Reading: Distrusting Educational Technology

Neil Selwyn’s book Distrusting Educational Technology was introduced to us by Siobhan Clay in a recent session on inclusivity in the context of technology assisted learning. Her summary of some of the book’s arguments chimed with a few things I’ve already been thinking about here, in particularly the seldom unconsidered politics of these technologies, which tend to be heralded in uncritical, even evangelistic terms by their users. I’m currently thinking about making this issue the topic of investigation for the independent experiment I need to undertake for the technology enhanced learning unit and so reviewing Selwyn’s ideas in more depth seemed like a good starting point. His critique of these technologies is lengthy and intricate and so for the purposes of this post I’m just going briefly summarise the introduction, which gives a good overview of his rationale for critiquing these technologies, and the first chapter of the book which examines their ideological pinnings and the political reasons that these technologies appeal to some of the disparate groups that employ them.

In the introduction, Selwyn sets out an overview of the prevailing attitudes towards educational technology and offers a justification for a more involved critique of these technologies. He questions the deceptive simplicity of these platforms and is critical of the tendency towards unquestioning evangelism that is often encountered in this field, quoting Langdon Winner’s description of a ‘technological somnambulism’ that seems to pervade western society. Selwyn notes the lack of critical voices in the field of technology enhanced learning, writing that the tendency is towards only asking questions rooted in technical and procedural matters (i.e. an over emphasis on the how rather than why). More nuanced critiques tend to be rooted either in psycho-neurological concerns over the effects of these technologies on our minds and bodies, or in ideas about their moral tolerability. He argues we should in fact presume these technologies to be ideologically loaded and ‘to acknowledge the differences that persist throughout educational technology between those who produce and those who consume, those who are empowered and those who are exploited.’ He argues that as such they need ‘to be understood as a knot of social, political, economic and cultural agendas that is riddled with complications, contradictions and conflicts’ and as a result also that technology enhanced learning is a field as beset with value preferences; ‘social imaginaries and ideological formations that present common (and often persuasive) understandings of how things ‘should be’ and ‘will be’.’ As if anticipating criticism in return for his critical stance, Selwyn also somewhat defensively makes a case for the importance of pessimism in this field, suggesting doing so is not simply being difficult for the sake of being difficult, but is a case of realism and an important part of breaking free from educationalist hype. He summarises this as ‘approaching educational technology from a position similar to Gramsci’s notion of being a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will’.

In the second chapter Selywn attempts to view educational technologies in light of the ideologies they support by offering a deliberately political analysis of education and technology in counterpoint to the ‘commonsensical’ discourse often used about them in educational circles. In doing so he also seeks to create a framework for identifying these ideological interests and their consequences. He starts with a discussion and definition of ideology, aptly starting with Marx and moving through to more contemporary analysis. Selwyn reviews the evolution of ideas about ideology to produce an eventual definition which could loosely be summarised as the idea that ideology seeks to decontest or naturalise the meanings of certain things in order to create a common consensus about them. One can, he suggests speak of a dominant ideology of technology assisted learning or teaching in general, which permits certain activities and frowns on others.

Next Selwyn proceeds to identify the dominant ideologies of our present moment and of the technologies that define our moment. Referencing Andrew Feenberg, Selwyn suggests technologies are often rightly seen seen as sites of struggle between competing ideologies, and this view of them should also extend to digital realm. Selwyn sees our contemporary moment as underpinned by several key ideologies. One is libertarianism, a basic trust in the moral and political primacy of the individual and in North American context particularly their pursuit of individual self-interest. Libertarian ideology is basically humanist Selwyn suggests, having at it’s core a basic trust in the good of people, but also often tips in other directions. Liberatian ideas are heavily connected also to ideas about the power of technology, and extend into the digital as ‘cyber-liberalism’. Selwyn argues that ‘digital technology offers a ready canvas for various strains of libertarian thinking to be imagined and (in part) operationalized – in particular the privileging of the sovereign user and the principles of self-responsibilization and self-determination.’ The internet as a largely unregulated sphere of activity, exists as an example of this.

Next Selwyn discusses neo-liberalism, essentially an extension and updating of libertarianism but with a particular emphasis on consumer choice, free markets and private interest above communal activity or the interests of the state. Under this system every area of life becomes potentially subject to reorganisation along the lines of market principles. While neo-liberialsm is arguably the dominant ideology of our age, Selwyn suggests it is important to see it ‘an unfinished project seeking to remould the world in its image.’ Finally Selwyn discusses what he terms the new economy, a less clearly defined ideology articulated as the changing form of capitalism over recent decades away from Fordist models of production towards modern flexible, information based economies, the products of which are often immaterial in nature. In this new economy profit is gained from the production of knowledge and information, which is produced through a globally networked capitalism with the computer as the steam engine of the modern age. In turn these technologies help to colonise ever more areas of life as profit generators, including interpersonal communication, a transformation suggests Selwyn (quoting Antonio Negri) from the ‘mass worker’ of the factory to the contemporary ‘social worker’. As a result of this ‘the work skills of the new economy are based around skills and dispositions relating to multitasking, autonomy, creativity, ‘innovation’ and networked and cooperative forms of working, as well as malleability of working practices’.

Next Selwyn argues we should see educational technology itself in terms of the ideologies that give rise to and promote it. In doing so he acknowledges that ‘it is difficult at first glance to see educational technology as entwined with any aspect of the dominant ideologies just described. Yet, as was noted earlier, one of the core characteristics of hegemony is the ability of dominant ideologies to permeate commonsensical understandings and meaning.’ Selwyn identifies five key ideologies within educational technology. The first, learner centered learning is maybe the most obviously pedagogical, and reflects that the origins of much interest in educational technologies is in a progressive ideal for education designed to better meet the needs of learners. He suggests that ‘this approach frames digital technology as a key means of providing learners with enhanced access to sources of knowledge and expertise that exist outside of their immediate environment.’ Equally it ties to aspirations for education to be dispersed, non-authoritarian and autonomous. In this sense educational technology is sometimes seen as a so-called ‘trojan mouse’ intended to introduce agendas and ideas into the institution which might be difficult in the traditional classroom (although Selwyn also questions the extent to which technology is really necessary to realize these subversive goals).

Next, the efficiencies of education, emphasises the importance of maximum effectiveness and efficiency in education over and above individual or collective empowerment. Seen through this prism educational technologies are more about the economics of education rather than the result for it’s users, with online teaching facilitating ‘efficient logistics of educational provision; the idea of technology contributing to the profitability and commoditization of education; and the idea of technology contributing to countries’ economic competitiveness and efficiency of labour and knowledge production.’ Selwyn suggests that amongst some groups there is a clear sense that technology can be the means to realise a largely corporate model of education planned along market lines and without state intervention. This is counter-balanced at the same time by the perception in other groups that technology can be the means to ever greater national economic competitiveness, reconfiguring workers mindsets towards a knowledge drive economy, and the exporting of education as a product overseas, in effect serving state goals rather than breaking free from them. Next, communitarianism and anti-establishment thinking also underpins some advocacy of educational technology. Selwyn highlights the origins of the computer industry in 1960’s Californian counter-culture and efforts to reposition the computer as a social rather than war machine, and argues this extends to the present in the form of contemporary counter-technology. This thinking most often manifests today in a communiatarian ideal of technology as a way of reimagining and reorganising society along the lines of mutual empathy, understanding and cooperation, an ideal partly played out in debates about net neutrality.

Somewhat related to this is the ideology of Anti-institutionalism, which might be seen as a more active process of sabotage against existing institutions and norms. Selwyn writes that ‘The key here is the perceived ability of digital technologies to support ‘self-organization’ within networks that is decentralized, distributed and bottom-up, therefore opposing the planned and controlled nature of institutional organization.’ He suggests these ideas have informed some contemporary strands of critical pedagogy, advocates of which sometimes view educational technologies as a potential means for revolutionary ends, breaking beyond the rigid structures of conventional schooling and education. ‘In these terms, digital technology is seen as a potential means of resisting the ‘banking model’ of accumulating ‘knowledge content’, and instead supporting open discussion, open debate, radical questioning, continuous experimentation and the sharing of knowledge.’ Lastly, techno fundamentalism, the enchantment with technology and technological progress, might seem a less obvious value but is still, Selwyn suggests, an important one. He writes that ‘the techno-fundamentalist mindset reflects an implicit belief that technology offers a means to substantially improve current forms of everyday life and social relations – including education.’ Part of this is what has been termed ‘computationalism’ or the idea that the world can be framed in terms of data, algorithms and Boolean logic. This perspective assumes digital technology has the means of expression to understand and ultimately resolve the world’s problems and to some extent reflects a deeply ingrained western belief in technology as progress, something which at times borders on a new religion.

Selwyn notes how interesting it is that educational technologies can comfortably incorporate such different, even contradictory ideologies reflecting the idea of these technologies as a contested space. Partly he suggests this might be explained by the fact that dominant ideologies need to attract and retain a wide array of groups, and these technologies may offer precisely that compromise in their flexibility of use. What is also common amongst these disparate groups is the view of educational technology as a means to improve or better education. He calls on educators to think critically about these issues through a series of six questions that end the chapter: These include to routinely question the ideological dimensions of educational technology, to ask what forms of engagement are promoted through these technologies, and which are marginalized or silenced. What freedoms and unfreedoms are associated with these technologies. How they alter the relationship between individual and commons and public and private, and what are the emotional and human outcomes from their use. Lastly and maybe most importantly we should be aware of the continuities and discontinuities they create between new ways of teaching and learning, and the old.

Author: Lewis Bush

Photographer, writer, curator and lecturer. www.lewisbush.com www.disphotic.com

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