Critical digital illiteracy – reading about EdTech

Posted: June 12, 2020 in Discourse, ed tech, investment, Online learning, politics, research
Tags: , , , , , , ,

The ‘Routledge Handbook of Language Learning and Technology’ (eds. Farr and Murray, 2016) claims to be ‘the essential reference’ on the topic and its first two sections are devoted to ‘Historical and conceptual concepts’ and ‘Core issues’. One chapter (‘Limitations and boundaries in language learning and technology’ by Kern and Malinowski) mentions that ‘a growing body of research in intercultural communication and online language learning recognises how all technologies are embedded in cultural and linguistic practices, meaning that a given technological artefact can be used in radically different ways, and for different purposes by different groups of people’ (p.205). However, in terms of critical analyses of technology and language learning, that’s about as far as this book goes. In over 500 pages, there is one passing reference to privacy and a couple of brief mentions of the digital divide. There is no meaningful consideration of the costs, ownership or externalities of EdTech, of the ways in which EdTech is sold and marketed, of the vested interests that profit from EdTech, of the connections between EdTech and the privatisation of education, of the non-educational uses to which data is put, or of the implications of attention tracking, facial analysis and dataveillance in educational settings.

The Routledge Handbook is not alone in this respect. Li Li’s ‘New Technologies and Language Learning’ (Palgrave, 2017) is breathlessly enthusiastic about the potential of EdTech. The opening chapter catalogues a series of huge investments in global EdTech, as if the scale of investment was an indication of its wisdom. No mention of the lack of evidence that huge investments into IWBs and PCs in classrooms led to any significant improvement in learning. No mention of how these investments were funded (or which other parts of budgets were cut). Instead, we are told that ‘computers can promote visual, verbal and kinaesthetic learning’ (p.5).

I have never come across a book-length critical analysis of technology and language learning. As the world of language teaching jumps on board Zoom, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, Skype (aka Microsoft) and the like, the need for a better critical awareness of EdTech and language learning has never been more urgent. Fortunately, there is a growing body of critical literature on technology and general education. Here are my twelve favourites:

Big Data in Education1 Big Data in Education

Ben Williamson (Sage, 2017)

An investigation into the growing digitalization and datafication of education. Williamson looks at how education policy is enacted through digital tools, the use of learning analytics and educational data science. His interest is in the way that technology has reshaped the way we think about education and the book may be read as a critical response to the techno-enthusiasm of Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier’s ‘Learning with Big Data: The Future of Education’ (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014). Williamson’s blog, Code Acts in Education, is excellent.


Distrusting Educational Technology2 Distrusting Educational Technology

Neil Selwyn (Routledge, 2014)

Neil Selwyn is probably the most widely-quoted critical voice in this field, and this book is as good a place to start with his work as any. EdTech, for Selwyn, is a profoundly political affair, and this book explores the gulf between how it could be used, and how it is actually used. Unpacking the ideological agendas of what EdTech is and does, Selwyn covers the reduction of education along data-driven lines, the deskilling of educational labour, the commodification of learning, issues of inequality, and much more. An essential primer.



The Great American Education Industrial Complex3 The Great American Education-Industrial Complex

Anthony G. Picciano & Joel Spring (Routledge, 2013)

Covering similar ground to both ‘Education Networks’ and ‘’ (see below), this book’s subtitle, ‘Ideology, Technology, and Profit’, says it all. Chapter 4 (‘Technology in American Education’) is of particular interest, tracing the recent history of EdTech and the for-profit sector. Chapter 5 provides a wide range of examples of the growing privatization (through EdTech) of American schooling.



Disruptive Fixation4 Disruptive Fixation

Christo Sims (Princeton University Press, 2017)

The story of a New York school, funded by philanthropists and put together by games designers and educational reformers, that promised to ‘reinvent the classroom for the digital age’. And how it all went wrong … reverting to conventional rote learning with an emphasis on discipline, along with gender and racialized class divisions. A cautionary tale about techno-philanthropism.



Education Networks5 Education Networks

Joel Spring (Routledge, 2012)

Similar in many ways to ‘’ (see below), this is an analysis of the relationships between the interest groups (international agencies, private companies and philanthropic foundations) that are pushing for greater use of EdTech. Spring considers the psychological, social and political implications of the growth of EdTech and concludes with a discussion of the dangers of consumerist approaches to education and dataveillance.




Stephen J. Ball, Carolina Junemann & Diego Santori (Routledge, 2017)

An account of the ways in which international agencies, private companies (e.g. Bridge International Academies, Pearson) and philanthropic foundations shape global education policies, with a particular focus on India and Ghana. These policies include the standardisation of education, the focus on core subjects, the use of corporate management models and test-based accountability, and are key planks in what has been referred to as the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM). Chapter 4 (‘Following things’) focusses on the role of EdTech in realising GERM goals.


Education and Technology7 Education and Technology

Neil Selwyn (Continuum, 2011)

Although covering some similar ground to his ‘Distrusting Educational Technology’, this handy volume summarises key issues, including ‘does technology inevitably change education?’, ‘what can history tell us about education and technology?’, ‘does technology improve learning?’, ‘does technology make education fairer?’, ‘will technology displace the teacher?’ and ‘will technology displace the school?’.



The Evolution of American Educational Technology8 The Evolution of American Educational Technology

Paul Saettler (Information Age, 2004)

A goldmine of historical information, this is the first of three history books on my list. Early educational films from the start of the 20th century, educational radio, teaching machines and programmed instruction, early computer-assisted instruction like the PLATO project, educational broadcasting and television … moving on to interactive video, teleconferencing, and artificial intelligence. A fascinatingly detailed study of educational dreams and obsolescence.


Oversold and Underused9 Oversold and Underused

Larry Cuban (Harvard University Press, 2003)

Larry Cuban’s ground-breaking ‘Teachers and Machines: The Classroom Use of Technology since 1920’ (published in 1986, four years before Saettler’s history) was arguably the first critical evaluation of EdTech. In this title, Cuban pursues his interest in the troubled relationship between teachers and technology, arguing that more attention needs to be paid to the civic and social goals of schooling, goals that make the question of how many computers are in classrooms trivial. Larry Cuban’s blog is well worth following.


The Flickering Mind10 The Flickering Mind

Todd Oppenheimer (Random House, 2003)

A journalistic account of how approximately $70 billion was thrown at EdTech in American schools at the end of the 20th century in an attempt to improve them. It’s a tale of getting the wrong priorities, technological obsolescence and, ultimately, a colossal waste of money. Technology has changed since the writing of this book, but as the epigram of Alphonse Karr (cited by Oppenheimer in his afterword) puts it – ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’.



Teaching Machines11 Teaching Machines

Bill Ferster (John Hopkins University Press, 2014)

This is the third history of EdTech on my list. A critical look at past attempts to automate instruction, and learning from successes and failures as a way of trying to avoid EdTech insanity (‘doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results’). Not explicitly political, but the final chapter offers a useful framework for ‘making sense of teaching machines’.



The Technical Fix12 The Technical Fix

Kevin Robbins & Frank Webster (Macmillan, 1989)

Over thirty years old now, this remarkably prescient book situates the push for more EdTech in Britain in the 1980s as a part of broader social and political forces demanding a more market-oriented and entrepreneurial approach to education. The argument that EdTech cannot be extracted from relations of power and the social values that these entail is presented forcefully. Technology, write the authors, ‘is always shaped by, even constitutive of, prevailing values and power distribution’.



And here’s hoping that Audrey Watters’ new book sees the light of day soon, so it can be added to the list of history books!







  1. No mention of Martin Weller’s ’25 Years of Ed Tech’ ( AU Press, 2020) which I’m pretty sure I bought on your recommendation. It’s a history, but not uncritical, e.g. ‘It is difficult to argue that you make education more effective by knowing LESS about your students, but the usage of analytics comes with a host of issues that are complex to navigate. Probably more than any other ed tech application, learning analytics necessitates a moral philosopher or social scientist in the room alongside the developers.’

  2. “I have never come across a book-length critical analysis of technology and language learning.” I can’t think of anyone better qualified to write one, Philip, than you. In the meantime, the blog is doing a wonderful job. Thank you.

  3. Peter Pun says:

    ‘Distrusting…’ is a good read. I think Selwyn’s comments on a need for Edtech pessimism ring true. This idea of limitless potential for edtech is exhausting, and the marketing that accompanies some of is, well, I think it encourages me to pick holes actually! Judging by your review of VV recently I guess I’m not alone…

    Cheers, lots of ideas for further reading 🙂

    • philipjkerr says:

      Yes, it’s often the marketing that provokes me most. Whenever I am feeling too positive, I can always read the latest email from BETT to get my equilibrium back.

  4. […] Critical digital illiteracy – reading about EdTech […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s