critical thinking about digital learning

Digital citizenship, Politics of ed tech

Ed Tech and the circus of unreason



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Update 20 November

I’ve been quite overwhelmed by the response to this post. Thank you to everyone who took the time to comment or to contact me via twitter or other channels. The text will be annotated live on 30 November and asynchronously over the following days, thanks to the wonderful people at Marginal Syllabus, whose interest and support has been deeply touching. Clicking on the link will take you to an introduction and instructions on how to participate. I’ve also been asked to share these thoughts in other settings, which will appear here when finalised.

I am writing a collective response to some of the comments I have received, but the conversation continues below. Thank you for reading/responding.

Original post

I’d been writing a different blog post – in response to Martin Weller’s nice rant about the unenlightenment – but before I could finish it, a deeper darkness had descended.

Contributions from our community have made chinks of light, such as Martin’s ‘Acts of Resistance’, Digital Pedagogy Lab’s call to ‘make space for other kinds of work‘ in these dangerous times, and Lorna’s shout of rage from The Wrong Side of History. These were personal calls to us as human beings, which are what really matter. Thank you to everyone whose posts, tweets, emails and comments have helped remind us that we are human beings first, that the work of politics is more important right now than what we do in our day jobs, and that the work of loving each other is part of it.

But today I feel brave enough to peep through my fingers at something else we share, beyond our humanity: I’m going to wonder whether there is any role that educational technology might have played, or played differently, and what our responsibilities are now that the festival of democracy that the internet promised has descended into a circus of unreason. I’m sorry if this upsets some people. I’m not trying to make any of us feel worse (is that even possible…?) or bring more blame into the world. God knows we need to sustain the mutual care that has come pouring out in the last few days. But we also need to think and question and explore and understand, so that we can take up our particular responsibilities as educators as well as our general responsibilities as human beings. I might be wrong in my thinking, but I’m not going to stop thinking and putting it out there because that too, is an act of resistance.

A couple of years ago I convened a symposium on Educational Technology and Crisis with John Traxler, in which we asked the same question about responsibility. Beyond our analysis, which was published as one of 2015’s Grand Challenges in TEL, the connections that were made at that meeting have played out as positive actions and projects around the world (such as this project on unbundling higher education).

Among the crises we talked about was the ‘crisis of democracy’, but I don’t think any of us foresaw the speed with which this would unfold in the West. It’s in the face of this crisis that I want to call out educational technology today.

Responsibility 1: e-learning must address educational inequalities

It is no small thing for democracy that we live in an age of abundant information, including some of the most intellectually and commercially valuable knowledge on the planet. But access to this knowledge rarely means educational success – the kind that transforms opportunity –  for people who lack other educational capital. When the barrier to access is lowered to zero, other kinds of inequality determine who will benefit.

Educational and digital capital mirror the distribution of other opportunities in society. No-one should imagine this is a simple or tractable problem. But sometimes we have been guilty of pretending that it is, and that technology is the answer. Let’s put computers into slums and poor schools and people will pull themselves out of poverty. Let’s upload our materials and call it open learning, regardless of whether anyone is being helped to overcome the many barriers to success. Let’s insist that ten percent of learning in the FE sector is delivered online while cutting the budget by a third – that’ll work out just fine. Let private online providers flourish unregulated (Trump University was more of an online sales scam, but other for-profits are celebrating his win). Because even poor quality learning that exploits people’s aspirations is better than nothing, right?

The Tinder Foundation is really doing something about people’s digital skills. Thanks to Tinder, tens of thousands of people can now participate in the digital society, and many have progressed into employment or learning. But Tinder haven’t done this just by putting stuff online. They’ve done it by reaching out through 5000 community partners and access points, through trade unions and housing associations. They’ve done tough, on-the-ground community work and provided the one-to-one support. That’s democratic work.

I pointed out in an earlier post that education was a significant factor in determining how people voted in the EU referendum. In the 2016 US presidential race, educated voters (those with some college level education) preferred Clinton by a margin of 9 points, compared with uneducated voters who preferred Trump by a margin of 8. Uneducated white voters turned out 67% for Trump and only 28% for Clinton. The Pew Foundation report says ‘This is by far the widest gap in support among college graduates and non-college graduates in exit polls dating back to 1980.’

So in a culture where everyone has access to information 24/7, the political divide between educational have and have-nots is getting wider. Of course political choice is not (only) a rational, evidence-based process. So let’s put that another way: in a culture where everyone has access to values-based conversations, people above and below the median level of formal education are joining different conversations. Whether because it provides a grounding in evidence-based decision making, or exposes people to particular values, education plays an important role in how we vote. It’s not patronising to say that. It’s doesn’t negate the very complex reasons that all of us cast a vote one way or another, or imply that people who disagree with me are stupid. But if we really believe that education has nothing to offer in terms of how we participate in democratic society then let’s stay at home people, let’s find different work to do. If we really believe that, we have to explain why the Trump and Brexit campaigns were so openly and explicitly hostile to education and to the educated.

If we want to live in a liberal democracy, it’s not enough that some of us are media literate, or have an understanding of how statistics work, or can use our shared resources of historical, political and economic thought to think critically about the modern world. It’s not enough that some of us feel a stake in the future of our society and its institutions. Above all, it’s not enough that some of us have been exposed to the opinions and experiences of people very different to ourselves – in a supportive, developmental, educational setting that helps us to deal with the challenges of difference and emerge with deeper understanding rather than entrenched prejudice. For liberal democracy to work, that number needs to be closer to 100%.

The internet offers perhaps our first, best chance in history to distribute those social goods universally. (Worth mentioning here an earlier blog post I wrote about digital citizenship education). Let’s remember that was the promise. Not the freedom to order white goods in the small hours, or to spit bile below the line when any liberal (especially non-white, especially female) person feels empowered to speak. But it’s overwhelmingly the people who are already educationally successful who are learning successfully online, at least in ways that have an impact on our worldview and life chances. How are we going to ensure that everyone in our society can benefit from the knowledge that is there in abundance? How are we going to develop everyone as  independent learners and critical thinkers and interconnected citizens? That should be the only question we ask of e-learning now.

Responsibility 2: let’s be clear what disruptions we are working for

Many people – perhaps the majority at most educational technology conferences – are trying to keep the show on the road. Their best hope for the working day is that they can make someone’s learning easier or more accessible, against whatever resource constraints they’ve got. But that isn’t the mood music of the edtech gurus and the industry that has grown up around them. I’m talking about the unthinking, unfailingly positive use of the words ‘Disruption!’ ‘Transformation!‘ and ‘Innovation!‘.  The eternal referencing of Illych’s ‘deschooling’ meme – an essential diagnosis of what goes wrong for individuals when their learning is standardised, credentialised  and consumerised, but a poor analysis of what we should do about it collectively.

If we want to widen participation in learning, as a society, we have to build organisations that are going to persist with that goal, from place to place and from year to year, across social strata and special interest groups. We need universal, publicly-funded education that is less penetrated by market forces and values, less obsessed with measuring ‘outcomes’, less oppressive and more playful – for everyone. Finland is one example of where they’ve got this right. If we weaken the public institutions that – however flawed – are our only hope for democratising access to opportunity, we give up on living in a fair society.

You’ll notice that I use the word ‘public’ a lot. Public institutions have not always been quick to respond to change, especially change at the speed that the tech industry can generate. But public institutions are under attack in the western world, from local authority education services to the judiciary and the rule of law. Supposing we tear them all down: what are we offering in their place? Crowd-funded welfare? A vote-on, vote-off celebrity supreme court? Public institutions provide the context in which we in education can innovate, build networks, and generate local solutions. In which there is space to do some of our work openly. In which we can organise against some of the institutions – let’s say copyright law, or the dead hold of the publishing industry – that genuinely hold back progress.

Convivial is Illych’s term for local, provisional groupings that create their own rules and contexts. And how we love convivial institutions in the ed tech community! We know them as networks, rhizomes, MOOCs, the ‘long tail’ of diverse opinions. They are non-hierarchical, or at least the hierarchies are unofficial (which can mean simply reproducing existing power relations). They agile. They are alternative. They fit with the counter-cultural, anarchism-lite that has been the prevailing politics of the tech industry since the year dot. Give me a provisional organisation any time I am organising a protest, or a development project, or a bit of voter intimidation. But provisional organisations are not inherently more progressive than formalised ones. Where has the populist right been organising, up until the moment they successfully took over the institutions we were so down on? Where have the conspiracy theories flourished, that have not unseated a single crooked politician that I know of, but have undermined the grounds for a rational political alternative? Those spaces.

The establishment is us – it is the embodiment of our history and culture, and that includes major victories for progress as well as the enduring power of markets and elites. Universal free public health, education and welfare, our shared legal framework for ensuring human and minority and workers’ rights. You don’t organise for and sustain those things without some big, clunky institutions. The establishment is the ‘resistance to change’ in professions such as teaching, that have built up over many years a set of values and practices against which innovations can be held up for scrutiny. You do away with that at your peril. There are any number of institutions I’d like to disrupt, but you have to choose your times, and your enemies, and your friends.

Today, the energy of disruption comes from the real elite, as a desire for the unfettered exercise of power and capital. A desire for disorder, so people look for strong leadership. It comes from a love of the free market, where alternative ideas can flourish in any corner they like so long as they can be monetised. Capitalism needs instability so there can be new markets.

Disruptive energy also comes from the opposite direction. People in many social classes and national polities have been left behind by globalisation. The wikipedia article on anti-globalization describes worldwide, grassroots campaigns against its effects, and helpfully distinguishes the movement against neo-liberal capitalism from the anti-globalisation goals of the far right: national protectionism and the return to older forms of entrenched privilege. But as this article indicates, some who are left behind turn against the  vulnerable rather than the responsible. They rage at women, minorities, migrants, gay and transgender people, people on benefits, the sick and disabled, Muslims, Mexicans, Eastern Europeans, all the ‘other’ people. They attack the weak, underfunded, tottering institutions that uphold the small gains we have made, rather than the institutions of the market – the bankers and hedge fund managers, the governing parties that are happy to turn to right wing demagogues when they feel their grip on power begin to weaken.

No, the left did not suddenly wake up this year to the risks of anti-establishment populism: see this prescient article by Richard Rorty, written in 1998, or much more recently, Michael Moore’s warnings that Trump would win. But now we must all defent establishments we have been critical of in the past.

Back to e-learning. When we start to organise learning / technology outside of the establishment (universities, colleges, libraries, curricula), we quickly find ourselves inside a different kind of established order: the order of the market. I defer to the tireless work of Audrey Watters to explain the workings of that market, at the meeting point of selling education and selling technology. Suffice to say that when we help students into those unregulated spaces where their learning is unfettered by institutional management systems, assessment deadlines and fair use rules, we are not sending them into the country of the free. We are sending them to the data warehouses of Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Weiner. We’re sending them into a world of increasingly de-regulated private learning, where the sales team at Trump University can promise you the educational sky if you are only willing to max out on your credit card. Let’s be very careful what disruptions and transformations we wish on them.

Responsibility 3: Let’s stop talking about the digital economy as though it’s going to fix everything

Last year I did a bit of research on the future of work to inform a new digital capabilities framework for Jisc. While I don’t believe that employability is the only purpose of education, I do think we should have a good reason for demanding changes to the curriculum, and the only defensible reason is that we can help learners to thrive in a future we have at least tried to imagine. I call it ‘research’, but no-one who looks into this question for five minutes can believe that the digital economy is going to replace the relatively well-paid jobs in manufacturing that have been lost in the last three decades, or restore cohesion to communities built around shared work in a particular location and sector. Nobody believes our native digital industries can mop up the middle class jobs that have been off-shored. Nobody thinks digital professionals are going to have a better work-life balance than the analogue generation.

There is nothing predetermined about the future of work: pundits are quick to see the promise of AI and slow to consider the impact of social and political movements. But most of us will not be bouncing around on a beanbag in the ‘ideas’ room of a digital start-up. We will be using our smartphones to sell ourselves piecemeal into the gig economy. Or working late into the evening to meet our (closely monitored) targets as a digital professional. Or volunteering as e-counsellors for people in our communities who have no prospect of ever being out of debt. Or quite possibly all three at once. We will have less job security and a worse work-life balance as digital practices blur the boundaries of labour and leisure. The automation of routine cognition (similar to the automation of routine physical tasks in the factory age) will free up a small number of people to work in creative and in leadership roles, but a larger number will provide the necessary human inputs to the automated workflows of routine service-sector labour. More than automation, off-shoring will continue to erode employment and wages in the previously wealthy west: but of course this latest phase of globalisation has been enabled by the digital revolution.

To thrive in these human-digital workflows, our students will need new kinds of resilience. They will need to master highly decentralised ways of working, across the boundaries of organisations and of professional roles. Digital reputation will be their most valuable asset, but they will only ever be as good as their last deliverable. They will need to organise in new ways, and reach out to other workers with common interests but no common employer or place of work. They will need to think – individually and collectively – about how to live a good life within these new freedoms and insecurities.

There is frankly no point teaching students the digital skills they need today unless we also teach them (or provide safe, thoughtful, challenging spaces in which they can develop for themselves) these new kinds of resilience. This new politics.

Responsibility 4: Every time we comment on the democratic potential of social media, let’s agree to say something about the risks

A few years ago I was on a panel with several students, holding forth about the benefits of  learning outside the ‘closed garden’ of the VLE and in the public spaces of the internet. One after another the students contradicted me. What they said, in effect was: These do not feel like safe spaces when you are developing your identity, your subject specialism, and your voice. These do not feel like safe spaces if you are female, or speak English as a second language, or have had negative experiences online. Please help us to do these things in safe spaces – until we are ready.

These were articulate final year students at a Russell Group university.

We don’t need to look very far for evidence that social media can be a risky space. Cyberbullying is endemic on our campuses and getting nastier, especially around issues of race, gender and LGBT identity. Since the Brexit and Trump victories, my social media feed has been full of people who have been trolled for the first time in their lives, warning each other not to tag, not to post, not to be visible, not to make themselves victims. (And yes, I do get that we can choose not to be visible, unlike the targets of race and gender and sexuality hatred on college campuses and in the streets.)

Far from connecting us with diverse others, social media can put us into echo chambers where our own values are confirmed and amplified, leading to liberal complacency (‘everyone thinks like us’) and illiberal ‘othering’ (‘everyone who doesn’t think like us is wrong/wicked/less than human‘). And the social media meme, with its bright flare and short half-life, is not easy to meet with critical argument, or later to hold to account. The Oxford Internet Institute, in its analysis of the role of social media in the Brexit campaign, has this to say:

The Leave campaigns acted like advertising campaigns… After the result, it transpired that there was no plan, no policy proposals, no exit strategy proposed by either campaign. The Vote Leave campaign was seemingly paralyzed by shock after the vote (they tried to delete their whole site, now reluctantly and partially restored with the lie on the side of the bus toned down to £50 million).

Our electoral system, for all its disastrous flaws (and first-past-the-post is only the most obvious of them) requires candidates to field a written manifesto. To speak to it in hustings, and to promise it will form the basis of their work in office. Nobody knows what Trump will actually do once he is in the Oval Office, or how our relationship with other European nations will be reframed now we have voted to part. All we have to go on were the campaigns themselves – the sound bites and the fury, the rumours and conspiracy theories and lies. Although the mainstream media were thoroughly complicit in this politics-as-spectacle, it is difficult to imagine how else they could have reported on these campaigns, or how else they could get the attention of a public for whom social media has become the preferred source of political news.

It is no coincidence that the key performers in this circus came to prominence through satire (Johnson) and reality TV (Trump). They are caricatures of themselves, beyond condemnation, beyond irony. People cheered and clicked and retweeted their gross sound-bites without necessarily expecting them to escape the echo chamber and be enacted in the real world. Which brings me to our final responsibility:

Responsibility 5: interrogating the ‘third space’: virtuality and it’s discontents

Like drone operators who sit in comfort a thousand miles from the scene of the killing, we vote at an apparently vast distance from the enactment of power. We might as well be computer gamers in a virtual polity for all the change we actually expect to happen. Of course the dissociation of voting from real power is a political problem – a sign of too little democracy or democracy of the wrong kind, rather than too much. (UK and US elections alike are decided on the basis of a few votes cast in marginal constituencies; in a global economy, elected governments operate within increasingly narrow constraints; local forms of accountability have been systematically underfunded and undermined). But it is also a cultural problem.  In digital space we are constantly choosing. Click and sign. Send a message. Vote x out of the tent/chair/jungle. We have the illusion of elective power but none of the responsibilities of citizenship.

Isolated, screen-bound, irresponsible, we collude with extreme forms of political expression. Whether our poison is below the line comments, Trump’s 3am tweets, rape threats to any women who dare to speak powerfully in public spaces, race hate, religious hate… it almost doesn’t matter whether we experience liberal horror or an upsurge of bigoted rage. We are adrenalised and hooked. Like the Jeremy Kyle Show we reckon that it’s half put-on for the audience anyway, and if it starts to get too real there’s always the forum moderator to press delete or the security guard to stand in the way. Nobody’s actually getting hurt. Nobody’s really being  oppressed. In the real world, it’s never going to happen. We saw that on the part of the mainstream media in both campaigns, who sometimes questioned the lies but were mainly too busy being ‘stunned’, ‘shocked’ and swept away by the sheer bloody spectacle of the circus.

In a piece about ‘virtual space’ that I wrote for John Lea’s Enhancing Learning and Teaching in HE, I explored how this space is ‘continuous or contiguous with the space our bodies inhabit’, how it is ‘brought into being through real-world labour and the consumption of real-world resources’. Transactions in virtual space, I said, ‘reproduce the inequalities, power dynamics and oppressive institutional practices of real-world space’. Surprise: voters on reality TV shows can be sexist and racist! (Spoiler: so can students filling out their evaluation surveys).

Here is Bob Jessop, who has put this better than I can.

‘Cyberspace is not a neutral, third space between capital and labour, market and state, public and private: it is a new terrain on which conflicts between these forces, institutions, and domains can be fought out.’

It’s not outside, and nor are we. Sign those petitions, promote those tweets, push those facebook notifications, comment on my post (please comment on my post!). They’re what keep us going and give us hope. But go outside as well. Join a party, join a movement, join your union, join a protest. Go to work and talk to your colleagues about what you think your responsibilities are, as an educator and/or technologist.

This has been a long post. Thank you for reading. I’m off outside now.


  1. thank you so much for this post Helen – so much in here echos my own thinking

  2. francesbell

    This is a comprehensive and brilliant post Helen – thank you. Some of it chimes with much of my own critique of social media, polarisation and my OER17 submission recently submitted. I particularly relate to responsibilities 4 and 5.
    I would like to draw attention to an issue I raised at your posting of this blog post on Facebook. I am not criticising your sharing of the post, I have noticed that I get more traction from blog posts shared o Facebook than on Twitter, and one of the main reasons that I haven’t left Facebook is that I would miss Paul Prinsloo’s fab shares there. The point I made your Facebook posting was that although we may attract more interactions on Facebook than at the blog, any comments there would soon be lost in the Facebook archive that is very difficult to search. This post is on the web whereas the set of interactions on Facebook isn’t and that’s part of what you say in this post Helen. In my OER17 submission I argue that we need to make social media platforms the subject of our critique, not just its location.

    • Thank you Frances, I agree that the medium is in this case a paradoxical part of the message. Perhaps I will collate and repost responses from FB into this space, with permission, in a small act of boundary-crossing.

  3. Great post, Helen. You’ve put your finger on a lot of things I’ve been feeling for a while.

    We’re all being dazzled by the shiny little lights from all directions – those in education are critically responsible for keeping our feet on the ground and arming our next generations with the mental tools that let us tiny humans deal with billions of voices.

  4. There’s a lot to think about here, thank you for taking the time to put this into writing Helen. Among our many failings I think we are all guilty of a degree of complacency; the belief that it won’t actually happen, that people won’t actually be that dumb will they? Believing that is a failure on our part and it’s a failure of complacency. And this is why we all need to educate ourselves to understand why it will happen and why “other” people behave the way they do.

    Thank you for linking to my blog post. The title, as I said, was the first thing my partner said to me the morning after the election. I didn’t quote it quite the way he said it though. What he actually said was “We’re on the wrong side of history. Again.” And really, when it comes down to it, it’s the “again” that’s important. If we don’t listen, learn and act, that “again” will keep repeating itself.

  5. What a superb post – well done Helen !

  6. jennymackness

    Thanks for this thought provoking post Helen. The comment that most resonated with me was

    “Far from connecting us with diverse others, social media can put us into echo chambers where our own values are confirmed and amplified, leading to liberal complacency (‘everyone thinks like us’) and illiberal ‘othering’ (‘everyone who doesn’t think like us is wrong/wicked/less than human‘).”

    I noticed on Twitter today that @ValdisKrebs has commented on Twitter’s advanced muting options saying “For filtering hate, but also difference? The deeper in the bubble you are, the more “protected” you feel.”

    On a personal level I haven’t yet worked out how to avoid the ‘hate’ and enjoy the protection whilst at the same time remaining open to difference, which we must do if we are not to get trapped in an echo chamber. I see echo chambers everywhere online, but remaining open to difference can lead to exclusion and loss of voice. It’s not easy to find the right balance.

  7. You are so right Helen, we need to go out and talk about what our responsibilities are as educators and technologists. The fast pace of change has meant that there have been very few moments to take stock and pause to consider the important issues you raise (or even identify them). Now is that time. But what concerns me is that we as a sector have carried out research, we have read the research and very little of the evidence has ever hinted at the crisis we are now facing and its relevance to education. Have we been asking the wrong questions? Are we searching in the wrong places for answers about what effective and responsible educational technology looks like? I did wonder if we need some sort of ‘Fair Trade’ equivalent for education where the responsibilities you outline can be integrated into a framework? It’s not an ideal solution but I mention it because it may be a starting point to consider what we do want.

    I ask not as a criticism of the published research, but as a response to Lorna’s point about how to avoid this happening ‘again’.

    • Sarah, this is exactly the point some of us were making when we met at the ARV in 2013 to ask what responsibility Ed Tech research and practice had for some of the crises that we see. Happily there are people publishing books and papers in this space – perhaps we should start a shared resource list or other people could point us to them? I will have a think about my top ten. A recent special issue of ILE drew heavily on the work we put together at ARV, and another one will be coming out in the new year (I have a piece about the future of work).

  8. Thank you for finding the words, Helen. I am still hunting for them. Your powerful post affirms many of my beliefs also re: what we do & why. Thanks so much, as ever, for all you do.

  9. Great post Helen and very timely for many of us, I think, given the need for clarion calls to regroup after a demoralising year.
    I echo your concerns about the ‘open and explicit’ hostility to education we have been seeing. I never expected to hear ‘sooooooooooo educated’ used as an insult or that being uniformed would be rebranded ‘plain-spoken’ and be seen as something to be proud of. Perhaps the most disturbing example of this was Gove’s Brexit campaign comment on us having ‘had enough of experts’.
    I take heart that many people are finding a voice to challenge these trends now – I heard about Marginal Syllabus for the first time today and found your post as a result of it – really interested to see how the monthly annotation “flash mobs” progress and am looking forward to the one around your piece on 30th.

  10. chilli2012

    Reblogged this on charlottahilli.

  11. you speak to my heart. Thank you

  12. Brilliant post, and I love this most:
    “We need universal, publicly-funded education that is less penetrated by market forces and values, less obsessed with measuring ‘outcomes’, less oppressive and more playful – for everyone.”
    In a wonderfully diverse, pluralistic society, that should be a common expectation, not a hopeful wish.

  13. Amazing post! I think that technology within education and in the ‘real world’ are often worlds apart, and that we need to keep the various needs in consideration. We also need to have an education system that can cater for the needs of a greater society, and not merely for the attainment of academic outcomes.

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