Is Digital Technology Good for Education?

Digital technology is now an integral part of education. Devices such as tablets and smartphones are now common means of interacting with people, consuming media, interacting with institutions and generally living out many aspects of our daily lives.

These technologies have transformed the generation and communication of knowledge, and the way in which learning and understanding take place. In an organisational sense digital technologies are now central to the ‘formal’ organisation of education: free online courses have emerged to supplement and compete with traditional bricks and mortar institutions; national governments now spend billions on digital education resources and have ed tech policies and initiatives; and digital education is entwined with a global economics and politics and ongoing changes as to what counts for knowledge skills.

While it is teachers and students who have to use technology, much of the debate about ed tech takes place amongst those outside of education: Policy makers, industrialists and other influential actors outside of education often frame discussions about educational technology in dramatic terms of wide-scale educational reform, speculating on how ed tech might lead to major transformations such as doing away with teachers, schools and universities.

To what extent is digital technology actually changing education? Is this in our best interest? And How might the potential for radical change actually be realised?

Digital technology and social change

Discussions about digital technology are nearly always associated with doing things differently. Some envisage changes as being broadly positive with digital technologies being  associated with doing things cheaper, faster and more efficiently; others focus on the more negative aspects of social change – such as the idea of ‘google making us stupid’.

The potential of digital technologies to change education is imagined along a scale of modest improvement to wholesale revolution.

At the improvement end of the scale there is talk of:

  • ‘Improving learning’ – through making it more social, situated or authentic.
  • Improving learners – technology is described as enhancing, enabling, assisting, supporting and scaffolding learning.
  • Improving teachers – by expanding their capacity to teach, and making them more efficient
  • Increasing the relevance of education institutions – making them more relevant to society

At the transformation on end of the scale….

  • Courses being delivered online rather than face to face
  • Learning through playing games rather than being taught directly.

Tellingly, these changes are sometimes described in language borrowed from IT and compter engineering – for example ‘School 2.0’, and some commentators talk of ‘upgrading’ ‘hacking’ or ‘rebooting’ education.

All of these changes imply a recoding or re-scripting of the rules of education, with digital technology acting as a catalyst for change.

More extreme still is the idea that digital technology will lead to a wholesale revolution in education, with technology destabilising the formal educational establishment.

Some of the targets here include:

  • The school
  • The university
  • Formal examinations and qualifications
  • National curricula
  • Teachers and unions

These debates are framed in terms of empowering marginalised groups:

  • Individuals over institutions
  • Private markets over public sector monopolies
  • Outsiders over insiders.

A digital ‘fix’ for a ‘broken’ system?

One of the most significant aspects of ‘digital education’ is its discursive nature. In other words, the values and meanings that are attached to the idea of digital education could be seen as significant as any actual use of digital technology.

Despite some of the transformative claims attributed to digital technology there has been little rigorous evidence produced in the last 40 years of educational technology leading to sustained improvement of teaching and learning. Much of the rhetoric of digital education has proven frustratingly difficult to substantiate.

We are thus perhaps better of treating those descriptions of digital ‘revolution’, ‘transformation’ and ‘improvement’ as evocative and aspirational stories, rather than sober, objective and actual ongoing changes in education – as a space in which people voice their hopes and their fears, and we need to treat any claims attributed to educational technology with scepticism.

In this regard, it is worth paying attention to the prominent argument that digital technology can fix a broken, or outmoded education system:

The economist magazein for example recently turned its attention to the ‘reinvention of the university’ concluding that the internet will turn higher education upside down in the same way it has done with newspapers and book retailing.

Similarly, the media commentator Jeff Jarvis has proclaimed that ‘Education is one the institutions most deserving of disruption – and with the greatest opportunities to come out of it’.

Such statements constitute a direct challenge to the institutionalisation of education – to schools,  state run education systems and the agencies which surround them.

The Economist and Jarvis are by no means alone in voicing their concerns – it is now common to hear mention of education as being ‘broken’, or an obsolete product of a bygone era – with people speaking of the ‘industrial era classroom’, the ‘factory model school’ or ‘ivory tower’ universities –such manners of speaking which convey as sense of the mismanagement of education by monolithic institutions.

The criticisms levelled at  ‘traditional education’ are as follows:

  • The institutions are profoundly undemocratic, the power concentrated unfairly in the hands of elites – such as vice chancellors and university professors and unions.
  • They are inefficient and unresponsive,
  • The people who work in them are untrustworthy, self-serving and greedy.
  • There is a lack of creativity in designing curriculum content
  • There are entrenched problems such as truancy and the ‘school to prison pipeline’.

Martin Weller notes that the fact that education is broken has ‘become an accepted standpoint that is often stated as an irrefutable fact… from which all else follows, a sine qua non of educational revolution’.

Such prognoses tend to be advanced by those outside of the education system who are seeking reform from the various perspectives of the free market, libertarianism, home-schooling, child-centred learning and so on.

As Weller observes, whatever perspectives these criticisms start from, all such accounts are ‘manipulative’ and imply that education professionals cannot be trusted and that solutions require external agents are required to make changes.

For many of these commentators, digital technologies are seen as a means of shaking things up, sweeping away old regimes and remaking education provision in forms fit for the twenty-first century, and over the years they have become associated increasingly with radical forms of educational innovation and upheaval.

Rather than taking such stories at face value, we should be more critical of them, as these are potentially big changes with big implications.

The inevitable digital change of education – reasons to be cautious

Firstly, we need to realise that claims about the need to fix or disrupt education are not value-free – they are linked to wider agendas

Second, we need to recognise the corporate, commercial and economically driven nature of much of the prevailing talk about disruption and deinstitutionalisation. While the greater involvement of the private sector in education is not necessarily a bad thing, history suggests that business ideals and the pursuit of profit do not always translate smoothly into education.

Third, history also reminds us that nothing is certain when it comes to educational change…. There might be unintended consequences (good or bad) from digital disruption.

Fourthly, we need to remember that the inclusion of more digital technology in education is not inevitable, and using ti more is not ‘common sense’. We don’t have to change anything!


We need to be sceptical about the grandiose claims made for the benefits of introducing more digital technology into education. Selwyn rounds off by suggesting that we ask the following questions:

  1. What is actually new hear
  2. What are the second order effects of change?
  3. What are the potential gains and losses?
  4. What underlying values and agendas are implicit?
  5. In whose interests does ed tech work?
  6. What are the social problems which digital technology is being presented as a solution to?
  7. How responsive to a ‘digital fix’ are these problems?


This is a summary of chapter 1 of ‘Is Digital Technology Good for Education (2016) by Neil Selwyn