Education in a Digital World: Global Perspectives on Technology and Education
reviewed by Peter Pericles Trifonas - September 26, 2015
Title: Education in a Digital World: Global Perspectives on Technology and Education
Author(s): Neil Selwyn
Publisher: Routledge, New York
ISBN: 0415808456, Pages: 192, Year: 2012
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Many believe that technology has become the panacea for education in the age of digital globalization. The uncritical adaptation of traditional pedagogy to the virtual world renders teaching and learning a commodity based on the efficacy of knowledge exchange or transference de-contextualized from the politico-economic and socio-cultural means of its production. A schism has been created between the champions of a technology-mediated instruction that crosses time and space in search of achieving a common core of objectives for measuring standards of academic excellence, and the advocates of a situated praxis that re-contextualizes and re-historicizes curricular content to identify injustice for the emancipation of consciousness from ideology. The divide cannot be crossed; the differences are incommensurable. Yet, digital globalizationthe flows of information across a networked planethave changed the way we view the world and ourselves, interact socially in communities, participate in the economy, and communicate with others. That cannot be denied.
Education is at the nexus of ever changing digital technology and the forces of globalization. According to Neil Selwyn, knowledge has been conceived in relation to a neutral virtuality uncontaminated by social, political, and economic interest. The Internet is a delimited space free of power relations or ideologies that transcend materiality in the ebbs and flows of information along a superhighway of interconnected bits and bytes. In his book, Education in a Digital World: Global Perspectives on Technology and Education, Selwyn engages this premise and challenges the assumptions of technology causing a transformation of education around the world (p. 18) by forgoing the search for a unified effect. Instead, he argues that the iterative and cumulative effects of technology are engaged in relation to practices grounded in socio-economic, political, and ideological conditions of teaching and learning.
For Selwyn, it is problematic to assume that the digital mediation of knowledge in its pedagogical form is homogeneous and teleological in a global context. Technology rationalizes sameness and reduces difference. It sets up the conceptual boundaries for a worldview that is ultimately shared, unified, explicable, and reasonable. The idea of community that grounds the notion of a digitally connected global village is naïve and uncomplicated as virtual forms of personal expression stand in for, and represent, a universal subjectivity of users online. Interpretations are flattened. Singular understandings are turned into multiple. Thought is deemed a collective enterprise. The irony is that the multitude is composed of a set of singularities, not unified and whole. Digital technology extends the singular into the multiple on a mass scale. Aligning education in relation to the idea of a mass subject causes changes in the patterns of social interaction, the form of political participation, and what it means to be with others as part of a global society.
The shift from material to virtual spaces has radically transformed the curricular nature of the cognitive and practical knowledge required of education today. From tech companies like Microsoft, Cisco, and Apple, intergovernmental organizations like the United Nations, as well as pedagogical institutions, and government agencies, policies regarding the use of technology have evolved in relation to global economic imperatives. Selwyn traces the development of a transnational and multinational marketplace of ideas in the private, commercial, and non-profit sectors that operationalize digital archives for teaching and learning. For example, the iTunes U Program exemplifies an economic crossover of academic interests where over 800 universities (including Stanford, Yale, MIT, and Oxford) distribute their educational content. (p. 54). As a result, it is clear there are increasing third-party interests encroaching on traditional educational spaces that are shifting its focus from the analog to the digital realms.
The public sharing or auctioning of knowledge is based around an ethos of corporate social responsibility (p. 55) that generates more profits. Alliances between technology giants like Cisco, Microsoft, and Apple with national governments has resulted in the integration of proprietary technologies into schools through the form of computer and software donations. In addition to an ethos of cooperation that is good for modernizing the digital infrastructure of schools, these partnerships benefit the corporate agenda of maximizing exposure of present and future clients to their products for profit. The result has been an educational quest to add new levels of cyber-acumen into curricula on a global scale.
Changes in goals and objectives have enacted a drive toward what Selwyn calls a twenty-first century skills (p. 61) agenda. He identifies the common issues demarcating interrelationships between policymaking at a national and international level in the U.K., U.S., Japan, Chile, and Singapore. Each case is distinct, however, there is a shared discursive means that nation states turn to in an attempt to normalize the economic and societal changes associated with globalization (p. 82). The real effects are apparent only when the policies have entered local educational settings and have been enacted upon by managers, administrators, teachers, and students (p. 83). Selwyn analyzes the importance of context and culture (p. 103) in its relation to digital imperialism and the stereotypical notions or exotocized accounts of technological development, such as a Eurocentric interpretations of roboticized teaching assistants in Japan along the lines of ethno-mythologizing. We are reminded that the role of technology in international development has to be assessed according to the appropriateness of its local applications. It is not just a matter of actualizing the good will intentions of the UN, IMF, and World Bank by furnishing the availability of digital resources where none existed before.
The philanthropic gesture of facilitating technology for the have-nots needs to be understood in relation to the ramifications of establishing new power structures or reinforcing existing ones that promote social inequality and exclusion. To this end, Selwyn provides an overview of the complexity of factors influencing the corporate, governmental, and nonprofit interests at work in the processes of information and communications for development (or the field of ICT4D). For example, the one laptop per child (OLPC) initiative highlights the possibility that the globalizing potential of educational technology could be realized once and for all (p. 125). The allure of the concept overrides an unpacking of values in practice and not the simple furnishing of inexpensive artefacts (p. 136), including software platforms and digital devices. The OLPC movement has fetishized technology in the pursuit of access as a project of social justice without engaging issues around the deinstitutionalization of education (p. 138) and quality of life. The lives of new generations of youth with computer and Internet access are completely integrated within a virtual sphere for gaining knowledge, skills, and aptitudes. The normalization of digital technologies in the formation of subjectivity has grown since the 1970s.
The use of computers has moved from strictly scientific purposes to business application in the public sphere of entertainment and media consumption, but only relatively recently to mainstream education. Selwyn makes the point that the vitality of the OLPC movement has centered on a lab-based rather than a needs-based approach that has not taken practical and technical limitations of local contexts into account. The measures of the programs success have been keeping a low hardwire price and high user ratio (e.g., Peru and Uruguay). The drive to equip children in the poorest regions and countries of the world with affordable XO machines (computers) has been a well-intentioned, but naïve, enterprise. In many cases, it has been adapted to the material conditions of the educational systems, students, and communities that have been targeted. The XO machines are not donated but purchased, albeit at a comparatively low-price. While the right to education is universal, how does an initiative to provide a $200 laptop to a child in a country where the average income is less that $2 a day (p. 141) improve the quality of life where basic human needs are unmet?
Perhaps this is the point of Education in a Digital World: Global Perspectives on Technology and Education. Selwyn does well not to shy away from a critical re-evaluation. As technology has become an integral part of the global educational landscape, it has opened up horizons of possibility for teaching and learning beyond the classroom that had not previously existed. The invention of cyberspaces such as websites, blogs, and online pedagogical platforms has generated new forms of representation, social engagement, and meaning-making. Technology has promised to level the playing field for education by acknowledging marginalized knowledge and subjectivity. It has re-oriented the idea of a place-based pedagogy towards the idea of school that is more fluid, open, and is situated in multiple localities. Yet Selwyn reminds us that (e)ducational technology the world over therefore needs to be re-imagined (p. 163) for an information society to be inclusive and democratic. Perhaps answers lie in the choices we make between private concerns we harbor to empower ourselves and the public responsibility we bear to move away from the logics of neo-liberalism and the self-interested actions of dominant actors in the global knowledge economy (p. 164). Education in a Digital World makes a good start in that direction.