Is Technology Good for Education?

Review of the book by Neil Selwyn

An answer to the often breathless and relentless drive for technology in our schools; this book pulls together some serious concerns and offers an interesting perspective.

Each chapter reviews the issues, asking key questions and illustrating ideas which impact on all areas of education. These are often side effects of the increase in technology in our society, often unintended consequences on our education system. There can be no question that there has been a huge increase in digital technologies in all areas of our schools; communication methods with staff and parents; screen based resources; paperwork and data collection and learning tools. A clear view of the impact this is having is always welcome.

The chapter on data is particularly illustrative of this – there can be no doubt that the ease of which we can collect, analyse and review all kinds of data from education and schooling is directly connected to the technology we have at our disposal. You only need to think of the rise of Management Information Systems to realise this – imagine the DfE collecting the phonics check results 20 years ago? Or attendance figures? How easy is it now to do a school wide census of staff and pupils? The issue, Selwyn points out, is where the choices are made – technology has made it easier to collect some types of data, but where is the value? Who has dictated what data is valuable? Is it enough to suggest that just because we can collect these data, we should? A similar concern is raised at how technology is changing the curriculum – mentioning the rise in coding across both America and the UK and the drive from industry for this.

Other chapters question the impact technology has really had on education. Another much discussed subject and Selwyn summarises the issues well. Citing areas where digital technologies have had clear impact, although not perhaps in a way we would appreciate – for example Wikipedia and the value of knowledge, or the Silicon Valley money pumped into systems such as Google Apps. Meanwhile the ground-breaking transformation of education via ‘flipped classrooms’ or online access to courses such as MOOCS has not transpired in the way promised. Technology can often provide alternative methods of achieving the same ‘outcome’ – e.g. Digital portfolios or online records. Has it genuinely transformed anything? As Selwyn explains: our Victorian ancestors, whilst possibly disagreeing with our methods and control, would recognise our classrooms, resources and organisation of the school day.

Further chapters explore whether technology has made education fairer, the control of technology in education and the management of personalised learning with technology.

The book finishes by exploring what ‘good’ education actually is. This debate could be a completely new book and some ideas are skated over too quickly here. The problem remains that as a society we cannot agree about what the aims of education are. Accreditation? Socialisation? A key aim that Selwyn is trying to achieve is more critically aware debate about what we want from education and the role technology has in this. The books is a good start on that debate.

The role of end-user technologies also concludes as an area that could be improved, but this too is problematic. Selwyn talks about rather than expecting primary children to use office based software there should be more done to provide primary friendly software to achieve the same ends. Much more could be said about this – and I remember clunky, under-supported and poorly designed ‘children friendly’ software which created more problems that it solved. Meanwhile there is a disparity between primary and secondary with children needing to relearn operating systems and software.

Conclusions are reached at the end of the book. I would have liked a few more far reaching ideas from Selwyn – however the strength in this book is not in providing the answers but the questions. The differences in education technology across and within education systems is not really discussed either yet is a problem for many users of the technology. Teachers whom have to relearn systems when moving schools. Governments who expect all pupils to have a similar level of broadband access or parents who fail to safeguard technology access at home.

Schools often head blindly towards technology, this book provides a useful reality check on the reasons why.

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