Educational Technology – Increasing Inequality and Other Potential Problems

Does the increasing use of educational technology enhance the ‘learning experience’ for learners, or does it just reinforce existing social problems such as inequality of educational outcomes? Personally I’m sceptical about the benefits of educational technology. 

In its recent report, OFCOM describe young people as prolific users of digital media, with the vast majority of young people perceiving digital technologies in highly positive ways, and approximately 25% reporting that they see ICT as the key to their future career. (OFCOM 2013, see also Logicalis 2013).

This widespread enthusiastic adoption of digital technologies is met by equally enthusiastic encouragement by business leaders, many of whom voice optimism that such technologies can help maintain UK economic competitiveness in the global knowledge economy. Gantz and Reinsel (2012) for example note that CIOs, data scientists and digital entrepreneurs already know that there is huge, untapped potential in the rapidly expanding collection of digital bits, although this will require the tagging and analysing of big data if this is to be realised, while Lent (2102) suggests the long established blurring between consumption and production is accelerated by the web which opens up new capacities for self-generated value, pointing to a new entrepreneurial spirit amongst today’s younger generation, which should be embraced.

This optimism seems to be mirrored by the DFES1 which has an overwhelmingly positive view of the future role of ICT in schools and colleges, noting that it has transformed other sectors, and that pupils need ICT to equip them with future-work skills. In DFES literature, ICT seems to be presented as a neutral set of technologies through which individual students can be empowered, with emphasis on the benefits such technology can bring to schools, such as more personalised learning, better feedback, a richer resource base and the possibility of extending the learning day.

Following Ball (2013) this optimistic tone surrounding ICT fits with the neoliberal reorientation to economic global competitiveness as part of a global flow of policy based around a shift towards a knowledge based high skills economy, and in terms of broader (‘classic’) sociological theory these optimistic voices correspond to the largely optimistic theories of disembedded individualisation (following Dawson 2012) originally advanced by Giddens and Beck in early 1990s, in that digital technology is constructed as something which can enhance the capacity for young people to employ agency and craft innovative transitional choice-biographies (Giddens, 1991, p5, Beck 1992, p135-6). If there is any truth in this, we should, over the next few years, see several hundreds of thousands of young digital entrepreneurs engaging in cyber-reflexivity and creating innovative online solutions to the systemic problem of decreasing youth employment opportunities, irrespective of their class-location (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, 2002, p39).

There are, however, several factors which suggest that this vision of the (dismebedded) individualised cyber-reflexive entrepreneurial future is either naive or ideological. Firstly, the extent to which today’s so called ‘digital natives’2 are genuinely innovative digital entrepreneurs rather than simply being ambivalent-consumers of digital products remains unclear3; secondly, cyberspace is far from a neutral arena, in reality I think it is more accurate to view it as a field of action in which the type of agency employed (e.g. whether productive/ entrepreneurial or banal/ consumptive) will be influenced by factors such as cultural capital and social networks; thirdly, this vision overplays the actual opportunities available for using digital media as a route to career success or self-employment – for example little mention is given to the problematic fact that millions of young people in Asia will be entering the ‘flat’ digital-labour market in the coming decade, able to survive off much lower returns than their UK competitors; fourthly, there seems to little interest in operationalising what kind of opportunities will be opening up for digital entrepreneurs in the future – there may well be hundreds of thousands more 20-somethings with their own digital-companies by 2020, but it is uncertain what side of the high skills low skills informational economy (referred to by Apple 2012) the majority of tomorrow’s digital workforce will find themselves; and finally there is the possibility that this is the latest discourse innovation in the denigration of teachers and state education through constructing technologically reticent staff as a barrier to progress, as well as paving the way for further privatisation with the forthcoming renewal of the ICT curriculum being fully endorsed and part-authored by Google, Microsoft, and IBM4.

It is also the case that I see little evidence of digital innovation in my mundane workaday reality – instead what I mainly see is digital-addiction, banal banter, and browsing for shoes, with today’s digital youth seeming largely content to construct themselves through digital-consumption and self-expression. Many of today’s students attach huge significance to such aspects of their lives (browsing for clothes and shoes is a favoured activity in tutorial, as are discussions about the post-exam trip to Malia, photos from the previous year’s trips being standard as social networking profile pictures). It is also apparent that the mobile devices through which many young people access online culture are themselves fetish-objects, central to young people’s experience of being themselves (as researched by Jotham 2012), that young people generally remain uninterested or unable to engage with the more technical aspects of these technologies5 which might actually equip them with the skills to be digitally-entrepreneurial, and that mobile devices link young people to heavily commodified space (Bolin 2012) which connects users directly to corporate (read neoliberal) protocols (Snickars and Vonderau, 2012).

It follows that youth engagement with digital media seems much more likely to centre around what Kenway and Bullen (2008) call the corporate curriculum (2008) which normalises the libidinal economy, a hyperreal realm of carnivalesque jouissance fuelled by desires based on values associated with lifestyle commodity aesthetics rather than the work ethic or responsibility, with any sense of ‘digital entrepreneurship’ being limited to the self-conscious commodification of the self through personal branding via social networking sites (Marwick 2011).

I also think that many students struggle as a result of what Bauman (2013a, 2013b) refers to as the pointillist experience of time online… ‘marked as much by the profusion of ruptures and discontinuities…. more prominent for its inconsistency and lack of cohesion than for its elements of continuity and consistency…. broken up, or even pulverized, into a multitude of ‘eternal instants’. This concept has been developed by Niehaus (2012), exploring what he calls ‘iTime’, describing this experience as being structured by an addictive hunt for frissons, short instants of excitement and pleasure; with each moment ever-more packed with contents, references, and tasks which taken together are likely to take precedence over the linear, single-minded time of one activity.’ This process is likely to be accelerated through multitasking, through which 16-24 year olds manage to squeeze in the equivalent of 9 hours and 30 minutes of data consumption per day (as noted by Davis 2013).

According to Bauman (2013b), those young people who are distracted by pointillism and the jouissance of the corporate curriculum, engaged in what he would call ‘banal’ cyber-reflexivity, are afflicted with a ‘fatal coincidence of the compulsion/ addiction of choosing with the inability to choose’, and if Bauman is correct, those who are more engaged with such aspects of digital media are probably less-likely to have thought about their long-term futures, and be less able to construct the kind of entrepreneurial ‘choice’-biographies that DFES champion (Bauman, 2012).

While there is a lack of critical research available on the use of digital media in an educational context (as Selwyn 2014 notes), there is some evidence that higher levels of ‘social’ use of digital technologies could be correlated with lower levels of engagement  with educational opportunities. Fisher’s (2009) personal experience of teaching in an FE college was that FE students who were heavy users of communications technologies were more likely to get bored of standard, offline lessons, Junco (2011) has theorised that the negative correlation between the frequency of posting updates on Facebook and final GPA could have been due to due to cognitive overload, given that the former variable was not negatively correlated with time spent engaged in college work, while Hall and Baym’s (2012) analysis of mobile maintenance expectations uncovered that once established mobile technologies can encourage high levels of ‘mundane maintenance’ to meet communicative obligations within a friendship group.

Possible avenues for research….

There’s definitely scope for further research to examine the extent to which student use of digital technology6 encourages the production neoliberal subjectivties, and the scope for and meaning of resistance to such subjectivities. One possible avenue might be to look at the extent of ‘digital entrepreneurship’ (for example, ability to code and create software or use software to generate innovative products) compared to other more common uses of digital media (such as information-seeking, maintaining social networks and game-playing).

My own feeling is that it would be useful to employ Bauman’s theoretical framework7 to explore the extent to which different forms of (socially embedded) digital-reflexivities stratify young people into (different types of) digital-producers and digital-consumers, although there is potential for this to be a ‘sociology of education’ type study, which might usefully draw on the theoretical work of Bordieu, exploring how digital reflexivities are embedded in social networks and influenced by cultural capital, and how these reflexivities influence students’ ability to meet the performative demands of further education.

Works cited

Apple,M (2010) Global crises, social justice and education, Routledge: New York.

Ball, S (2013) The education debate, Kindle Edition.

Bauman, Z (2013a) Dividing time, or Love’s Labour’s Lost, Thesis Eleven 2013 118: 3

Bauman, Z (2013b)  The art of life, Kindle Edition (originally published 2008).

Bauman, Z (2012) On education: Conversations with Riccardo Mazzeo, Polity Press: Cambridge.

Beck, U (1992) Risk society: towards a new modernity, Sage: London.

Beck, U and Beck-Gernsheim, E (2002) Individualisation, Sage: London.

Bolin, G (2012) Personal media in the digital economy, in Snickars, P and Vonderau, P (2012) Moving data: The iphone and the future of media, Columbia University Press: New York.

Davis, M (2013) Hurried lives: Dialectics of time and technology in liquid modernity. Thesis Eleven 118:7.

Dawson, M (2012) Reviewing the critique of individualization: The disembedded and embedded theses. Acta Sociologica 55: 305.

Fischer, M (2009) Capitalist realism: Is there no alternative? Kindle Edition.

Gantz, J and Reinsel, D (2012) The digital universe in 2020: Big data, bigger digital shadows, and biggest growth in the far east, IDC. (Accessed online January 25/ 2014 – http://www.emc.com/leadership/digital-universe/iview/index.htm).

Giddens, A (1991) Modernity and self identity: Self and society in the late modern age, Polity: Cambridge.

Hall, J and Baym, N (2012) Calling and texting (too much): Mobile maintenance expectations, (over)dependence, entrapment, and friendship satisfaction. New Media and Society 2012 14: 316.

Jotham, V (2012) iSpace? Identitiy and space – A visual ethnography with young people and mobile phone technologies. PhD Thesis, University of Manchester, Faculty of Humanities.

Junco, R (2011) Too much face and not enough books: The relationship between multiple indicies of Facebook use and academic performance. Computers in Human Behaviour, 28: 1 (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0747563211001932, accessed 24/01/ 2014).

Kenway, J & Bullen, E (2008) ‘The global corporate curriculum and the young cyberflaneur as global citizen’ in Dolby, N & Rizvi, F (eds.) Youth moves – Identities and education in global perspectives, Routledge, New York.

Lent, A (2012) Generation enterprise: The hope for a brighter economic future, the RSA. (http://www.thersa.org/action-research-centre/enterprise-and-design/enterprise/enterprise/generation-enterprise, accessed 25/ 01/2014.)

Livingstone, S (2008) Taking risky opportunities in youthful content creation: teenagers’ use of social networking sites for intimacy, privacy and self-expression, New Media and Society, 10: 293.

Logicalis (2013) Realtime generation (http://www.uk.logicalis.com/knowledge-share/reports/real-time-generation-2013/, accessed 22/01/ 2014).

Marwick, A (2011) I tweet honestly, I tweet passionately: twitter users, context collapse, and the imagined audience, New Media and Society, 13: 114.

Niehaus, N (2012) Whenever you are, be sometime else’. A philosophical analysis of smartphone time (https://www.academia.edu/3664754/Whenever_you_are_be_sometime_else._A_philosophical_analysis_of_smartphone_time, accessed 22/ 01/ 2014).

Selwyn (2014) Making sense of young people, Education and digitial technology: The role of sociological theory. Oxford Review of Education 38:1.

1http://www.education.gov.uk/schools/teachingandlearning/curriculum/a00201823/digital-technology-in-schools accessed 16/01/2104, updated 18 October 2013

2Despite the fact that recent research by the Open University suggests the concept bears no relation to empirical reality, the DFES and business analysts still seem all too willing to use it.

3 In my own college, reporting of 60+ hours a week use of digital-media is not uncommon, but the majority seem to simply use digital media for communication with significant-peers, entertainment or consumer-related information-seeking purposes, and thus it seems likely that most 16-19 year olds are currently more accurately characterised as digital-consumers rather than genuinely innovative digital-producers/ or a range of diverse prosumer hybrids.

4https://www.gov.uk/government/news/harmful-ict-curriculum-set-to-be-dropped-to-make-way-for-rigorous-computer-science DFES 11/01/2012, accessed 16/01/2013

5for example, Livingstone (2008) reported that teenage users of a variety of social networking sites were unsure of what aspects of their profiles were private, which requires a ‘deeper’ level of technical awareness than that required to maintain a profile, but in itself is hardly a ‘deep’ level of technical knowledge.

6I use the term broadly at this stage, although I realise I may need to limit the study to certain types of digital-engagement.

7If that’s even possible given his love of ambivalence?

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