Digital Education, the 'Mainstream Orthodoxy'

New book examines how technology is changing education -- and whether that change is for the better.

September 9, 2016

Keeping up with the latest twists and turns in the educational technology market can be exhausting. Neil Selwyn’s Is Technology Good for Education? (Polity Press) takes a step back.

The book is, in Selwyn’s words, “intended to make you think otherwise about technology and education.” Anyone looking for a definitive answer need not look any farther than the very first sentence. Spoiler alert: for Selwyn, professor of education at Monash University in Australia, the answer is simultaneously yes, no and “all points in between.”

In chapters exploring the democratization, commercialization and personalization of education, Selwyn’s book takes a critical look at the role technology plays in creating change, and whether the change is always for the better.

“The underlying intention of this book is to develop an apt characterization of technology and education: that is, to present the key issues and debates relating to ed-tech in appropriately nuanced and aware ways,” Selwyn writes. “This book therefore seeks to shift the nature of the conversation about technology and education. It does not set out to make spectacular predictions or present hitherto unseen evidence. Instead it offers an opportunity to pause for thought and to take stock. In an era of digital society that is infused with hyperbole and exaggerations, such an interruption is surely a ‘good’ thing.”

Selwyn answered questions about his book by email. His comments have been lightly edited for clarity.

Q: Digital education, as you point out, is not a new thing. Colleges have been experimenting with technology in the classroom for decades. People in academe have been writing about it for just as long. What is it about this era that is driving the debate about technology and education -- and that also led you to write this book?

A: The major change as we approach the 2020s is that digital technology is no longer a niche addition to education. Instead digital technology is integral to contemporary education (and to contemporary society). The fundamental difference about ed-tech now as opposed to 10 years ago is that colleges are no longer simply experimenting with technology. Instead, colleges are basing their entire provision around technology.

I would argue that digital education is not an edgy, experimental alternative to the mainstream orthodoxy of higher education. Instead, digital education is the mainstream orthodoxy. And like many orthodoxies, most people don’t have the time or energy to stop and think critically about what it is they are having to do with technology.

So we need to ask much better questions of the everyday technologies of higher education. For example, what happens to teaching and learning when systems such as Moodle, Blackboard, Turnitin and Microsoft PowerPoint dominate the educational experience of most teachers and students? What is being ignored (or lost altogether) in the current rush toward learning analytics, personalized learning, adaptive testing and flipped classrooms?

In short, I feel that the stakes are much, much higher than they ever were in the 1990s or 2000s. We are no longer in an era of the ed-tech hobbyist -- the occasional colleague down the end of the corridor messing around with HyperCard or clickers in the classroom. Instead, technology use in higher education is a billion-dollar business that affects us all. It deserves much closer attention from everyone with an interest in higher education.

Q: You write that there ought to be more “‘grown-up’ debates … around the complexities and contradictions of technology and education.” As you have probably noticed from your time on the conference circuit, events where people in academe can meet face to face are often siloed: CIOs attend one conference, faculty members another, librarians a third, investors a fourth and so on. How best can all those groups connect for an ongoing conversation about the future of education?

A: The obvious place for people to connect for ongoing conversations about the future of education is online. I would urge people reading this to deliberately start following the Twitter feeds of people from other silos -- especially those areas they feel inherently opposed to or confused by. Online discussion of ed-tech tends to be an even narrower echo chamber than you find in face-to-face conferences. There is definitely scope for a far more cosmopolitan and much less one-sided online discourse.

We also need far better news media commentary on technology and education. The news media coverage of the MOOC boom between 2012 and 2014 was shocking. I’m sure that the lazy boomster/doomster hype around MOOCs (both from general and from specialist education media sources) killed off any democratic potential the technology might have had, and certainly put back the cause of e-learning a good ten years.

I also think that there is a need to get many more people involved in these conversations who do not have a vested interest in ed-tech being framed as “effective,” “disruptive” and a success. In particular, we need to encourage the silent majority of faculty and students who don’t get involved in discussions about ed-tech to voice their concerns and frustrations. For example, trade unions and student associations should surely have plenty to say about the effects of digital technology on the intensification of academic work, issues of standardization, deskilling and surveillance.

Q: Let’s talk a little more about media coverage. In general, what do you find lacking about coverage of technology and education? How can reporters avoid falling for “MOOC mania” in the future?

A: Most people responsible for the media coverage of technology and education are not particularly familiar with technology and education. Even the specialist education media coverage of MOOCs was largely ignorant of the Canadian “cMOOCs” of the late 2000s or the past 20 years of open courseware and similar e-learning efforts. A little bit of fact-checking and researching the backstories to the emergence of MOOCs would have been welcome. MOOCs did not come out of nowhere!

In media terms, the MOOC was a rich mix of issues. For example, in many areas of the media there is a residual distrust and resentment toward universities. There was definitely appeal in hyping the idea that these elitist, monopolistic, out-of-touch institutions were getting a kicking from tech-sector upstarts and from rogue professors like Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun. There was also an element of schadenfreude in the idea that greedy university chancellors were finally going to be made to give their product away for free. The MOOC story was definitely impressive in terms of its scale and the numbers of students involved. And there were also a number of compelling human interest stories -- from the geeky “rock star professors” with adoring online audiences of tens of thousands to the Mongolian teenager going on to ace a degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

All told, it is not surprising that MOOCs were overvalued and underscrutinized by the mainstream press. But it was disappointing that the specialist education media was also slow to dig more deeply into what was taking place. I was surprised how the MOOC story was allowed to be driven mostly by people with a vested interest in MOOCs being seen to succeed. There were plenty of people in education rolling their eyes at the unfolding cycle of hype, hope and disappointment. There was also a much more complex story to tell about the technology-led realignment and reorganization of higher education. MOOCs were definitely a missed opportunity to work through some important issues about where we are headed in higher education with technology.

Q: On a related note, what about people in academe? What can they do to make their voices heard in this conversation?

A: There continues to be a need for much better academic research in this area. Ed-tech research has traditionally tended to exploratory, experimental and confirmatory -- desperately trying to find proof of technology “working,” “enhancing learning” and asking “What if?” questions. We need much better research that addresses the realities of technology use in education -- the problems, the unintended consequences, the bigger picture. What I’ve called before “the state of the actual” rather than “the state of the art.”

Also, people in academe are often end users of this technology in their roles as teachers, researchers and administrators. As workers we need to be more vocal about the technology we use. If we think our working lives are being made crappy by our universities’ learning management systems, use of email or lecture capture, then we need to say so. We need to push back -- or at least raise questions -- against why University X suddenly becomes a Google campus or students in University Y are all given Apple iPads. Most people in academe know that the technology they use in higher education is problematic, but don’t really bother getting their voices heard (whereas they are usually pretty vocal about most other things!).

Q: You conclude the book with a series of “value statements” describing your ideal vision for the future of education -- using technology to serve the general public, balancing commercial and public interests among them. Where, if at all, are you seeing education initiatives that strike this balance?

A: The push for more “public” forms of university education is not confined to technology. In many ways, my book simply follows the general disquiet about the ongoing corporatization of higher education.

There are plenty of interesting examples that I could point to, but you need to remember that these remain isolated cases that are dwarfed by the likes of Knewton, Pearson, Coursera and their ilk.

So, for what it’s worth, I would say that the University of the People (at least in its early stages) offered an interesting alternative to the likes of the University of Phoenix and other for-profit online providers. There is much to be admired in the Domain of One’s Own movement started at University of Mary Washington. The University of Edinburgh’s “Manifesto for Teaching Online” offers a counterpoint to the usual e-learning hype. Also, while not focused on universities, the Plan Ceibal in Uruguay continues to demonstrate how national ed-tech policy initiatives can have a strong state-led social justice agenda. Similarly, the recent “digital democracy manifesto” put forward by the leader of the opposition Labour Party in the U.K. demonstrates some really interesting policy approaches toward technology that are more publicly minded.

There are many alternate ways of approaching technology use in education. We just need the courage to look beyond the Silicon Valley narratives that many people in higher education seem currently in thrall to.

Q: Speaking of Silicon Valley -- although it has cooled off slightly this year, the ed-tech market has seen a surge of venture capital over the last couple of years. What do you think investors are seeing in a market that moves notoriously slowly and is often difficult to turn a profit in? Are they betting on that highest level of change -- an education “revolution”?

A: The ed-tech investment bubble was driven by a number of things. Profiteering was certainly a driver. There was certainly the illusion of education being a potentially lucrative market. Universities do spend millions of dollars on technology, and in theory higher education does fail to cater to large elements of the population. So if you see higher education simply as a commodity, then you might be fooled into thinking that there was money to be made. But this is to massively underestimate the nature of education and the complex role it plays in people’s lives. Education is not the best place to try to make a quick buck.

But there were other factors as well. Entrepreneurs and innovators profess to love tackling big problems, and higher education is certainly full of big problems. There’s a lot of scope for “solutions” in higher education. Part of the Silicon Valley mind-set is to look to re-engineer society along computational lines, and education is a key part of society, so it is natural that people’s attention will be drawn toward schools, universities and informal education. If you look at where most of the technology-related philanthropic efforts go, then it is toward big-ticket issues such as space travel, curing diseases and so on. Fixing public education is certainly a comparable-scale issue to these.

In a more prosaic sense, I also think there was an element of laziness among some of the smaller, later start-ups -- nascent Mark Zuckerberg wannabes making an app for colleges because they had just graduated from college. The Facebook origin story was a powerful motivator for many of these ventures.

But as you hint in the question, this latest wave of investment interest is definitely waning. Ed-tech is now reverting back to being unsexy again until the next “next big thing” in education. And so it will continue.


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