Getting Started with Selwyn’s “Distrusting Educational Technology”

Book Cover for Distrusting Educational Technology by Neil Selwyn (Routledge)
Book Cover for Distrusting Educational Technology by Neil Selwyn (Routledge)

This semester, I have shifted the focus for EDU 807 to begin immediately with more critical perspectives on educational technology. Over the past year, I have encountered the work of Neil Selwyn, and I am particularly interested in his 2014 book, Distrusting Educational Technology: Critical Questions for Changing Times. As a way to share some of my initial thinking on the book for my EDU 807 students, I plan to blog about it while we read together this semester.

As I initially read the ebook, I immediately appreciated his perspective. He argues in the fifth paragraph of the introduction that “[t]o put it in crude terms, educational technology could be observed to involve a hierarchy of actors and interests ranging from those who generally ‘do’ educational technology through to those who generally have educational technology ‘done’ to them”
(Selwyn, Distrusting Educational Technology. Routledge, 20131126, VitalBook file). From that opening attack, he reminded me of other authors willing to take on the education(al technology) establishment, including Joel Spring, Audrey Watters, and Stephen Downes. So, I was interested from the start.

I knew that I needed something different for my EDU 807 course (focusing on the broad goal of examining educational tools and technologies), and Selwyn’s book hit the mark, both in terms of topic and also because it lends itself well to jigsawing, as the middle chapters of the book take on four major issues: virtual, open, game, and social technologies. My students will choose one of those topics to dig into, creating a set of resources related to that issue. So, in preparation for that process, I will be blogging my way through my own re-reading of the book, and here are some initial thoughts on Selwyn’s approach.

From the Introduction: “Why Distrust Educational Technology?”

From the opening paragraph of the preface, Selwyn notes that he is “deliberately distrustful of the ongoing digitization of education provision and practice” and, in the next, notes the “gulf that persists between the rhetoric of how digital technologies could be used in education and the realities of how digital technologies are actually used in education” (emphasis in original, Selwyn, 20131126,  VitalBook file). Thus, from the get-go, Selwyn establishes his critical stance and deep concern about the ways in which our field typically describes and celebrates educational technology, inviting us to consider whether our expectations align with our reality. These are the kinds of questions that I appreciate most as a reader and scholar, so he had me hooked in these opening lines.

Before the end of the preface, he also describes the use of educational technologies as “a profoundly political affair — a site of constant conflict and struggle between different interests groups.” As someone deeply involved with and concerned about teacher education and professional development, these politics are ones that I find don’t get discussed enough. Though I am a strong advocate for resources that are inexpensive or, using the scare quotes intentionally, “free,” even before I got to Selwyn’s chapter on open source materials I began to think again about how I describe and use technologies in workshops and courses. Yes, I know that I have referred to some of them as “free,” and — if we’ve learned anything from the Facebook situation in the past two years — we know that nothing is ever without cost. Making these political aspects of ed tech use even more a part of my on-going dialogue with teachers and the doctoral students with whom I work is a distinct goal for reading Selwyn’s work.

As a final note from the Preface, I was compelled by Selwyn’s idea that “educational technology is not value-free but value-laden, and therefore something that can be trusted and distrusted, agreed and disagreed with. Second is the belief that the nature and form of educational technology are not predetermined and inevitable but negotiable” (emphasis in original, Selwyn, 20131126,  VitalBook file). The sad fact is that many educational technologies that exist are set out to solve specific problems (learning facts) with a pedagogical frame (usually a behaviorist or cognitivist one). While this is good to take the perspective that ed tech is mutable, I’m not so sure that this is the case with all ed tech. Yes, we could have teachers and students repurpose skill-and-drill software in creative ways, but that is different than starting with a tool designed specifically for creation rather than consumption.

All the same, Selwyn’s preface had already given me enough to chew on when I first encountered it that I knew this would be the new text for EDU 807. With class starting tomorrow, and our attention on Selwyn’s work coming in a few weeks, I will be writing more about the remaining chapters in the book over the next few days.

And, as one side note, I am finding it difficult to cite, specifically, where I found the information in the book. While I know that Kindle gives locations, the VitalBook file that I am reading does not. So, my apologies for not providing more direct citation info.


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Rethinking My Relationship with Ed Tech

So, with 2019 officially underway, I am hoping that today is the first day of a year that I spend (at least some) focused time blogging. I’ve been at this since 2006, and I’ve had good years and bad ones, productive blogging periods and deep fallows. While I am making nothing even close to a resolution that I will blog 365 consecutive days in 2019, I am hoping that I can increase the overall volume of blog posts by about 50%.

As of today, I stand at 492 published posts over the years, and in recent months I have been getting pretty skimpy in terms of what “counts” as a post, many of which consist of conference session slides and hyperlinks. That’s OK. Sometimes. So, too, are short missives on a news items. Sometimes. And, it’s not like everything that I write needs to be a long, rambling, philosophical treatise. Nor does it need to be a highly polished, essay-like post. But, it needs to be something. And, it needs to be something frequent.

In some ways, this is a silly goal. In 2019, I am working on three different book projects, at least two journal articles (right now), and any number of other items including a the development of a new course on digital and media literacy and a major report that I am working on for a professional organization. In short, there is plenty of writing to do. Blogging has always been the “enjoyable” writing that I would do once all the “required” writing is done.

But, much like I have reversed course in the past few months and repositioned exercise in my daily routine, I need to fit blogging squarely in each 24-48 hour cycle. Some days, the posts may be more substantive than others, but I can at least share a link to an article with some commentary. Sometimes, it may be ideas I am working through for my books, articles, or courses. Or, whatever. The point is that I need to write and get ideas moving.

A major theme, as indicated by the title, is that I will be making a conscious effort to reevaluate, rethink, revise… re-everything… my relationship with ed tech. To begin, I am introducing a new textbook into my EDU 807 course: Selwyn, N. (2013). Distrusting Educational Technology: Critical Questions for Changing Times. New York ; London: Routledge. Because we will be digging into that text fairly soon in the semester, I will make an effort to share some quotes and elaborate on Selwyn’s ideas.

Again, in order to add 50% to my blog in 2019, I would need post 246 times. Whew. I’ll cut myself some slack and aim for 200, looking at a post about once every other day. So, hooray… #1 (for 2019) is done, and I look forward to getting back into blogging over the next few days, weeks, and months. Happy 2019, everyone!


Photo by Kaitlyn Baker on Unsplash

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Rethinking a Wiki vs LMS for Course Design

CC0 Public Domain image by kaboompics on Pixabay.
CC0 Public Domain image by kaboompics on Pixabay.

Last year, when I first taught EDU 807, “Learning Tools in Education Technology,” one of my goals was to employ a wiki as a learning management system (LMS) so the doctoral students involved in the course could participate in a more open, collaborative form of social scholarship. I have long been an advocate of using wikis as an organizational space for my face-to-face classes and in professional development workshops, and it made sense to me that students involved in a doctoral program about educational technology tools would be able to adapt the wiki for their own uses as individuals and in small groups, and to collaborate in innovative ways.

One of the other elements of this course was that I asked students – both individually and in small groups – to regularly move across a variety of educational technology tools. For instance, we used at least a dozen different technologies including the wiki, Google Docs, VoiceThread, Vialogues, and (the now defunct) Zaption. There was also an attempt to integrate Twitter as a back channel conversation throughout the semester.

The ideal, however, met the reality of teaching an online course to busy professionals, and the struggle to move between spaces began to cause confusion and frustration. For all of us, the management of so many different tools was a challenge: Where are we discussing the readings this week? What is due next? Where is the link for that article?

My end-of-semester course evaluations reflected the types of concerns that students felt as they moved across so many tools in such quick succession. While they generally enjoyed and appreciated the course, it was clear that using the wiki in the way that I envisioned was one step too many, even for students in a doctoral program exploring ed tech. Sadly, our attempts to make use of the wiki on a regular basis quickly fell to the wayside. Also, as an instructor, I struggled to keep a balance with students turning in their work, providing feedback, updating the online gradebook in our normal LMS, Blackboard, and – on top of that – managing revisions and late assignments.

In short, my best efforts at using the wiki as an open, collaborative space for students to generate their own shared understandings of the course material and to create social scholarship became an unnecessary burden. In rethinking the course for this spring, then, I struggled to figure out how I would push back against the practices and discourses of the standard course management system while, at the same time, updating my course for this spring so as to avoid massive confusion on behalf of my students.

Hence, I am returning to our university’s LMS as the “hub” of our course activities. I struggle with this for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that I’m trying to teach doctoral students how to employ a variety of educational technology tools – building on collaborative, open source ethos – and yet I must return to an LMS that has a decidedly centered to the tool. I also struggle because I want students to know that social scholarship (openness, collaboration, messiness) does not always work on distinct the context of “taking” a course (modules, assignments, grades).

However, I will keep the idea of being “open” moving forward by asking students to blog on a regular basis, as well as to post additional course assignments as artifacts on their own digital portfolios. Also, we will use Twitter as a way to comment upon one another’s work, as well as to share ideas from other scholars.

I am not particularly pleased about having to give up on using a wiki, and yet at the same time I think by centralizing and streamlining many of the more mundane class activities in the LMS, I will be better able to help my students focus on broader goals of social scholarship and critically evaluating educational technologies. So, wish me luck as I reboot EDU 807 this semester!


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