Neil Selwyn’s careful critique of ‘ed-tech’ is grounded in a humane commitment to education for a more equal and just society, finds Alex Snowdon
Neil Selwyn, Is Technology Good for Education? (Polity Press, 2016), x, 178pp.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started Neil Selwyn’s provocatively-titled Is Technology Good for Education? Perhaps it would be a boldly contrarian attempt to answer the question in the negative. That is a proposition I would be unlikely to sympathise with, as it seems self-evident that there are many positive educational uses of technology and the potential for this to be developed further. Knowing it to be written by an academic - Selwyn is a professor of education in Australia - there was also the anxiety, familiar to many of us who are classroom teachers, that it would prove to be overly abstract and disconnected from many of the realities of working in education.
As it turns out the book is indeed willing to challenge and question orthodoxies – incisively and thoughtfully - but it is mercifully free of showy and shallow contrarianism. Its short answer to the question is ‘yes and no – it’s complicated’, with a concerted effort to move beyond simplistic and polarised stances towards the issues. Selwyn subjects a series of claims about the value and effectiveness of technology for educational purposes to scrutiny, highlighting the positive effects and outlining points of agreement before explaining the problems. A spirit of critical and questioning scepticism pervades the whole endeavour. As to my fears about the academic nature of the work, this clear and accessible book is in fact simultaneously a very general critique and a useful, relevant framework for approaching practical issues around technology in educational settings.
The twin starting points are the dramatic rise of digital technology’s place in education (which itself is an expression of a broader social phenomenon) and the arguments, claims and sometimes outright myths that have accompanied this rise. The author sets himself the task of interrogating the major claims made by politicians, corporate marketing departments and sometimes educationalists, comparing them to reality and probing the forces behind the changes we genuinely do see taking place in education (and the values embedded in them). He strips away the hype – the field of ed-tech is as awash with grand, sweeping claims as much as other fields of technological change – to take a sober look at what changes technology are bringing about and, equally, what remains the same. He probes the substance beyond the excitable spin.
Selwyn writes about a range of educational settings, outlining how digital technology has become an integral part of life in schools, colleges and universities (largely in the developed world), and also surveying the rapid rise of online alternatives to formal education, for example the MOOCs (massive open online courses) that allow some people to pursue further study without attending an institution. One of Selwyn’s repeated concerns is to examine who actually benefits from recent developments, rather than taking claims at face value. The issue of MOOCs is a good example: he cites research indicating that those who are already well-educated are far more likely to access such courses than those with lower levels of formal education. This brings into question the fashionable idea that such courses are egalitarian or democratising, bringing education to those who otherwise wouldn’t access it.
The main body of the book is a series of chapters probing four major types of claim made for ed-tech, namely that it: makes education more democratic and inclusive; personalises learning for individuals; enables education to become more ‘calculable’ (measurement and tracking of all sorts of data); commercialises education. A recurring question is: who benefits? It is important to search out the agendas underpinning many of the changes being promoted and identify who gains from them. Whose interests are being served, and whose interests are being ignored?
Unsurprisingly, it turns out that a great deal of this field is driven by corporations (the educational technology sector is now huge business and the book contains some eye opening statistics to illustrate this). This doesn’t mean that every proposed innovation is inherently worthless. It does, however, prompt the need for critical attention towards who gains, who loses, and whether corporate values are necessarily aligned with what is best for education and for those whom education is meant to serve.
Selwyn is particularly astute about the ways in which much ed-tech rhetoric (and often practice) dovetails with the contemporary neoliberal mantras of choice, competition and the aspirational individual in a supposedly meritocratic world. This is a much-needed reminder that we should be thinking seriously about the values of education – what we want it to achieve, who and what it is for – and examining critically how they match (or don’t match) many of the innovations and solutions being advocated by business interests.
It is easy to assume that ‘personalised learning’ is a virtuous thing. It must be better, surely, if education is tailored towards individuals and their particular needs, interests and aspirations. There is much to be said for that, of course, but in various ways the reality is more complicated. For example, as Selwyn puts it, ‘if we are all immersed in our personalised learning journeys, what implications might this have for education as a supportive, social and shared endeavour?’ (p.77).
The notion of ‘personalised learning’ rubs up, in tension, against more collective and mutually supportive aspects of the educational process. This is also a trend that is bound up with viewing education in terms of ‘product’ – measurable, pre-defined, isolated – which reflects larger social and economic trends. And it raises difficult questions about how we make education more equitable, as the old, established inequalities tend to be reproduced when the values of the ‘free market’ reign.
Although largely a work of critique, Is Technology Good for Education? concludes with a chapter that presents the author’s constructive proposals for making things better: for maximising the potential of new technological developments, and aligning them with what is best for the pursuit of education and a more equal, just society. This involves moving beyond a narrow, unthinking concept of ‘effectiveness’ by thinking seriously about what kind of education is desirable, what values and aims we ought to pursue, and how that is part of striving for a better society. It is a political, not exclusively educational, vision, as it must inevitably be: educational practices are part of society and education will always be politically contested.
Selwyn’s particular proposals are shaped by a humane commitment to broadening and deepening the experience of education (it’s much more than a saleable product in the market, and it’s a profoundly social and critical endeavour); a vigorous defence of public education, and in some ways a plea for its extension; and the vision of making education, like society as a whole, more egalitarian. His book is a valuable contribution to thinking about the realities of contemporary education and how we might plot a way forward.
Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in People's Assembly, Stop the War Coalition, Palestine Solidarity Campaign and the NUT. Alex blogs at Luna17 .