Instrumentalism v. Essentialism

Hamilton and Friesen characterise instrumentalism and essentialism as general orientations displayed where technology (as used in online education) is discussed in journalism, business, in everyday representations and in academic research.

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An essentialist view of the use of technology in online education assumes that a particular technology will achieve outcomes regardless of context eg that use of the Internet will result in learners achieving greater freedom of expression. This context-free view confuses the potentials of a technology with what may actually happen in a given context. It is often accompanied by the rhetoric of disruptive innovation.

The instrumentalist view of educational technology privileges the social actor, or 'user' of the technology, and their pedagogical goals. The basic assumption here is the potentials of a technology will be achieved in a given educational context provided that the planned process is followed.


Essentialism and instrumentalism depict technology as either a force or a set of artefacts. These depictions coincide with our everyday experience. Removed as most of us are from technological development, and confronted as we are with seemingly immutable technical things, it is easy to imagine that technologies descend on us from abstract realms of positive knowledge that we cannot influence. This view is supported by popular discourses emphasising the near magical nature of technology, with little regard for its origins in social activity.


Both essentialist and instrumentalist approaches are determinist (social or technological) and tend to regard technology as fixed. In understanding the relationships between people and technology, we need to open the black box.

Hamilton, E. C., & Friesen, N. (2013). Online Education: A Science and Technology Studies Perspective Éducation. CJLT/RCAT (Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology / La Revue Canadienne de L’apprentissage et de La Technologie), 39(2) html .