Why education and technology is full of bullshit

My notes on Selwyn, N. (2016). Minding our language: why education and technology is full of bullshit… and what might be done about it.

This wonderfully title editorial takes issue with the tendency for educational uses of digital technology to be “discussed in enthusiastic and often exaggerated terms”, leaving “idealistic and impassioned talk” proliferating in an “area awash with bold assertions and confident claims” (1). This has gone hand-in-hand with a rebranding from ‘computer-based instruction’ and ‘computer-assisted learning’ in the 1980s to ‘technology-enhanced learning’ and ‘connected learning’ in the 2000s, building in the assumption that learning is taking place and that technology is responsible for it. This language can be easy to diagnose in isolation, yet risks washing over us when we encounter it on a daily basis. They “should not be treated simply as benign or neutral words, terms, phrases and statements” because they are “powerful means of advancing the interests and agendas of some social groups over the interests of others” (2).

They operate by fixing outcomes as certain, squeezing out the messy realities of on the ground implementation and the possibilities which the technology could be applied for other purposes. They render unambiguous, treating as a technology to enhance learning, what in reality is profoundly ambiguous and should be treated as such. As Selwyn puts it, “the possibility of technology not leading to learning and/or other educational gains is rarely a matter for consideration.” (2-3). They render the process in active terms of the learner and learning, with technology impacting upon or transforming pre-existing educational activities and processes. Their confidence in bringing about a transformation is belied by “a cloying tone, involving the use of playful, homespun and self-consciously childlike language” (3). Unfortunately for them, “the past 100 years show that education has been largely un-transformed and un-disrupted by successive waves of techno- logical innovation” (3).

There is little evidence base for these grandiose claims. So why do these simplistic ways of talking about educational technology persists? Drawing on Frankfurt, Selwyn argues that bullshit involves a cynical disdain for the way things are, as opposed to lying which implicitly entails the recognition of a truth. Bullshit about educational technology is “the result of people talking loudly, confidently and with sincerity regardless of accuracy, nuance and/or sensitivity to the realities of which they speak” (4). So much is missed out and the politics of educational technology is deeply shaped by these omissions. From pg 4:

For example, it is surely not satis- factory that the dominant framing of education and technology blithely margin- alizes, ignores and/or denies the complex and compounded inequalities of the digital age. Similarly, it is surely not helpful to avoid proper discussion of the political economy of digital education, and the corporate reforms of public education through privately sponsored technological means. The limited language of education and technology therefore needs to be challenged by anyone concerned with matters of fairness, equality and genuine empower- ment through digital education.

He suggests a recoding in response to these trends, “encouraging a counter-lexicon that reflects more accurately the conflicts, compromises and exclusions at play” (5). This would be a “language of education and technology that unpacks more aptly” (6). It would involve debate being “prised away from celebrity musings and privileged pronouncements, and towards the voices, opinions and direct experiences of the various real-life ‘publics’ of edu- cation and technology – for example, students, educators, parents, employers, administrators, designers and developer” (6).

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