Digitale læringsfellesskap

A Mountain is a Mountain – isn’t it? And ICT is ICT– isn’t it?

The social construction of digital artefacts in higher education. ______________________________________________________________________________________________ Background paper for lunch seminar at Department of Education, UiB 7. October 2022

Student Response System
Rune Johan Krumsvik
Eivind Sennerset



We live in a post-pandemic era where the experiences from the pandemic have shown us that there are no simple answers to the big questions around education and learning, which affect both epistemological, ethical, socio-economic and educational conditions. The pandemic has also shown us that it is becoming increasingly important to find out more about how ICT (Information and Communications Technology) and educational technology is constituted across both the primary education, secondary education and higher education, as well as how it is socially constructed in the general population in digitized everyday life (Krumsvik & Skaar 2022). In an extended editorial (Krumsvik 2020) I claimed that in the digital era, digital technology has an influence on all parts of our lives, and we all experience the ups and downs that this comes with. As high consumers of technology, we may sometimes need to take an epistemological step back with regard to the pros and cons of digital technology. We might ask ourselves how we perceive the digital artefacts we use and how they are socially constructed within or across different contexts. A somewhat simple example of a social construction is how a banknote can be perceived purely as a piece of paper (object-oriented ontology), while in a purely subject-oriented ontology, it has an economic value. In many ways, a banknote is a social construction that has real value for people through its function in our socially designed financial institutions, on local, regional, national and global levels. However, a banknote is context-dependent – in the middle of nowhere, far from people (e.g. in the North Pole), a banknote has no value other than simply being “a piece of paper”;  situated in societies and cities, however, it does have monetary value.

Looking to a similar dichotomy concerning epistemology, a statement like “Glittertind is more beautiful than Galdhøpiggen” (these are two famous Norwegian mountains) is a subjective assessment that cannot be “quantified” or “measured” in the correct sense of these words, and therefore, relates more to a constructivist “centre of gravity” and a subjectivist epistemology. On the other hand, the statement “Galdhøpiggen is higher than Glittertind” can be quantified as well as measured according to an objectivistic epistemology. But what is a mountain? There seems to be little consistency in the definition of mountains globally (Gerrard 2014). However, both Romano (1995) and Gerrard (2014) finds that in Italy mountains are defined as areas above 600 meters. When we look at the definition of a mountain in Great Britain, we can see that the UK Government and the majority of British hill walkers and mountaineers say that a mountain has to be at least 2000 feet (609.6 meters) (Go4awalk.com 2020). Heights less than 2,000 feet high are considered hills, ridges, etc. This is similar to the mountain classification in the  International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation (UIAA). However, while we can see that there seems to be some kind of consensus on how to define a mountain in Italy and Great Britain, we find quite different perceptions and social constructions of what a mountain is in, for example, Norway. In Norway, there are no clear definitions of what a mountain is, and 200 to 300-metre hills, which would be considered hills in the British and Italian contexts, are regarded as mountains. And several of the most popular events in the Norwegian summertime are actually hill walking but are referred to as mountaineering (in the English and Italian sense of the word). From this, we can observe that how we define mountains depends in some way on our social construction of mountain (even if its objective ontology is quite clear), a construction which depends on the cultural context.

In similar ways, ICT and educational technology are perceived and socially constructed in a variety of ways, according to cultural context and the different discourses within educational technology regarding teaching, research and the use of digital tools in one’s spare time. To illustrate this, I will use an example of how digital artefacts sometimes provide affordances that help develop the didactics of teaching in higher education, while having limited affordances outside an educational context.

In the period 2004–2006 it was rather hard to involve and engage students in large lectures (150–250 students) at the university, and if I, as the teacher, posed questions during these lectures or invited plenary discussion, many students refrained from raising their hands out of fear of being publicly embarrassed. Consequently, during the lectures it was difficult for me as lecturer to interact with the students, to know what they understood or didn’t understand, or to know what they were actually discussing during the peer discussions. This challenging experience prompted me to investigate how, within a didactical framework, mediating artefacts like response technology could be socially constructed in situ in large lecture halls.

I initiated a design-based research project in 2007 based on my own teaching experiences in large lecture halls during recent years. The main aim of the project was to examine if, and eventually how, mediating artefacts like response technology could support formative assessment and feedback in large lectures. The project aimed to focus on educational technologies’ affordances in such settings, attempting to go beyond the stereotypes about large lectures (150–250 students), and examine if it was possible to increase interactivity and engagement in such lectures. I examined how different interventions with cultural artefacts such as Student Response Technology (SRS), in combination with video cases, peer discussion and formative assessment, influenced psychology students’ perceptions around their engagement and learning outcomes in such lectures.

In order to try to continuously improve the teaching design, I applied the response technology over approximately 400 teaching hours in the period 2008–2016 in large lectures with psychology students at UiB. However, it was necessary to reflect on the epistemological steps taken in the application of the technology, and examine how well-planned teaching designs, Student Response Systems and video cases could play a role in transforming large lectures into a more student-centred way of organizing learning and teaching. On a general basis, these mediating artefacts (“clickers”) changed the premises for participation and created new affordances for both students and lecturers in large lectures.

After nine years, such mediating artefacts were in many ways socially constructed and interwoven into a didactical design with certain affordances for empowering students’ “voices” and participation in such settings (large lectures). In order to communicate our findings to the public, we published several scientific articles, an editorial, and a chronicle internationally and gave several interviews via newspapers and social media.

The experiences from this first part of the project informed the next part - practice periods of education of dentists (2011-2021, UiB). This next part examined some of the factors that affect dentist students’ levels of nervousness and tension before and during the practice periods. The current state of knowledge showed that before commencing the practice period in The Public Dental Health Care, it is crucial to raise awareness and focus on good communication skills among dentist students and their supervisors. However, previous experiences have shown that it is quite difficult to get dental students to speak up in plenary lectures about such issues when supervisors are situated together with them, and the project applied Student Response Systems as an attempt to limit this problem. The use of Student Response Systems seemed to contribute to raising awareness among supervisors and students about such issues. In many ways students, supervisors and lecturers contributed collectively to ‘… how the introduction of novel cultural tools transforms the action’ (Wertsch, 1998, p. 42), since they could express their worries live and anonymously, appearing in situ on a large screen at the front of the auditorium.  In this way, supervisors received feedback by becoming more aware of the tensions and stress that the dental students communicate anonymously through the Student Response System. This gave the supervisors important input regarding their role and helped dental students to “break the ice” in the supervisor-student relationship. A certain implication from the study to other professional educations is that mediating artefacts can empower students’ “voices” and participation in large lectures - especially when the topics are sensitive and where it is difficult to get students to speak up in plenary lectures. As such, we published our findings as a scientific article and in order to communicate our findings to the public, we published a chronicle and participated in interviews in newspapers.

The third part align with the former parts, but this part focused on how Student Response Systems can be applied to conduct data collection through “live surveys” in situ to pilot the data collection (e.g. in 2011 from 153 teachers and 921 pupils in this article) and carry out surveys as the main method (e.g. in 2015 from 173 students in this article, in 2016 from 62 students in this article and in 2020 from 48 pupils in this article). This seems to have a methodological contribution regards the use of SRS feedback clickers as a way of collecting self-reported survey data ‘live’ with the respondents in situ. These case studies demonstrate the potential of SRS feedback clickers as part of the research design – both to collect data in new ways, increase the response rate as well as securing anonymity of the participants.

The lesson learned from this project is that our subjective ontological perception of such mediating artefacts will vary based on perceived affordances versus real affordances; where some will perceive “clickers” in large lecture settings as “just another digital tool”, others will perceive them as a powerful mediating artefact. So, how we socially construct ICT and educational technology artefacts is almost always based on our experience, perception, competence and context, and therefore we all have both good and bad experiences with the use of educational technology. This project reminds us, that professional development and design-based research takes time, it is a lot of ups and downs and requires a certain insight into the current state of knowledge – especially about the pitfalls when implementing educational technology. We therefore need to go beyond these mediating artefacts and establish sustainable didactical frameworks that are able to encapsulate how, as a result of how quickly they develop, educational technology artefacts are “moving targets”.


Gerrard, J. (2014). What is a mountain: background paper to definition of mountains and mountain regions (English).Washington, D.C.: World BankGroup. http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/133951468327412964/What-is-a-mountain-background-paper-to-definition-of-mountains-and-mountain-regions

Go4awalk.com (2020). A Mountain is a Mountain – isn’t it? Retrieved 2. October 2022 from: https://www.go4awalk.com/uk-mountains-and-hills/a-mountain-is-a-mountain.php

Krumsvik, R.J. (2020). Ontology, epistemology and context – and our social construction of educational technology. Nordic Journal of Digital Literacy, 1(15), 3–7. https://www.idunn.no/doi/epdf/10.18261/issn.1891-943x-2020-01-01

Krumsvik, R.J. & Skaar, Ø. (2022). Infodemi og pandemisk risikopersepsjon. Tidsskrift for Norsk psykologforening, 3(59), 3, 192-197 https://psykologtidsskriftet.no/fagessay/2022/03/infodemi-og-pandemisk-risikopersepsjon

Romano, B. (1995). National Parks Policy and Mountain Depopulation: A Case Study in the Abruzzo Region of the Central Apennines, Italy. Mountain Research and Development, 15(2), 121–132. https://doi.org/10.2307/3673876

Wertsch, J. V. (1998). Mind as action. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


[i] This chronicle is based on two of my editorials published in Nordic Journal of Digital Literacy in 2020 and 2022.

[ii]  One serendipitous outcome is that “old school” physical response technology (“clickers”) has undergone a renaissance subsequent to the implementation of General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR, https://gdpr-info.eu/) in 2018. This is because they are completely anonymous when students use them in DBR projects, while newer digital response technology used through students’ mobile phones or learning platforms leaves many digital traces (mobile ID., IP addresses etc.), which can be a challenge in light of GDPR.