Is Ed-Tech research nearing its ‘Big Tobacco’ moment?

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


8 reaktioner till “Is Ed-Tech research nearing its ‘Big Tobacco’ moment?”

  1. The key for schools it to conduct their own research into the effectiveness of technology use.
    We have been careful to benchmark our progress along the way. Documented here.

    Our results showed clearly that our 1:1 classes outperformed the other groups even on pen and paper tests.

    Are PISA and TIMSS a good measure of student learning?
    Even if 1:1 computing didn’t improve learning outcomes as measured by standardized pen and paper tests, which we have not found, would you stop going 1:1?
    Can you put the Genie back in the bottle? I think even if 1:1 learning were ”outcomes neutral” based on standardized pen and paper tests you would continue as the other workplace skills we need to teach children are vital.
    My children have left high school and go to university and are in the world of work. At university online learning, online collaboration and IT skills are vital to success. I know the students coming from our school are well prepared for this.
    Unfortunately our citizenry now gets most of their news and current affairs from social media. Critical literacy skills and the ability to ”fact check” some of the rubbish that is published is vital in the 21st century. In a high tech high school this can be taught. This critical thinking and media literacy must be taught or more Trump like debacles will happen.
    Yes we need more research and universities need to get more into schools and conduct it. We would be willing participants.

    1. Very good points, and the key work in your final sentence is ’participants’. There are a lot of university researchers want to conduct research in schools, but far fewer want to conduct technology research with schools. Universities need to work with schools in the planning of research projects, identification of issues, problems and questions, and in the design of evidence generating strategies. As much as possible, Ed-Tech studies should be a case of co-research between different parties who have expertise in schools, schooling, learning, teaching etc.

  2. Thanks Rob Monk. I agree with everything you said. This is an interesting piece of commentary Neil, and your position as ‘credibility gatekeeper’ for those espousing the benefits of education technology is to be lauded but I think there is much more that you and Professor Sahlberg have to be aware of, some of which requires introspection.
    “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.” – Is this actually the issue of how technology is used rather than the effects of digital technology on learning? The wording you have used here suggests that the technology is the issue whereas, as you alluded to yourself in other work, demands for use of technology in education is in fact a shoehorn for wanting changes in teaching practice. So, if we follow this line of thinking, then could it be said that there may be a lot of poor use of technology in education, teachers using technology when in fact paper may be better or allowing students to hid behind screens ‘because it keeps them quiet’? Furthermore, is there an issue in the lack of work being done to address digital distraction which could be part of meta-cognitive approaches in schools? I know from personal experience, a lot of these issues occur in schools. This is different than putting the blame on technology itself. Lastly, there are also studies showing positive effects of use of technology in education. Have a look at these papers as examples by Simon Crook:
    Crook, S. J., Sharma, M. D., Wilson, R., & Muller, D. A. (2013). Seeing Eye-to-Eye on ICT: Science Student and Teacher Perceptions of Laptop Use across 14 Australian schools. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 29(1), 82-95. doi:10.14742/ajet.72.
    Crook, S. J., & Sharma, M. D. (2013). Bloom-ing Heck! The Activities of Australian Science Teachers and Students Two Years into a 1:1 Laptop Program Across 14 High Schools. International Journal of Innovation in Science and Mathematics Education, 21(1), 54- 69.
    Crook, S., Sharma, M., & Wilson, R. (2015). An Evaluation of the Impact of 1:1 Laptops on Student Attainment in Senior High School Sciences. International Journal of Science Education, 37(2), 272-293. doi:10.1080/09500693.2014.982229
    Crook, S. J., Sharma, M. D., & Wilson, R. (2015). Comparison of Technology Use Between Biology and Physics Teachers in a 1:1 Laptop Environment. Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, 15(2), 1-23.
    “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.” – I wonder whether you and, indeed, Professor Sahlberg really think that the majority of people are fooled by the IT companies and their promises to make education wishes come true with their products? Of course, there are some that do, hence why they make so much money selling IWBs but I would hardly say they are of “growing significance”. I would say that many of these companies are struggling unless they are willing to show how their product can benefit teaching and learning. Hence the reason why so many of them employ teachers and invest in education outreach which is not directly about selling their products but is more about what is of benefit to education as a whole. To be honest, I and a number of my colleagues find it rather offensive that academics would believe we can be bought and sold so easily. I think we have learned a lot since the early of days of ‘buy trolleys of laptops and everything will be alright’ but yes, we have a long way still to go. The failings here, are in teacher training (which is in the hands of Academics for the most part) and in the Governments who do not recognise the significance of training teachers to address issues of Digital Literacies (and I say Literacies not Literacy because as Belshaw showed in this 2011 thesis , this area is far more complex than many would have us believe) nor to properly prepare/continually upskill teachers for contemporary, digitally based education.
    “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.” Firstly, this is sensationalism and I have to offer congratulations to Professor Sahlberg as he managed to get this turned into headline news. To compare corrupt, paid research in the health sector that has been responsible for the death of so many with research on education technology is a little far-fetched if not a little crude, don’t you agree? There is a link between The Simpsons predicting Trump as President and him wining the vote but do you honestly, believe for a minute, that Matt Groening had a hand in making it come true in the recent US elections? Yet, secondly, let me make it clear, that it is right to question the likes of Pearson and Microsoft’s involvement in glossy showcase research but there is so much more going on in the world of education experimentation and ‘research’. Have you or Professor Sahlberg ever been to a TeachMeet? Have you ever seen how people are sharing their practice, showing what they have done and inviting others to try it? While not research as academics would see it, this arguably has more traction with the average teacher. Hence, is this where the sway of influence is more likely to come from? Lastly, what is research? Is research something that is peer-reviewed and appears in a journal? Can a teacher or a faculty or a school, not conduct research? Of course they can but then the question is about its credibility and the whether the findings are sound. In the context of improvement within a school, a year group, a class, does that really matter? I would say no. Yet, this is happening in schools. It is happening as those progressive educators put pressure on the system to change from within. This is an area you have been criticised for in the past, Neil, where you have ‘ridden rough shot’ over the attempts of teachers to influence change in educational practice (Keynote for Ascilite in 2012) and promote effective use of technology form their classrooms rather than wait for the rest of the world of education to catch up. In my experience, disruptors are disseminated across a wide area of education and, I see many of these beginning to effect leadership as their involvement matures.
    “a warning that academic research in the area of Ed-Tech needs to ‘up its game’ in terms of empirical rigor and empirical relevance.” – I think you are really missing the boat here. The biggest issue is not about rigor or empirical relevance rather it is about access, snobbery and more importantly, lead times. Regarding lead times, as Professor Stephen Heppell continually questions, how can academia still have practices that prevent research appearing until many years after it was begun? I have been informed that the average wait time is seven years. Seven years!! Was there a school who had a 3D printer seven years ago? As a colleague of mine said on reading this piece, “that’s my issue with the ‘what works’ narrative. If we had to wait for the research to tell us before we tried, we’d never get anything done.” I don’t think I could have said it better myself. Add to this the issue of access and snobbery. Universities or the way research is often structured, do not exactly invite the average teacher to put away their marking and settle on the couch with a mug of cocoa to read the latest findings from edtech journals. The first issue is that most teachers do not even know such research exists nor can they get access to it unless they are studying themselves. Conferences on research in education technology are attended by academics for the most part whereas education conferences do not really feature much presence from so called academic experts in education (except those like Mazur who have managed to repackage their research as case study video work to present to). Thus, should there be a call for a rethink on how research is carried out and presented in the higher education sector? Some would say that the biggest shock ahead could be in academic research becoming so far behind or so irrelevant to what is actually going on in classrooms and that provides openings for the ‘naughty’ IT companies to plug the gaps.
    All in all, I think I will leave you with what a non-academic but brilliant observer of people, organisations and of education said recently,
    Two kinds of winning:
    Some can only win when others lose.
    Others seek to win by helping others succeed.
    One of these approaches scales far better than the other.
    (Seth Godin, 2016)

  3. Thats a long post Justin – here are a short responses:

    > Re. your first point – this is a description (but *not* an endorsement) of the ‘detrimental effects’ literature. Not research I’d necessarily agree with but certainly a growing trend in academic research in ed-tech. Replace the phrase ‘beginning to highlight’ with ‘purporting to highlight’ and see how you feel about that sentence.

    > Secondly, don’t read the OP as implying that educators are somehow being ‘fooled’ by market research and commercial evaluations. Most teachers know what works in the classroom and what doesn’t. Similarly, most policymakers, and administrators know that the promises of technology are not really going to be realized. No-one is stupid or being fooled … but what this commercial ‘evidence’ base does is ease the way for big ed-tech procurement and funding decisions. This is all fine … unless these decisions impinge on spending/ resourcing/ financing of other aspects of a school systems. Then I do think the quality and rigour of the evidence needs to talked about.

    > Clearly research sponsored/conducted by the like of Pearson, Microsoft, Facebook carries a lot more clout with governments and administrators than teacher-research. What you point to here is an opportunity/need to aggregate and more effectively showcase practitioner knowledge on a mass scale. Decision-makers listen to Sal Kahn’s opinions on education, but I am sure would pay attention to the collective voice of millions of technology-using teachers around the world. If you think that ‘progressive educators’ have got it right, then these messages need to be pushed out there to those who matter. Ed-tech is an area where there needs to be much more teacher voice (… that reaches beyond teacher communities).

    > Finally, I believe that one of the key benefits of academic research in ed-tech is precisely that it can take the long-view and also look at the wider picture. I won’t patronize you with a quote about the dangers of failing to learn lessons from history, but there is clearly a need for these sorts of ’slow’ perspectives on the area. If I was a teacher than I wouldn’t be looking to academic research for up-to-minute advice on what to do with technology – that’s not really the point.

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