Digital technology and the futures of education – towards ‘non-stupid’ optimism

by Keri Facer and Neil Selwyn April 2021

I just read this paper for the Futures of Education initiative. I am sharing some of the highlights here. I agree with the conclusion here and I recognize the enthusiasm for what technology can do to level the playground and the research from 40 years proving that this is not the case. I think the change towards a “non-stupid” approach is smart and that a lot of the drivers are based on profit. Many of the points are listed here; my comments in red.

  1. That digital technologies alone do not transform education, you need knowledgeable teachers. 
  2. That digital technologies do not improve learning, it can when used the right way. 
  3. That digital technologies do not fix inequalities unless the richer countries contribute with funds
  4.  That digital technologies do not alleviate teachers’ work, most times that is true, but there are examples where it does. 
  5. That there are unintended consequences of digital technology use in education that are impossible to predict and that stretch far beyond matters of learning; and
  6. That any ‘impacts’ are context-specific and tied with socio-technical factors


In summary, what the last 40 years has taught us is that hoping that technology alone will address education’s fundamental challenges is as unrealistic as it is inefficient. Continuing this approach is likely to result in technical ‘solutions’ that produce only uneven results – often dealing only with the surface manifestations of a problem rather than its roots. In short, it makes no sense to assume that future social issues surrounding education are easily ‘fixable’ via technology. This is not to argue that digital technology has no place in how we imagine education futures. On the contrary, digital technology can play an important supporting role in education improvement. And indeed, technologies and their social uptake will change the conditions within which education is operating and potentially some of the capabilities that students might develop. Nevertheless, it needs to be reiterated that we now have the evidence that technology itself is rarely the primary (or leading) part of any educational improvement.

it is no longer acceptable to turn to education technology naïvely and without recognition of the mixed outcomes of the past

What can be learned from the uneven  impacts and outcomes of the recent global pivot to digitally-supported ‘remote learning’ in the COVID-19 pandemic

The failure of edtech to deliver on its promises to improve learning, address inequalities and reduce teacher workload, as well as highlighting the unintended wider consequences that emerge with its introduction. We foreground the reality that the impacts of education technology are highly context specific and associated with wider social, economic, political concerns.

In their own ways, then, the spirit of Logo, OLPC and MOOCs lives on in subsequent education technologies.  These were not worthless interventions, but neither were they as effective and transformatory as was widely claimed at the time. Notably, their promise to overcome profound social and economic inequalities through  technology access and provision alone, remains unfulfilled

One of the main lessons that can be taken from the 40-year history of these various technological developments is that education change and improvement is iterative, inconsistent, and rarely predictable.

Uneven impacts and outcomes – recent lessons from COVID-19 remote schooling

The inconsistent and uneven outcomes of technology-based education has been brought sharply into focus by ongoing responses to the COVID-19 pandemic as countries attempt to enact forms of ‘remote schooling’ where children and young people can maintain some continuity of educational engagement away from their usual face-to-face classrooms. This abrupt rupture in education provision has highlighted both the capabilities and limitations of digital education. For instance, in countries from Europe to India emergency forms of ‘temporary distance education’ (Welner 2020) have been enacted – making use of families’ own digital devices, along with schools’ learning platforms and various other educational apps and software. These official provisions have been  bolstered by innovative informal uses of digital technology, as individual teachers and families have improvised with popular social media platforms to ensure the continuation of schooling throughout successive lockdown periods (Selwyn 2020, Bubb & Jones 2020)

What we know about technology and education – recurring themes from the past 40 years

i) Digital technology alone does not transform education

Education at all levels continues to be shaped by matters of curriculum, assessment and work-related skills. Despite the increasing visibility of digital devices and online systems, the essence of traditional education forms remain intact.

ii) Digital technology does not improve learning

While there are many theoretical explanations of possible learning benefits arising from digital technology use, there is little robust evidence that technology use leads to sustained ‘improvements’ in learning independent of teacher and other contextual effects.

iii) Digital technology does not fix inequalities

While well-intentioned, research tends to find a recurring tendency for these technological interventions to benefit most those who are already engaged and advantaged (Tewathia et al. 2020, Eynon & Malmberg 2021). In other words, while digital technologies might increase opportunities for individuals who are well-resourced, motivated and already-educated, such benefits tend to be experienced unevenly across wider populations. This has clearly been the case in terms of the divergent ways that digital technologies have supported ‘remote learning’ during COVID school shutdowns amongst different socio-economic groups (Greenhow et al. 2021, Robinson et al. 2020)

iv) Digital technology does not alleviate teachers’ work

Another common claim is that technology can support education professionals – allowing teachers to achieve more in less time, and freeing them up from tasks that are repetitive, time-consuming and otherwise unappealing, and allowing them to concentrate on high-level teaching. In reality, there is
growing empirical evidence that digital technologies tend to augment and exacerbate teachers’ workloads –extending working hours into what might previously be considered ‘leisure time’, and intensifying the amounts of work expected to be done (Selwyn et al. 2017, Pollock & Hauseman 2018). Seemingly ‘automated’ and ‘datadriven’ processes actually require considerable amounts of behind-the-scenes work from teachers in order to ensure the continued functioning of systems, as well as the production of data and other inputs (Selwyn 2021, Grant 2018)

v) Digital technology use often results in broad consequences that stretch beyond matters of ‘learning’

The increased use of digital technology is often also linked to other issues far beyond immediate concerns of the individual student or classroom – such as the data protection implications of student data being sold to third parties. Indeed, the intentions of software vendors and system providers are often driven by non-educational concerns related to commercial profit-driven imperatives or technological efficiencies.

vi) Any ‘impacts’ are context-specific and tied with socio-technical factors

Many of the ‘outcomes’ and ‘effects’ of technologies in education are influenced heavily
by the local contexts and cultures that these technologies are used in. In this sense, any outcomes of digital technology use in education are certainly not consistent, and there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ way that technology should be used in education. studies by the likes of Morgan Ames (2019) and Christo Sims (2017) have shown, edtech innovators and developers can often be led by cultural assumptions that fit more closely with North American ‘tech culture’  than the local social and cultural conditions in which their products are being used. Sims contends that, as a result, edtech interventions can often mis-construe (and often under-estimate) the education ‘problems’ that they have identified because they approach education through a technical mind-set – leading to a ‘tunnel vision’ where attention is only paid to aspects of education that fit with the tools that are being developed and the personal educational experiences of those that are developing them. As such, it is important not to treat digital
technology as somehow separate from the social, economic, political, cultural and historical conditions that it is developed, produced and used within. Instead, digital technology use in education needs to be understood along ‘sociotechnical’ lines.

Digital technology and education futures – key questions and challenges

In assessing the potential role and impact of this next wave of educational technology, the non-naïve
educational policy maker, mindful of the mixed outcomes of previous interventions, might therefore as a range of important, but often overlooked, questions:

  • How might these emerging technologies interact with the existing social contexts of education?
  • What assumptions about learning and teaching processes drive these technologies, and what forms of learning will therefore be valued or ignored? What evidence is there to support their impact on learning?
  • What non-educational consequences might result from these technologies – especially in terms of inequalities, impact on teachers’ work, or other ways of altering the character and conditions of education?

They may also and quite reasonably, proceed from the assumption that the proposed forms of digital education might not be conducive to fulfilling the goal, for example, of creating an educational system that ‘can contribute to the common good of humanity’.

Learning is fundamentally not an individual activity – it requires encounters
with others, engagement with difference and challenging ideas, and the development of the capacity to learn in and as part of a society. The significant and now well-documented ‘learning losses’ and social impairments arising from the closure of schools during the pandemic, provide a robust case for the limits of individualised learning.

How can we reimagine forms of technology engagement in education that are founded
upon values of collectivity, community and conviviality?

The next generation of educational technologies oriented towards individualized encounters with ‘intelligent’ and ‘responsive’ information systems reproduces a long-standing trope in visions of future education – namely, the potential of creating technology-driven education that does away with the need for the oversight of expert professional teachers.

This raises a challenge: how can we reimagine forms of technology use in education that are explicitly designed to work alongside and enhance the resources available to professional teachers rather than seeking to deprofessionalize and displace them?

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