There is a real danger that education researchers are going to find themselves squeezed out of the central debates around schools and technology. In short our voices and findings are not going to be seen as worth paying attention to.
Pasi Sahlberg – the Finnish education policy advisor, researcher and author – was recently in Australia and, as always, had plenty of interesting things to say. Aside from the usual concerns around PISA and the straight-jacket of standardized international benchmarking, he expressed some troubling thoughts about digital technology and education. Reflecting on the steadily increasing use of screen-based digital devices in schools around the world, Sahlberg noted what he sees as an alarming polarization of research studies and evaluations in the area of Ed-Tech.
On one hand, he pointed to the burgeoning research literature beginning to highlight detrimental effects of digital technology on learning – particularly in terms of how technology might be altering students’ capacity to process information, think and engage in deep learning. On the other hand, he noted the growing significance of ‘good news’ studies sponsored by the IT industry and other actors who stand to profit from increased technology investment by schools and school systems.
With the stakes being raised ever higher for school systems to ‘perform’ in terms of PISA results, retention, graduation and other key indicators, Sahlberg’s hunch is that we will soon be entering a new ramped-up phase of ‘Ed-Tech’ research. He speculated on a likely polarization of research on education and technology along similar positions to the ‘scientific’ studies that have been conducted on contentious topics with high financial stakes such as smoking, nutrition and climate change.
On one side would be industry-funded studies striving to prove the effectiveness of technology in increasing education outcomes. On the opposing side would be what Sahlberg described as more ‘independent’ studies exploring the ‘harmful’ effects of technology on learning, thinking and information processing.
As Sahlberg was quoted:
We’re going to see with in the future, a next five years, a war between these kind of research studies, trying to show that doing more screen time [in the classroom] at the time when it’s already controlling the lives of young people doesn’t make any sense; and then the tech companies will say if you build your teaching and learning around the technology you will decrease the dropout rate and increase the graduation rates – we’ re going to see a lot of that in the future.
So is Ed-Tech poised to become another controversial and highly partisan area of research? Is the IT industry going to hijack the research agenda around technology in schools in a similar fashion to ‘Big Tobacco’, ‘Big Pharma’ and ‘Big Sugar’?
It is tempting to hope not. After all, digital technologies have long been bought and sold in education despite the lack of sustained evidence regarding effectiveness and outcomes. Governments, schools, educators and parents have remained curiously unconcerned with what research evidence actually says. Instead, public opinion on the benefits/harm of technology in education has tended to an evidence-free zone, where many people have been content to act on assumptions and speculation. The IT industry has already become expert at producing polished narratives extoling ‘success’ stories. Glossy images of classrooms full of happy students engaging in creative collaborative work fit perfectly with the aspirations in the public discourse for how technology should save schooling from tradition. The ideological structure of the more general educational discourse in recent decades has also given the Ed-Tech industry an unlikely possibility to position itself as a radical option. As Biesta (2015) has pointed out:
the most vocal arguments for teaching and the teacher come from the conservative end of the political spectrum /…/ This seems to suggest that the only progressive alternative lies in the demise of the teacher—and more precisely the demise of ‘traditional’ teaching—and a turn towards learning; a turn where the teacher only exists as a facilitator of otherwise ‘autonomous’ learning processes.
Hence, Ed-Tech, can paradoxically frame itself as the progressive, sound alternative to the oppressive nature of traditional schooling. Recently, Tom Bennett, behaviour advisor at the UK Department for Education as well as the director and founder of researchED questioned the use of Minecraft in schools and had to ‘run the gauntlet’ on the internet for his critique. His experience nicely illustrates how simply asking for independent evidence for the efficacy of IT in schools may be portrayed as an ugly attack on progressive educational values. Against this backdrop, Sahlberg’s statements should not be taken lightly. He is rarely wrong in his pronouncements on education … and if he is correct then these predictions, they bode ominously for academic research on Ed-Tech – especially the studies conducted by university-based education researchers such as our own research groups in Melbourne and Gothenburg.
With Ed-Tech now a multi-billion-dollar industry, it is inevitable that private-sector and commercial interests will become increasingly motivated to ‘prove’ the value and worth of their products. As the research activities of Pearson, Microsoft, Facebook, and Apple have already demonstrated, this form of evidence-building does not require the involvement of academic researchers. Even when the Ed-Tech industry promotes academic research in their evidence-building, it has often been conducted outside disciplinary traditions and without academic norms such as peer-review. For example, the SAMR model for technology integration in schools has been widely promoted by the Ed-Tech industry while having little basis in established theory or validation through empirical research.
Adding to issues of evidence-building in relation to Ed-Tech, most studies of technology’s possible ‘detrimental’ effects are conducted by researchers in the areas of psychology, neurology and other clinical approaches to learning that often reduce it to an individual process devoid of contextual features. Again, there appears to be little motivation for these researchers to engage with educational academic research or vis-versa, even though connections between research with a clinical approach to learning and education research on the social and cultural contexts of schools and classrooms has the potential for significant mutual benefits. While clinical approaches often produce useful results, perhaps by virtue of their disconnection to the situated contexts where learning takes place, they often lend themselves to reductive and polarizing arguments about the relationship between technology and learning.
If Sahlberg’s hunch does come to fruition, then there is a real danger that education researchers are going to find themselves squeezed out of the central debates around schools and technology. In short our voices and findings are not going to be seen as worth paying attention to, if indeed they ever were. So we would do well to pay attention to Sahlberg’s concerns. Even if he proves to be incorrect, his comments provide a warning that academic research in the area of Ed-Tech needs to ‘up its game’ in terms of empirical rigor and empirical relevance. Education researchers need to make sure that they resist falling into the trap of reaching polarized portrayals of digital technology in terms of either being good/bad, beneficial/harmful. However, they also need to engage with research from different traditions rather than retreating to disparate silos where similar topics are addressed without connection to each other and without contributing significantly to the accumulated knowledge of the field.
We know that education and technology is a more complex issue than either of Sahlberg’s ‘sides’ would have us believe. The role of education research is to explore these complexities in an objective, open-minded and compelling manner. We need to make a concerted effort to justify the continued value of the research that we do … and make sure that our work offers an unbiased and disinterested alternative to those who think that they already know the answers.
Neil Selwyn, Guest Professor, Professor Monash University
Thomas Hillman, Associate Professor
Jonas Linderoth, Professor