What does it mean to think sociologically about educational technology?

I keep coming back to this question as I begin my new job at the University of Manchester’s Institute of Education. One answer would be to invoke the sociological imagination in the sense of drawing out the connections between what C Wright Mills called ‘private troubles’ and ‘public issues’. To bring the sociological imagination to educational technology involves recognising the variability of individual experience and how this can be explained in terms of wider social forces. Another way of answering the question would be to think about the core concerns of sociological thought (the problem of social order, social transformation, collective action, stratification/inequality, social interaction and social meaning) as they relate to educational technology and manifest themselves in the roll out and use of these systems.

In practice this could involve a whole range of questions about how technologies get developed, why some are taken up rather than others, why some groups benefit while others don’t, how educational practices change in response and what this means for institutions like schools and universities. In other words thinking sociologically about educational technology becomes extremely diffuse and begins to look indistinguishable from thinking sociologically more broadly. The risk is that we insist that educational technological questions be replaced by sociological ones, which is something I realise I’ve been prone to doing in the past. That’s why I like this extract from Audrey Watters on pg 16-17 of her great Teaching Machines because it captures what both the responses I’ve outlined above share: context.

Too often, the context is stripped from the stories written about education technology, and all that seems to matter is the technology itself. Its history is simply a list of technological developments with no recognition that other events occurred, that other forces—cultural, institutional, political, economic, and so on—were at play. If you were only to read the histories of education and education technology as told by technologists and technology boosters, you’d end up, no doubt, with a story much like the one Sal Khan offers in his video—a story in which there is no mention of racial segregation or desegregation or re-segregation, no mention of protests over wars or civil rights, no mention of legislation or court rulings. The satellite Sputnik is granted more agency in shaping twentieth-century education than students or teachers.

It’s important to recover context because it is so routinely stripped away by those who frame educational technology in solutionist terms i.e. the idea that every educational problem has a technological solution, if only we implement it correctly. To insist on context foregrounds the historical and sociological environment which educational technology has so often neglected without losing our focus on the technology. It decentres technology in our explanation without losing it all together, in the manner described above.

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