Throwing the Learner Out With the Digital Bathwater

In an essay entitled, “Towards a Digital Sociology of Schools” Selwyn, Nemorin, Bulfin & Johnson make a convincing case for the need for this emerging discipline to explore some critical questions about schooling in the age of the internet:

  • What meanings and understandings of education are being conveyed through digital technologies?
  • What forms of educational engagement are being promoted through digital technology use in schools, and what forms are being obscured and silenced?
  • What freedoms and unfreedoms are associated with digital technology use in schools? How are these being experienced by different individuals and social groups?
  • Are all individuals self-responsibilized and empowered by technology use in schools?

The authors of the essay assert that, “a digital sociology of school should be driven by a state of perpetual unease and dissatisfaction with how things are. Digital sociology … involves an active and committed skepticism. The starting point for any discussion is therefore the suspicion that ‘everything is dangerous’.” While educators need to keep their eye on the macro implications of technology and the challenges associated with issues of access, data, equity and equality therein, we should not lose sight of the aspirations we have for our learners and the kinds of questions we are obligated to ask on their behalf. We need to be healthily skeptical about digital technology in schools, but we must be cautious of the assumption of inherent dangers.

Will Richardson challenges us to confront our moral obligation to learners, to ask questions, such as “why do we exist?” and “what is our value?”. In doing so, he distinguishes between “technical” vs. “adaptive” challenges that educational leaders face: “’Technical’ challenges are those when the problem definition, solution, and implementation are clear. These are not ‘new’ challenges, and they can be resolved by tapping into existing knowledge or experience. ‘Adaptive’ challenges, on the other hand, are not easily defined, and the solution and implementation require new learning of some type.” Education is frequently – and essentially – technical. But the very nature of education, its purpose and the realities of society would suggest that our adaptive needs should be greater, that our energies and focus as learning organisations need to shift more in this direction. We have a moral imperative that requires us to be literate and aware of the bigger issues posed by corporate technology movements, while also seeking adaptive solutions to the needs of our young people from their perspective. The relatively new discipline of Digital Sociology can potentially help us with this if the parameters are both critical and objective. As Selwyn and his colleagues have observed:

“Given the state of flux of many aspects of contemporary schools and schooling, the need for critical research to involve itself in the question of “where do we go from here?” is essential. There is little value in only pointing out that things are clearly not as good as they should be. A digital sociology of school is not an exercise in defending the status quo or denying the need for change.”

We clearly need disciplines and individuals that critically investigate the implications of the digital realities and challenges that schools must contend with. There is a clear and pressing need to counter rather than compound the dominant cultures of inequality that are an all-too-real part of the corporate digital agenda. But then there is the learning agenda itself. We must find ways to balance and regulate the ramifications of the societal challenges that educational technology pose, while also taking great care not to neglect the moral imperative to do what is best for learners. Most critically, we must find ways for these imperatives to co-exist and for students and teachers to benefit in the process. We must be critically honest, ethically vigilant, but not allow fear to stunt our ambition for students. We will need to bring our adaptive best selves to this challenge if we are to be successful.

Daniels, Jess & Gregory, Karen. Digital Sociologies. Policy Press, 2016.
Selwyn, Nemorin, Bulfin & Johnson. “Towards a Digital Sociology of Schools.” Digital Sociologies. Policy Press, 2016.
Richardson, Will. “Our Moral Imperative.” Modern Learners, February 26, 2018.