Managing polarities in Digital Education

Is it possible to use too much or too little technology in teaching? Polarity management can help you find the right balance between using technology and being present with your students. Words by Liz Masterman.

Even though digital technology is now integral to higher education, academics continue to ask the question ‘will it help or hinder students’ learning (and/or my teaching)?’ In some ways this is unsurprising, given the pace of innovation in devices and applications. However, it’s also because there is no clear answer to the question, and this creates a dilemma for academics and the learning technologists who support them.

Polarity management and its relevance to digital education

One way to tackle the dilemma is through polarity management, popularised in the writings of Barry Johnson (see below). It addresses problems for which there may be two competing, but interdependent, solutions. Each solution, or pole, has both an upside and a downside, the downside of one pole being redressed by the upside of the other. That is, applying solution A to the exclusion of solution B may initially solve the problem, but ends up having negative effects. So, we adopt solution B in order to rectify the damage done by A, only to find that B eventually undoes the good that A did. Since it’s clearly impossible to think in terms of ‘either A or B’ as a means to solve the problem, we have to consider ‘both A and B’ as a means to manage the problem through achieving a balance between them.

coffee cup on white background and milk cup on black background (coffee beans)

When managing polarities, it can help to think of the two extremes in combination. Image by Alex on Unsplash.

According to Johnson, polarity management has particular value in situations that are complex, diverse and rapidly changing, and where there may be resistance to change –which some would see as characteristics of digital education! For example, when confronted by a particular pedagogic problem, technology enthusiasts may focus on the benefits of a digital solution, while their colleagues may prefer a human approach out of concern that technology could have a negative impact on teaching and learning. In fact, the solution may be neither solely technological nor solely human: rather, it may be both technological and human at the same time.

An educational example

Let’s explore how polarity management might work in practice. Suppose that the educational problem we’re faced with is personalisation: ensuring that one’s teaching addresses the learning needs and preferences of individual students. (It’s less relevant to Oxford given the University’s tutorial model, but is a real problem in institutions with increasing student numbers.) We start by defining i) our ‘higher purpose’, which is the best possible outcome to the problem, and ii) our ‘deeper fear’, which is the worst-case situation if the problem isn’t tackled satisfactorily. These might be:

  • Higher purpose – a personalised learning experience for every student
  • Deeper fear – ‘one-size-fits-all’ learning: individual needs aren’t accommodated

Next, we identify our two poles (competing solutions): A) a human teacher and B) artificial intelligence (AI) in the form of an intelligent tutoring system. Bearing in mind that the poles are interdependent, we might analyse their upsides and downsides thus:


1500x400 polarity management liz masterman


Finally, we place all eight ‘elements’ on a polarity management map, with arrows showing the ‘figure-of-eight’ dynamics between the two polarities:

1500x800 graph liz masterman

(We’ve edited the descriptions of the upsides and downsides to fit into the space available.)


A human teacher can accommodate individual students’ needs as long as the class size remains manageable. The intelligent system has the advantage of scalability, but models are (as yet) fallible and students may be happier relating directly to a person. So, as Barry Johnson puts it, we ‘choose both and capitalize on each.’

Benefits of polarity management

In situations such as the example above, polarity management helps us assign to the computer the tasks that it can do best (and are difficult or impossible for people either to do at all, or to do efficiently), and assign to people the tasks where they have an advantage over the computer. The balance between the two polarities is dynamic, in that it needs to be monitored, reviewed and revised in response to changing circumstances, both human and technological.

Mapping out a problem situation in a polarity diagram not only enables us to marshal our thoughts and ideas in order to identify the way forward, it’s also a way to achieve buy-in from parties with differing perspectives on the problem.


This article was inspired by a session led by Jason Brewster of the NHS Leadership Academy at a meeting of the Learning Design Cross-InstitutionaI Network on 27th November 2018. We thank Helen Walmsley-Smith of Staffordshire University for a lively discussion around an initial version of the graphic above.

Further Reading


Words: CC BY-SA licence.

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