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Digital Education team blog


Ideas and reflections from UCL's Digital Education team


When does a technology no longer become a technology?

By Matt Jenner, on 15 February 2013

My answer is, ‘when it works’

A question I like to ask when introducing people to new technologies is “Would you consider your chair a technology?” (It works best when they’re sat on an old chair). The most common answer is either ‘no’ or that disgruntled-where’s-the-door-type-face. Regardless, your chair was once designed, the person who made it sat on 100 failures before his posterior was being cushioned by another round of chair developments. Those failures, were in part, technology.

chairs are awesome

When that chair went to the public it might have been as an icon of modern times. Think of plastic injection (chairs dominated the plastics industry for a while) and how many chairs could be made and how quickly. You would only want to do this once they are really, really good. At some point that technology, the new concept, went mainstream. It’s not easy to say when, where or even why it happened – but your bum is grateful for it. To you, it’s just a chair, and that’s if you even bother to register such a thing. Most of the things around you were at some point in their lives a technology.

So what’s technology? Stuff that does not work? Yes, kind of.

Moodle is a technology, we know it works well enough, but it’s got a lot of things to improve. A pencil is not technology, they work, they’re good, maybe a little dated but you can’t alienate someone with a pencil, not quite yet (kids still love them). A teenager might shoot you a wonky face but you’re otherwise OK. What about chalk? What does chalk need to work? A blackboard? Would a youth want to use chalk? Maybe, maybe not.

Where this is heading is to say that technology are the things we’re experimenting with, before they go mainstream. People have been needed to act as technology filters for many years, starting with ‘this stone good, this stone bad’ & recommendations/trial & error/experience/developments from that point on. This filter helped reduce the information about the world to provide selections for people. This is what we do in E-Learning Environments, to some extent. But we also need to be informed of which rock to recommend.

One area we can choose to follow is the NMC Horizon Reports, described as “an unbiased source of information that helps education leaders, trustees, policy makers, and others easily understand the impact of key emerging technologies on education, and when they are likely to enter mainstream use.” These reports have been in print for 11 years to analyse technologies and predict short, medium and long-term technologies or disruptive innovations that educators and other such folk should be aware of. It’s worth noting that when you’re always looking forward at new technologies (aka shiny things) it’s sometimes harder to look back. When in fact, a review of the past often bring a clearer view of the future – or at least lessons to learn from past experiences.

For one reason or another, I decided to compile a list of the technologies featured in the Horizon reports and see if there were any trends in predicted technologies that are no longer ‘technology’. I found six out of 32 technologies that could be considered either no longer technologies, or have arrived to a point where a majority of people may consider them as ‘normal things’, not necessarily ‘new shiny things’ and they’re used in education. I think with the six, I may have been generous – comments welcome.

Here’s a breakdown:

  • Grassroots video (2008, short-term)
  • User-created content (2007, short-term)
  • Social networking (2007, short-term, also 2005 as long-term)
  • Online learning (2005, short-term)
  • Wireless (2005, short-term)
  • Searching (2005, short-term)

These six items have graduated from the Technology Academy, made it in the real world and are embedded into [UCL’s] education. When looking at the year of prediction and the time-frame they were estimated to ‘arrive’ in the world it gives a boost to the predictions from the Horizon reports. Since then they have all disappeared from the annual reports. In my view (don’t expect much more) this means they have landed, delivered their payload and blended into education as fairly normal things. Between 2005 to 2008 the predictions might have been easier to do or there was a point in technology where what came out become mainstream.

Here’s the rest:

Disrupter / Year 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004
Massive open online courses Short
Wearable technology Long
Mobile computing & apps Short Short Short Short Medium Medium
Open content Short
Augmented reality Medium Medium Long Long Long
Electronic books Short Medium
Gesture-based computing Long Long Long Medium
Data analysis and learning analytics Medium Medium Long Long
Game-based learning Medium Medium Medium Long Medium Medium
Tablet computing Short Short
Internet of Things Long Long Long
Cloud computing Short
Geo-everything Medium
Personal web Medium
Semantic aware applications Long Long
Colloration webs Short
Mobile broadband Medium
Data mashups Medium
Collective intelligence Long
Social operating systems Long
Virtual worlds Medium
Publication platforms Long
Social computing Short
Personal broadcasting Short
Scalable vector graphics Short
Rapid prototyping Long Medium


As you can see, it’s a bit messy. Many of these technologies, regardless of prediction, never really took off in mainstream education. The most interesting ones were either mega-hyped or echo throughout the years. It’s hard to invest in something like game-based learning as it appears to remain an unpredictable technology for many years. The same can be said for mobile computing and apps, augmented reality, gesture-based computing, internet of things and rapid prototyping. Others seem too brief to know how to respond. I suspect technologies such as open content, cloud computing, collaboration webs, social computing, personal broadcasting and scalable vector graphics may have ignited some as ‘the next best thing’ and then fizzled out before hitting mainstream. Before I get flamed, it’s obvious that some of these things fit into niche areas; and many would argue they are all deployed in some state or another – but I am going for a general view here.

Predicting the unpredictable

Back to my original point is to say that in education, technologies remain as such until they’re used so naturally people see them as a way of life. They’ve come and stayed, maybe no-one even noticed. If you found a student posted a video to a Facebook group then you’ve just seen a few million years of embedded technology all sloshed together in a 1 minute capture. After this all you’re wondering is why they have a weird haircut. That’s embedded technology, working as ‘things’ to you and I.

What’s next?

Probably a lot more new things that don’t work. This is OK, everyone adopts new things at different rates, and this is one of the most fascinating parts. I’ll have to pick that up another time, but it’s all very splendid. I hope MNC keep writing their reports, I want to keep analysing them, I hope they don’t mind…