A critical analysis of Hamilton, E., and Friesen, N. (2013)

One of the key aspects Hamilton and Friesen (2013) argue is that studies into the potential of technologies, and the pedagogical value of these, are limited by the approach often used in the conduct of the research. This echoes studies by McDougall & Jones, 2006 and Roblyer, 2005, that research into this area has “struggled to find its theoretical roots” (Graham, 2011, p. 1).

Hamilton and Friesen’s rationale is that a significant amount of research to date has been conducted through the viewpoints of essentialism and instrumentalism. These orientations, while providing useful insight, are hindered as “they fail to grasp the social and historical dimensions of technology”.

Indeed, Hamilton and Friesen are not lone voices in this area. Selwyn (2012) stresses that “education and digital technology should strive to analyse the exchanges between everyday practices and the encompassing cultural and societal structures” (p. 91), adding backing to the importance of social considerations. This echoes Savin-Baden, Tombs, Bhakta (2015), in that “research has tended to neglect the social context within which students interact with pedagogical agents” (p. 297).

Hamilton and Friesen make a persuasive case of their argument through detailed reasoning and strong evidence. By providing a thorough dissection of the essentialist and instrumentalist approaches on a theoretical basis, this allows the reader to pick apart the theoretical considerations, and in turn view the deficiencies in the two approaches. This also provides the reader with an insight into the depth of examination that has been conducted.

Investigations such as this are important, as any weaknesses in the research (of any subject area) have to be a cause for concern. Ultimately if the conclusions of any research work are to be used to provide a ‘sure footing’ to guide future development and influence direction, it needs to avoid any limitations. As the authors put it, the limitation “hampers understanding of the educational value of new technologies”.

While the critique of recent research appears strong, nonetheless there are areas in the paper that warrant scrutiny.

The assertion in the introduction that “technologies… (are)… of beneficial value in education.” is rather broad, and could be argued glosses over some of the intricacies and practicalities around the use of technology in education, and also don’t consider the  negative perspectives (for example Selwyn (2011) and Wood, Mueller, Willoughby, Specht & Deyoung (2005)) around this topic.

Whilst the authors make a compelling case on the limitations of current research, they would be mindful to be wary of any of their own blind spots, such as an unconscious positivity towards the opportunities with technology. Indeed considering the negative arguments around technology and education could further influence the choice and variety of viewpoints to consider in this field.

The authors also present a strong case for a constructivist approach in researching this field. Given the flaws in an essentialist and instrumentalist approach, they argue that a constructivist approach would allow social and historical aspects to be brought into the framework, and therefore provide a more rounded view.

Although a compelling argument is made, again driven by examples and case studies throughout, by only providing an insight into a constructivist approach (that one could argue they seem to favour), it could be contended that they have fallen into the same trap they are actively arguing against. There is a limited critique of the constructivist viewpoint, and given the purpose of the paper, some explicit scrutiny of this could have demonstrated stronger objectivity.

Contrast this with Selwyn’s (2012) paper. Although similarly strong arguments are made by Selwyn in his critique of current research in this area, he understands the inherent self-sabotage in simply changing tact towards a single, alternate approach. In his view“there is no one ‘correct’ theoretical stance to adopt when looking at… education and digital technology”.  Hamilton and Friesen allude to this in their own conclusion, but by providing a detailed breakdown of how a constructivist framework can address the issues with current research (without other alternatives or further an outline of potential flaws in this approach), one could argue they are demonstrating an inherent preference themselves.

Overall Hamilton and Friesen’s paper provides a compelling argument that the realm of education and technology should be considered through alternative philosophical standpoints in order to “provide fruitful new directions for online education research”. However further opinion should be sought to turn this into a tangible practice and minimise the risk of an incomplete view.