Don't believe the hype. John Potter welcomes a new book that questions assumptions about educational technology
Neil Selwyn is professor of education at Monash University in Melbourne and has just published his new book under the eye-catching title of Distrusting Educational Technology. Such a title will come as no surprise to those of us who have worked alongside him or followed his work in the past few years (since the days of Telling Tales on Technology in 2002).

As we have come to expect from him, it’s a detailed, scholarly and well-written piece of work which acts as a measured counterbalance to the wave of hype and largely unfulfilled promise of educational technology in the developed world.

Selwyn’s real achievement in this book is not so much in coming up with a provocative title or catchphrase as in providing the coherent and cogent material necessary to meet the aim of his subtitle, namely: “Critical questions for changing times”. Thus his book is grounded in a vast amount of reading and thinking about educational technology which takes in the histories and commentaries of the past 30 years and locates their key arguments within the frame of “distrust”.

For some readers it will be necessary to emphasise that this is not about being Luddite or adopting an anti-technology stance. It is about being critical and open to the notion that there are serious questions to be asked.

Why “distrust” educational technology? Anticipating the likely first question of a reader, Selwyn opens with a chapter which surveys the terrain of his arguments and sets out both the tone and the structure of the book. The critical questions he wants us to ask arise from the unique positioning of technology in education in which the notion of progress is seen as somehow both ineffable and inevitable. In these circumstances, distrust is a not only a kind of political choice, it is also an entirely logical one. Careful readers will note that Selwyn is not proposing a moratorium on buying and selling the solutions and tools of educational technology; instead, he is arguing for a detailed questioning of their place in the world, how they came to be there, how the various social actors may or may not profit or benefit from them.

Selwyn subjects four contemporary edtech themes to close scrutiny

In the main body of the book, Selwyn takes four contemporary educational technology visions and subjects them to close scrutiny. So we have chapters on distrusting the virtual, open, games and social technologies. In each case a rationale for distrust is provided which sets out key writers, texts and arguments in each of these fields. He invites us to weigh them up and debate some serious, emergent questions about our current and future direction of travel.

Such questions include but are not limited to the following: Does the “virtual” learning environment offer freedom or constraint, control and the restriction of learner agency? How does the “open” software movement really negotiate the promised transformation of education? In the promotion of social media in education, why is there such belief in the possibility of “radically different social arrangements and social relations” when all the evidence points the other way? Do “games” represent a useful challenge to patterns of thinking and knowing in education or simply introduce new layers of conservatism and compliance into the system?

By the close of the book these key areas for distrust have been problematised and synthesised into a rationale for thinking more carefully about “what digital technology is, and what digital technology is not; about what technology can do in education and what it cannot” (p.165). This book deserves to gain the widest possible audience among teachers, academics and those who work in the educational technology industry. It works against the collective amnesia which is endemic in educational technology research to remind us of key writers, thinkers and arguments; in weighing them up, this book provides a set of critical questions against which those endlessly deferred futures and promises could be measured.

Distrusting Educational Technology: Critical Questions for Changing Times
By Neil Selwyn (2014), published by Routledge as hardback, paperback or ebook. The paperback costs £24.99 direct from Routledge.

John Potter tumbnailDr John Potter is the author of Digital Media and Learner Identity: The New Curatorship and carries out research in the field of digital media and learner identity, especially as it relates to learning and teaching in home, school and informal settings of learning. He works at the London Knowledge Lab (part of the University of London's Institute of Education) which researches digital technologies and learning.