asked a similar question, but also asked about what exactly folks did for work, who they worked with, what their job was like, and what they liked about it. Nick Noel, Instructional Designer and Media Producer at Michigan State University, echoed what Angela said in that for him, he sees his “job as assisting people make meaningful connections. To their students, themselves, what they are learning.” 

But the prompt also spurred an interesting commentary and response to the seemingly ubiquitous way in which the term “educational technology” is used to describe the work that we do and therefore our various associations with it. For the both of us, this is a feeling we have each held and a sentiment we fully understand. Nick, for instance, also shared that he wished “there was a better catch all term, as [he thinks] ed tech can be limiting.” And Veronica Armour, Instructional Design and Technology Specialist at Rutgers, mentioned that she, “dislike[s] the phrase EdTech & the concept of working in it bc ppl tend to take it to mean that I should be an expert in any & all software. Or I should always want to use the newest tool. Any tech can be used educationally & I’d like to see more nuance btw low-tech & high-tech.”  These comments reinforce the idea that ed tech has a different meaning for all who work in that world and should emphasize that it might also hold a different meaning for the learners who are impacted by its use.  

Acknowledging the various stakeholders helps us put ed tech into perspective for how and why we use it.  Taylor Kendal, Designer and Project Manager at the University of Colorado Denver, responded that, “working in Education means purpose, people, promise, and legacy. I write, design, improvise, and philosophize for a group of visionaries building a new economy based on equity and learning instead of corruption, and greed.” Thinking about the purpose and promise he refers to helps us reflect on the way we use educational technology, and ties back to the connective nature referenced earlier.  

While we know all of these colleagues are passionate about working in educational technology (regardless of the term they use to describe their work), we linger on the need to further consider how and why technologies are being incorporated into higher ed spaces and what drives the decisions to engage in innovative technologies. It is clear to us that educational technology is about making connections. At its core, it is about learning. It is about building community and providing critical spaces for learner agency. It is about leveraging technologies for intentional development and growth. And yet educators working in educational technology still labor on the term itself, how to use it, what it implies, and how it might limit how we are perceived.

If you are new to educational technology, we encourage you to consider how learners are benefiting from educational technologies. If you work in educational technology, we’d love to hear your thoughts as well. What does educational technology mean to you?

Follow @MaddieShellgren on Twitter and join in the conversation!

Adam Davi is an Instructional Designer in the Office of Digital Learning. He is an alum of the University of Arizona, where he earned his B.A. in English Education and his M.S. in Educational Technology. He also has an M.A. in Organizational Leadership from Gonzaga University. He is also an avid Star Wars fan and recently got to fly the Millennium Falcon.
Madeline (Maddie) Shellgren is a doctoral student in Writing, Rhetoric and American Cultures at Michigan State University. Her dissertation research focuses on the rhetorics and locations of Graduate Student participation in change-oriented work within higher education contexts. Her work is broadly situated in the scholarship of higher education. She is currently serving as the Chair of the Technology Test Kitchen (for OLC Accelerate 2019), as well as the Chair of the Innovation Studio (for OLC Innovate 2020). She loves working with educators in reimagining higher education.

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