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Media and Education in the Digital Age

Concepts, Assessments, Subversions

Edited By Matteo Stocchetti

This book is an invitation to informed and critical participation in the current debate on the role of digital technology in education and a comprehensive introduction to the most relevant issues in this debate. After an early wave of enthusiasm about the emancipative opportunities of the digital «revolution» in education, recent contributions invite caution, if not scepticism. This collection rejects extreme interpretations and establishes a conceptual framework for the critical questioning of this role in terms of concepts, assessments and subversions. This book offers conceptual tools, ideas and insights for further research. It also provides motivation and information to foster active participation in debates and politics and encourages teachers, parents and learners to take part in the making of the future of our societies.
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The politics of Educational Reform in the Digital Age: Concepts, Assessments and Subversions

The Politics of Educational Reform in the Digital Age: Concepts, Assessment and Subversions

Matteo Stocchetti

Abstract

Education is a political process in which a variety of actors compete for the control over the future of society. In this process, the role of technology is construed along ideological lines, and the professional role of educators is a reflection of their political role. This introductory chapter offers a preliminary description of a conceptual framework designed to foster critical and hopefully emancipative participation in the debate on the role of digital technology in the politics of educational reform. The main point is that some of the most important themes in this debate can be addressed in terms of concepts, assessment and subversions. The chapters in this collection are contributions to the development of a conceptual framework that enables emancipative participation in the politics of education.

Introduction

The essays collected in this volume discuss the role of digital technology in education from diverse perspectives and in relation to a variety of issues, but share, coherently with the research programme that has inspired them, the intent of promoting informed and active participation in the reform of education in late capitalist societies. In this volume we have deliberately tried to avoid forcing the reader into the discussion of intra-disciplinary theoretical or conceptual development. Those issues are surely relevant and effectively discussed in other fora. In this introductory chapter, however, it seemed a good idea to briefly describe the conceptual co-ordinates of this collection – its starting points, its goals, and the analytical strategy that links them. Informed participation is possible when the participants are in some measure familiar with the relevant debates, issues and positions that constitute the communicative environment of the reform process. Active participation, furthermore, requires the participant to have opinions about desirable or undesirable outcomes of the reform process and about the way to bring about the former and oppose the latter. This goal is important because education is about the future of society and, as I shall argue to a greater length in a moment, this future is always, in one form or a another, a stake in the competition between ideologies inspired by and grounded in competing hierarchies of values. ← 19 | 20 →

The politics of education, technology and participation

This collection invites the reader to engage with one particular aspect of this process, i.e. the role of digital technology in education. This is only one, but in my opinion, especially important dimension of the debate about educational reform.

The analyses and the arguments presented in this collection contribute to a conceptual framework that interprets some of the most relevant aspects of the current debate in terms of meanings or ‘concepts’, the evaluation of the role of digital technology in education or ‘assessments’, and the opening of intellectual and educational spaces to resist oppressive interpretation of this role, or ‘subversions’. To make my case about the analytical value of this framework, I will now present for the attention of the reader three main tenets. First, education is not a technical but a (very!) political process with ideological roots that cannot be ignored. Second, the role of technology is not politically neutral but rather politically indeterminate – subordinated to interpretations that reflect the ideological roots of the political competition. Third, educators must become aware of the key political relevance of their role even and especially when the relevance of this role is challenged by the influence of technocentric culture in educational discourse.

The politics of education

The idea that education is a fundamentally political process construes education as a process in which a number of participants compete for a variety of goals, depending on the nature of the issues at stake. A classical tradition in political science defines the core aspect of this process as a competition for control over the distribution of values in society. In this perspective, the study of politics is, in practice, the study of ‘who, gets what, when and how’ (Lasswell, 1950 (1936)). Seen as a political process, the study of education is the study of who gets what, when and how in the competition for control over the future of society. This includes the study of the main cleavages, or the fault lines defined by relevant issues at the core of the competition between the main actors, the strategies, or the moves through which main actors try to gain political influence and the nature of the stake. While shared in political studies and also in critical contributions to the analysis of education (Youdell, 2011) this position seems nevertheless far from mainstream in much of the current discussion on media and education. For too many, education is a technical problem: one which has to do primarily with the effective management of available resources, with the identification and implementation of cost-efficient educational models, curricula and technologies, with the co-ordination between the training of teachers and the education of students with the needs of the productive system, or the national economy, or the global markets, and so on. ← 20 | 21 → This technical approach seeks ‘optimal solutions’ for the role of digital technology in education based on a notion of society interpreted through the organicistic metaphor as the place of order and harmony and on a notion of education as the activity to assure the integration of the individual in a social order endorsed with transcendental traits (e.g. Hobbesian ‘Leviathan’ or Hegelian ‘Spirit’) and immutable. Education therefore consists of the transmission of knowledge and values or, more precisely, the knowledge and the values that are necessary to preserve not only the material basis of this society but also the ideas and beliefs supporting its representation in terms of a harmonious whole. In the critical tradition, society is not a place of harmony but rather a place of incessant struggle between the forces that seek to influence the nature of the social order. This order, and the inequalities associated with it, is a more or less contingent outcome of this struggle. In this tradition, education is a crucial battlefield because it is through the control of education – the control of the nature of knowledge and values informing the upbringing of younger generations – that it is possible to control the future of any existing social order: the future distribution of power and the structure of inequalities in society.

One can argue that the stake of the politics of education is fundamentally pedagogical to the extent that the forming of a person, as a citizen, a producer/consumer or as an individual, is the ultimate stake of the competition for the control over the knowledge and the beliefs that formal education is supposed to preserve through generations. This competition, however, does not happen in a vacuum but in a social environment rich in ideas, beliefs, hierarchies of values, understandings of the past, and visions of the future organized in more or less coherent interpretative systems usually referred to as ideologies.

In this part of the century, the main ideological protagonists of this competition are global capitalism, with its political corollary usually referred to as neoliberalism, and democracy. These two ideologies have much in common. Inheritors of some of the great intellectual traditions of the 19th and 20th Centuries, they both contain utopian elements and seek the support of technology to enforce them. The core differences between these two ideologies, however, can be described in relation to the problem of social change or, more precisely, in relation to the problem of change and continuity in the fundamental traits of the social order, and the problem of freedom. In the democratic tradition, egalitarianism is necessary for the participation of the majority of the population in the political competition on the assumption that the legitimacy of decisions is in direct proportion to the extent of the participation. If and when people have equal entitlements and, at least in principle, equal opportunities to effectively participate in the political competition, responsibilities are shared, political violence less attractive, and the possibility of ← 21 | 22 → social change less threatening for all. In this ideology, thus, the twin problems of social change and freedom are addressed by prioritizing egalitarianism and collective freedom – the control of the democratic community over its future – over individual freedom.

At the origins of the free-market utopia, in its early formulation, is the idea that societies could be spared the troubles and the violence associated with political competition by establishing the ‘free market’ as a self-regulating mechanism for the distribution of values in society. The history of this idea, its evolution and its profound consequences on capitalist societies of the 19th and 20th Centuries has been famously described and discussed by economic historian Karl Polanyi in his classic The Great Transformation (Polanyi, 2001 (1944)) (Dale, 2010) (Gammon, 2008). Polanyi argues that the free-market utopia annihilates the ‘human and natural substance of society’ (Polanyi, 2001 (1944): 3–5) and establishes economic freedom as the fundamental freedom for the sake of which other freedoms have to be sacrificed (Polanyi, 2001 (1944): 265). The effort to establish a non-political order, however, creates inequalities that trigger the reaction of society against the free-market utopia and interpretation of freedom associated with it in the form of communist and fascist dictatorships.

For our purposes, and the understanding of the role of digital technology in education as a dimension of the competition for control over the future of society, the single most important difference, in my opinion, is in the nature of the pedagogical ambitions associated with the utopian elements of these ideologies. By endorsing the utilitarianism of the free-market utopia and seeking to establish a political order based on (in our age, corporate) economic freedom, Neoliberalism needs a dual pedagogy: one for the elites or ‘leaders’ and one for the masses; one for those in charge of the administration and ideological reproduction of the political order and another one for those who, as producers and consumers, will assure the material reproduction of the same order. Conversely, by endorsing egalitarianism and seeking to establish a political order based on universal participation and consensus, democratic utopia needs a single pedagogy for individuals expected to participate with equal entitlements in the reproduction of a political order based on and legitimated by the endless possibilities of emancipative social change.

The different pedagogical needs of these ideologies and the utopias that inspire them encourage different visions of what education is all about. In the democratic tradition, education is construed as a fundamental resource to pursue the egalitarian ideals through the broadening of participation. Education is therefore a public good, not out of charitable morality but because educated individuals are necessary for the establishment and preservation of an egalitarian society and the participatory management of social change. ← 22 | 23 →

In the capitalist tradition, the pedagogical dualism necessary to support a social order that places economic freedom over social justice implies the problem of convincing many that their subjugation to the leadership of the privileged few is both legitimate and immutable. An ideology aiming at the establishment and the preservation of a political order based on inequalities needs a dualistic concept of education. Whereas education for participation in the political process is restricted to the ‘leaders’, education for the masses takes the connotation of ‘professional training’: the transmission of skills and beliefs relevant for the functional but ultimately passive participation of the vast majority of the individuals in the process of production and consumption.

As Bertrand Russell noted ‘in all education, propaganda has a part’ and ‘the question for the educator is not whether there shall be propaganda but how much, how organized, and of what sort’ (Russell, 1932: 213–214). For both these ideologies, education is not only about knowledge and skill but also about beliefs transmitted in the form of propaganda. The important difference here is that democratic propaganda fosters emancipation and the possibility of more egalitarian social order through education, whereas neoliberal propaganda fosters education to facilitate the control of the many by the few in the effort to avoid the subversion of a social order based on inequality.

In democratic propaganda, education is about the transmission of beliefs about the moral quality of egalitarianism, and the importance of participation as the organizing principles of societal order and in the legitimization of political authority. The fundamental skills here are not primarily those that allow the individual to become a capable leader or an efficient worker, but rather those that enable one to actively participate in all the processes through which a democratic society gains and keeps control of its future.

In the educational propaganda of global capitalism, human relations are all contained within the relations of production. People are construed as ‘human resources’, as producers and consumers; students are seen as ‘consumers’ (Newson, 2004) of educational services and educated in accordance with the ‘need of the labour-market’. The explicit objective of educational reform in neoliberal propaganda is to increase the productivity of the educational process: meaning forming more efficient workers in a more efficient way. The implicit assumption in this discourse is that the problem facing global and national economies is one of productivity or efficiency instead of one of distribution or equity: too much injustice in the distribution of whatever is produced.

This emphasis on production rather than distribution and on economic freedom rather than social justice is a fundamental difference between the hierarchies of values fostered by neoliberal and democratic propaganda, and one with ← 23 | 24 → profound pedagogical implications. The neoliberal belief that ‘society does not exist’1 has the pedagogical implication that individuals need not be educated as parts of a community of equals. And they should not since, as the new psychology of leadership suggests, effective leadership depends on the formation of ‘collective identities’ around the leader constructed as ‘entrepreneur of identity’, an in-group ‘prototype’ and ‘champion’ (Haslam, Reicher, & Platow, 2011: xxii–xxiii). While in democracy people are educated to take pride in the achievements of the community they participate as equals, in neoliberal propaganda people are effectively educated to identify with their ‘leaders’ and be happy when their leaders are happy.

The sense of urgency that inspires the debate and the call for reform in the educational domain, as well elsewhere, may have to do with the fact that capitalism and democracy are increasingly perceived as incompatible ideologies and, perhaps, with the growing discontent about global capitalism among a large variety of political actors worldwide. To describe this increasing awareness in terms of a ‘politicization’ of the process of educational reform seems to me a bit naïve and uncritical – as if the reform of education could ever be non-political – but it nevertheless gives us a reason not to ignore the current debate on the reform of education. It shows that what is at stake are not only curricula but very different futures based on different notions of the individual, of freedom, justice and ultimately different ideas about what the future of humanity should look like.

With its emphasis on ‘leadership’, management and productivity, neoliberal education seeks to enforce the kind of administrative control that, as Herbert Marcuse and others noticed about half a century ago, aims at ‘closing the universe of discourse’ (Marcuse, 2002 (1964)) and removing the possibility of structural social change at his roots: in the discursive construction of the problem of change itself in terms of production instead of freedom and in terms of the preservation rather than elimination of inequalities. Global capitalism is therefore a threat to democracy because the material opulence of administrative control is exchanged with individual freedom and, most importantly, with the practical possibility of bringing about a more egalitarian social order. Conversely, with its emphasis on egalitarianism principles and participatory skills, democratic education can be a serious obstacle to the spreading of neoliberal ideology in society and, consequently, to the consolidation of global capitalism and the interests of the elites with which it is associated. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that these elites ← 24 | 25 → will do whatever is in their capacity to promote the ideology and the education that best serve their interests and oppose the alternative that threatens them.

The sense of urgency, however, may also reflect the impression that, in the current conditions, while the economic crisis inspires both intellectual opposition and social discontent about neoliberalism and the workings of global capitalism, the competition between capitalism and democracy has entered a crucial phase: one in which both the control of education and of the role of technology in education are stakes of strategic importance. The crisis of capitalism and the ‘free-market’ utopia is nothing new. What in the present situation seems unprecedented, however, is the fact that both the current crisis and its response – in support or against global capitalism – are global in scope. In this situation the globalization of the ‘free-market’ utopia and the globalization of dissent, are twin processes depending on ambivalent communicative affordances associated with digital technology that education can disambiguate in support of or against global capitalism.

Questioning technology

Democracy needs technology to fulfil the egalitarian and participatory ambitions of its utopia through the free circulation of information and knowledge. In democratic discourse, digital technology is the material interface for bringing about universal education and the communicative conditions for the legitimization of political power. Global capitalism needs technology to unite humanity under the rule of the ‘free market’ and to control the conditions of its stability. In neoliberal discourse, digital technology is the material interface to support its dualist pedagogy and the legitimization of the structures of inequality with which it is associated.

If education is seen as a political process, to discuss the role of digital technology in this process means to look at the impact of this technology on the competition for the control of society. Thus, the second tenet of the conceptual framework I propose here is that this role is not politically neutral2, or irrelevant for this competition, but rather politically indeterminate: capable in principle of serving the ambitions and hierarchies of values and the strategies of both global capitalism and democracy – and presumably of other ideologies as well. The main reason for this indeterminacy is that the ‘power’ of technology is not in technology itself but in its usage as a material interface for practices, purposes, goals, and objectives, etc. that are established and justified in relation to ideological ambitions, values ← 25 | 26 → and visions. This is not to deny the role of corporate and managerial forces which, as many have suggested, support much of the current hype about the digitalization of education. Quite the contrary, the questioning of the ideological roots of technological development aims at shedding a critical light on this process and establishing common grounds for the critical engagement with both the politics of education and the politics of technological development as these processes intersect in much of the current debate.

If one endorses the prescriptions and the ambitions of democratic ideology, the engagement with the role of digital technology cannot be confined to unconditional approval or rejection but it has to be critical: capable of assessing and identifying forms of usage that support the values, practices and purposes associated with democratic ideology.

Uncritical approval is dangerous because it misconstrues the social meaning of the information age and ignores the ideological implications of technocentric discourse. As early observers noted, the emancipative potential of the ‘information revolution’ is just a potential, at its best, or an illusion at its worst: a ‘rhetorical gambit’ that promotes a profound misunderstanding of the role of technology (Winston, 1986, 363), ultimately hiding the fact that the ‘dominant ideology of the information age’ has deep roots in the free-market utopia (Slack, 1987: 11) and ‘it is not so much the consumers as the producers who decide what the market “requires”’ (MacBride, 1986, vii). Technocentric culture in education represents digital technology as politically neutral, and has a remarkable inclination to overestimate the capacity of this technology to address the problems of education (Selwyn, 2011: 10–21). This culture, however, is not a politically or ideologically innocent one. It assumes that the purposes of education are themselves uncontested, hiding the struggle among competing forces for the control over the nature of these purposes, naturalizing hegemonic visions, values and standards of what technology and education are all about (Ferneding, 2003: 80–84). The representation of technology as a natural and, in a technocentric perspective, essentially benign force hides the ‘social’ behind the ‘technical’; the competition for the control of society behind the organized consensus over optimal solutions; the possibility of social change and the uncertainty about the future of the social order behind an illusion of stability designed to inhibit the possibility of social change. In this perspective, the risks of authoritarian involution are not embedded in technology per se but in the symbolic power of the technocentric discourse. The naturalization of technology as a ‘neutral’ force is therefore a discursive move in the politics of technological development (the competition for the control over the uses and development of technology), in the politics of education and in the process where these two partially overlap: the debate about the role of digital technology in education. ← 26 | 27 →

Rejection is tempting but, politically speaking, is not an option. It is tempting because if the relation between digital technology and the ideology of global capitalism is construed in terms of an end to a means, one may believe that in rejecting the ‘means’ one can reject the ‘end’. But it is not an option for at least two related reasons. First, because it underestimates the transformative power of technology itself and the effects of technological change on the social construction of reality. Second, because this rejection, if motivated on ideological grounds, construes democratic ideals, values and practices dangerously independently from the social relations to which they should be applied.

Even if the digital ‘revolution’ is construed as a transformative process dictated by the ideological needs of preserving the appeal of the free-market utopia as the fundamental principle of social order in the 21st century, the effective rejection of this ideology, and the order inspired by it, should not be confused with the rejection or denial of the effects of this transformation. From the normative grounds of the democratic ideology, the effective rejection of the capitalist order requires a preliminary appreciation of change: the intellectual understanding of the nature of this transformation and its implications for the effective actualization of democratic ideals.

The notion of technological indeterminacy I suggest here is based on at least two assumptions. The first is that the social role of technology is a ‘sticky’ one: it can be controlled but not effaced, we can try to understand it and find an effective way to bend it to our purposes, but we cannot ignore it or try to return society to the situation as it was before the new influential technology spread. The second assumption is that the social changes produced by the use of digital technology in education offer opportunities for political antagonism independently from the influence of the actors and the ideology supporting the spread of the same technology. For all practical purposes, this means that emancipative as well as oppressive opportunities are neither intrinsic to nor excluded by the process of technological development.3

If one acknowledges the indeterminate nature of technology, the challenge for the political actors inspired by the democratic ideology is to identify the conditions in which the role of digital technology in education can serve egalitarianism and participation rather than the dualist pedagogy of the ‘free market’. To pick up this challenge one has to avoid both the rejection of this technology and its uncritical ← 27 | 28 → embrace along technocentric lines. These positions are based on and reproductive of what, for the lack of a better term, I would argues as the ‘moralization of technology’: the false idea that digital technology – or technology in general – can be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and therefore endorsed or rejected. This idea hides, rather than exposes, the role of technology in the social construction of reality, and ultimately hinders the effective participation in the debate about the role of technology in the politics of education.

Emancipative opportunities therefore are not intrinsic to digital technology – nor to technology more broadly. Rather, they have to be invented or created. This process requires a number of important steps: the de-familiarization of the technological utopia, first and foremost, and the de-naturalization of its conceptual influence in society: the influence of the way we think, talk and write about technology, taking too many of its benefits for granted.

A more useful approach, and one that in my view is compatible with the idea that the role of digital technology in education is ideologically indeterminate, is described by Karen Ferneding when she suggests that the determinism and the ‘language of inevitability’ of the dominant discursive framework is opposed by the ‘language of possibility’ of the emergent discursive framework (Ferneding, 2003: 81–82).

The language of inevitability assumes an apolitical, artifactual/tool function of technology… this simplistic perspective rationalizes rapid top-down infusion, a conduit or transmission view of knowledge and learning, and an expression of a teacher’s role as a mere “delivery system”. In contrast, the realm of possibility problematizes technology. Perceiving its functions as both tool and social structures, technology is understood to be intimately connected with culture and politics. (Ferneding, 2003: 83)

Table below summarizes the main differences between the ‘discursive frameworks’ of competing visions of society participating in the debate over the reform of education. These differences are worth attention also for our discussion, because they offer a clear illustration of how the role of technology in education can be construed along very different concepts, reflecting different ideological roots.

Table 1: The Dialectic of Educational Reform Policy (Ferneding 2003: 81–82)

Dominant FrameworkEmergent Framework
Technocentric discourse (fait accompli/closure)Discourse of possibility (deliberative/pluralism)
Technological fix/technological determinismQuestions technology/media infusion
Technology as artefact/tool (apolitical)Technology as a socio-political process
Information as commodity“mythinformation” and techne as politea ← 28 | 29 →
Discourse of progressTechnological pessimism
Functionalist/vocationalistPolitics of meaning/social justice
Techno-utopian social visionEmancipatory social vision
Efficiency/techniqueQuestions technique
Enterprise cultureQuestions technical rationalism
Libertarian/technocentric“cultural wars”/multiculturalism
Privatization/commodificationThe public good/social democratic process
Crisis exists and related to the rise of Information Age and global market economyCrisis exists and related to systemic socioeconomic problems and postmodern crisis in meaning
Educators without agency/performance cultureEducators as citizens and social change agents
technopolylifeworld
Solution: infuse technology and adopt standards/accountability measures/control technologiesSolutions: address sociocultural issues and economic disparity

What makes this approach especially useful for our purposes is that it points to issues of meaning and assessment. The ideological roots and the discursive frameworks of the debate about the role of digital technology in the reform of education invite attention to the nature of concepts that participate in the relevant debates. The indeterminacy in the role of technology makes the assessment of its usage in pedagogical and educational practices a crucial moment for the disambiguation of this role – the understanding of how digital technology can serve democratic rather than neoliberal visions of society.

The role of educators

To state that the role of educators is important is a triviality. In the politics of education, none of the political actors would deny that. A bit less trivial, however is to understand the different connotations of this role in the discourse inspired by democratic or the free-market utopia. Perhaps even less trivially nowadays, here I suggest that this role, in all its alternative ideological connotations, is fundamentally political, that is connected to and influential on the competition for the control over the future of society.

In classic sociology, roles are defined as institutionalized behavioural expectations, a technical formula that describes forms of relationship in which uncertainty, for example in education, is addressed by formal and informal rules that regulate ← 29 | 30 → the conduct of those involved. In professional roles, the nature of expectations reflects professional knowledge that we expect, for example, a medical doctor or a teacher to possess, but also professional rules that we expect doctors and teachers to follow when they address problems within their professional domains. To talk about the political role of the educators and its relevance in the politics of education means to talk about the relevance of the professional knowledge that educators possess and the rules they are supposed to abide by when this knowledge and these rules influence, directly or indirectly, the competition for the control over the future of society.

The professional and political roles of educators, then, have different connotations in the democratic and the capitalist discursive framework. At the origins of these differences are other, and broader, ideological differences concerning the purpose of knowledge and the nature of the social problem that professional roles are supposed to address.

In democratic discourse, educators are citizens endorsed by the knowledge, the will and the skills necessary to participate in the social construction of the democracy and to educate others to do the same. In this vision, educators are influential agents of change because the future of society depends not only on the transmission of knowledge but also on the effective socialization of participatory and egalitarian ideals. The purpose of scientific knowledge is to support the efforts to put these ideals into practice, while the concept of truth is the common communicative grounds on which different groups in society participate in these efforts.

In the neoliberal interpretation of the free-market utopia, educators are a ‘delivery system’ for the transmission of knowledge necessary for the process of production, but also, and most importantly, for the preservation of the structure of inequality with which it is associated. In capitalism, as Jean-Françoise Lyotard famously noted, the purpose of science is not truth but power or more precisely ‘performative knowledge’ and ‘legitimation by power’: the knowledge that serves the practical purposes of the leaders and provides them with the technological means to control the social construction of the real (Lyotard, [1979] 1982: 46–47). In the circumstances that Lyotard discusses as the ‘postmodern condition’, ‘scientists, technicians and instruments are purchased not to find truth but to augment power’ and ‘universities and institutions of higher learning are called upon to create skills and no longer ideals’ (Lyotard, [1979] 1982: 46–48).

While the professional role of educators is crucially important in each ideological interpretation, the political role of democratic educators, with its emphasis on democratic ideals and emancipative knowledge is subversive for the ambitions of capitalist education. Conversely, the political role of neoliberal educators, with its emphasis on production and the legitimization of inequality, is subversive ← 30 | 31 → of democratic education. The problem of social change and democratic legitimization of political power that is at the core of the pedagogical mission of the democratic educator is precisely what neoliberalism tries to remove from the educational agenda by reducing society to relations among individuals regulated by the market. In this vision, the mission for the neoliberal educator is to guarantee the availability of expertise for the effective management of the social order – and not to question the social order itself. Educators are thus deprived of agency, since the future of society does not depend on the actualization of democratic ideals but on the efficient administration of expert knowledge.

If the role of educators in the politics of education is looked at from the ideological binary I have suggested here, on professional grounds the challenge is complex but on political grounds the question is quite simple4. On professional grounds educators needs to question technology, as Ferneding suggests, and assess its educational uses in relation to competing ideological purposes and pedagogies. On political grounds, however, there is no alternative: educators can either subvert or support ideological efforts in one direction or another.

Every ideology seeks to transform society in order to assure the conditions for its survival. Every ideology therefore contains some subversive elements. Democratic utopia has been, and still is, powerfully subversive. Neoliberalism is no less subversive of democratic institutions, especially when it comes to public education, a most fundamental one among them. In the United States, for example:

The neoliberal cuts in state services…has meant a resurgence in inequality… The earlier emphasis on public education has given way to its privatizing erosion at all levels, whether through charter schools and vouchers, through distance-learning programs for the racial poor on reservation, the dramatic privatization of higher education, or through the introduction of user fees for libraries and museums and their transformation by the culture industry model of urban branding into sites for tourist attraction. (Davidson & Goldberg, 2010: 79) ← 31 | 32 →

In these circumstances, the idea of a non-political role for educators is as false and manipulative as much as the idea that in our age ideologies are dead. Both these ideas serve the ideological ambitions of neoliberalism. Those who believe that ideologies are dead, are those inclined to accept the ideals, values and practice of neoliberalism out of despair, if for no other reasons: because they think there is no alternative to the rule of the ‘free market’. Educators who believe their role is a-political or non-political accept the idea that someone else can decide on their future. Most importantly, in their explicit or implicit pedagogy (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1990 (1970)), they educate future generations to accept the same ideas. Needless to say, these beliefs are also those that make educators more compliant with the managerial leadership in educational institutions, therefore contributing to the intellectual isolation of dissidents.

In a political perspective, the role of educators is a crucial one. The effective transmission of knowledge, values and beliefs associated with ideological representations of the role of technology and the future of society depends greatly on them. It can be debated if the professional ethics of educators, very broadly speaking, make them more inclined to subscribe to democratic rather than neoliberal values: to the ideas and vision of democratic education rather than those of global capitalism. What seems clear in the current stage, however, is that the effort to bring about the reform of education along technocentric and neoliberal lines deals with the role of educators in terms of compliance or removal: compliance with the prescriptions of global capitalism, or removal of their influence in education – also through the affordances offered by technocentric interpretations of digital technology. The ‘politics of fear’ (Robin, 2004), waged on the work-place by educational managers and administrators, can be effective against educators resisting the managerial turn and the privatization of education but also against their students when the fear of unemployment is manipulated to prevent the possibility that education may serve purposes other than the mere reproduction of the work force.

Greater effort to control education through technological or political tools, however, can be interpreted as a sign of crisis. In the ideological struggle for survival, more control is needed when consensus declines and it may not be too implausible to suggest that the neoliberal onslaught on democratic education reflects the deeper crisis of the free-market utopia itself. In fact, compliance with ideas and practices that more and more appear unsustainable to a growing number of people has to be secured through increased manipulation – and sometimes coercion. Here too, it is therefore not surprising that, quite often, the arguments in support of the re-profiling of educators’ curricula and professional ethics along neoliberal and technocentric lines are wrapped up in the style of urgency, if not outright emergency. In these arguments technology evolves too quickly and schools adapt too ← 32 | 33 → slowly; the labour market demands new skills and competences but the teachers are too incapable or unwilling to adapt their competences and methods to the new ‘learning environment’; the global economy set conditions based on ‘hard’ economic ‘facts’ but educational institutions are still too attached to ‘soft’ social and cultural factors, and so on.

The way educators and other potentially influential actors understand the role of digital media in education, affects the way they participate or not in the relevant debates. As an influential aspect of the politics of education, thus, this understanding is not immune to manipulation. The construing of educational ‘solutions’ along the predicaments of technocentric interpretations is supported by a rhetoric of emergency in which educational ‘innovation’ is bound up and subordinated to the fast pace of technological development and to the imperatives of the ‘global economy’. As in other forms of the politics of fear, by manipulating the understanding of the digital role of education, the elites whose interests are served by global capitalism and technocentric discourse can increase their influence in society. Forcing the discussion of the problems of education in terms of technical rather than political problems, in terms of cost-effectiveness and optimal solutions rather than in those of a competition over the future of society, is a way to establish the ideological influence of the free-market utopia.

Concepts, assessments and subversion

Each of the chapters presented in this collection is a fragment of the large variety of dialogues and disciplinary expertise participating in the debate about the role of digital technology in education. In this collection, however, they have been organized in three sections to suggest that a critical understanding of the aspects relating to ideology, technology and educators in the current debate has at least three useful entry-points: concepts, assessments and subversions.

The chapters in Part One, ‘Concepts’ discuss some of the main notions that feature in this debate. The first contribution, by Ulli Samuelsson and Tobias Olsson is on the state of research on digital inequality: on the questions addressed and the nature of the empirical evidence supporting the current debate, as well as on important research questions in need of more systematic attention. Daniel Chazan and Michal Yerushalmy focus on the future of the mathematics ‘textbook’ in the digital age to invite the reader to appreciate the interplay of social forces that will presumably shape it. Marlène Loicq discusses the concept of pluralism to describe some fundamental requirements of democratic media and information literacy. In their chapter on curation, Paul Mihailidis and Megan E. Fromm ← 33 | 34 → argue for the importance of this notion as a pedagogical tool to foster media literacy education but also ‘engagement, community and purpose’ among students. Filip Lab and Alice N. Tejkalova discuss the concept of digital literacy and its critical relevance in the education of professional journalists. Melissa Harness and Sultana A. Shabazz examine claims concerning the educational capacity of online communities to stop the deterioration of social capital in mature capitalist societies. To look at these and other concepts that participate in the debate about the role of digital technology in education is important to understand the power/ knowledge mobilized and nature of its ideological implications. It is this understanding which, following Michel Foucault (Youdell, 2011), can give us an insight into the strength but also the limits of hegemonic discourse: the productivity of power but also the indeterminacy of its discursive outcome and, consequently, the relative instability of any order. If the politics of education in this part of the century is indeed characterized by a discourse that reflects the hegemonic role of neoliberal ideology in the way both education and technology are represented (Ferneding, 2003), to challenge this hegemony one must pay critical attention to issues of meaning and question the conceptual grounds of these representations.

The chapters in Part Two, ‘Assessments’, discuss the features and impact of educational uses of digital technology in formal and informal education. In the politics of educational reform this dimension of the debate is important because this is where technology can be questioned and technological determinism rejected. In the technocentric culture of global capitalism, the assessment of the role of digital technology in education enforces what Antony Giddens termed ‘disembedding’: the “lifting out” of social relations from local contexts of interaction and their restructuring across indefinite spans of time-space’ (Giddens, 1990: 21) in the effort of transforming humanity in one big market through the selective exploitation and/or elimination of differences. In the practice of education, this disembedding is brought about, for example, by reducing the complexity of incomparable experiences and diversity in education to comparable outcomes measureable in terms of efficiency in relation to the needs of the global economy. Initiatives such as the Programme for International Students Assessment-PISA are in line with this tendency and with neoliberal ambitions in the politics of education. While the precise nature of assessment practices more compatible with democratic education and a critical culture of technology is an open question, alternative possibilities may seek to evaluate the impact of this technology, e.g., on the identities, relations and practices constituting the educational process as this unfolds within the coordinates of specific cultural, political, and socio-economic contexts. The chapters in this section offer a preliminary contribution in this direction by pointing to methodological problems, particulars and ultimately the ambivalence associated with the efforts of assessing the educational ← 34 | 35 → role of digital technology. Alberto Bitonti and Andrej Školkay report on a European project aiming at the assessment of the best practice of informal media education in all EU countries. Using qualitative methods for the analysis of the effects of digital learning on the educational experience, Barbara Szafrajzen and Karen Ferreira-Meyers identify loneliness as a major obstacle on the way to the effective integration of this technology into the learning environment. Two separate chapters, one by Katarina Panic, Verolien Cauberghe & Patrick De Pelsmacker, and the other by Rut Martínez-Borda & Pilar Lacasa assess the role of videogames to promote health education and to develop narrative skills, respectively, among primary school children. Presenting the results of a comparative research on the introduction of lap tops in Brazil, Ethiopia and Italy, Magda Pischetola argues why and how teachers are a crucial interface for the success or failures of similar initiatives. The motivations and the issues behind teachers’ acceptance or rejection of digital tools introduced in the classrooms through a governmental programme in Portugal and Spain are discussed in the chapters by Sara Pereira and Cristina Aliagas Marín & Josep M. Castellà Lidon respectively. Finally, Vincenzo De Masi and Yan Han introduce the reader to the role of animation as an educational tool in China, discussing how digital technology has changed a form of cultural communication that dates as far back as the 1930s.

In Part Three ‘Subversions’, the attention is on professional educators as influential agents in the educational usage of digital technology to oppose unwanted changes in the democratic ambitions of public education. In this part, Judith Faifman and Brian Goldfarb discuss the participative potential of digital media and the possibilities for engaged teachers to teach the ‘unteacheable’: knowledge and discursive practice banned by mainstream curricula. David Elliott and Scott Bulfin introduce the reader to the ‘digital underlife’ of a public secondary school in Australia, to reveal the pedagogical opportunities associated with the unsanctioned use of software. The chapters by Julie Faulkner and Dennis N. York & Ronald D. Owston discuss educational experiences aimed at supporting the critical appropriation of the affordances associated with digital technology in the construction and representation of self-identity among undergraduate and graduate students respectively. Gloria Gómez-Diago invites educators to reject the use of ‘privative’ software in education arguing for the pedagogical advantages associated with ‘open use’ software. In the meaning adopted here, ‘subversion’ refers to educational uses of digital technology that can resist or even oppose, in one way or another, the implementation of the neoliberal vision and the effects of technocentric culture. In a democratic perspective, the debates on this dimension are motivated by the need to identify the places of resistance associated with technologized societies (Feenberg, 2009), the opportunities available to educators, students ← 35 | 36 → and other non-hegemonic actors to oppose exclusion, to re-gain agency, and to effectively question the purposes and the practices inspiring the educational usage of digital technology. Rather than an alternative option to the previous two, this strategy relies on critical engagements with concepts and assessment to exploit the productivity of power in anti-hegemonic forms.

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  1.  This is a sentence attributed to Margaret Thatcher but quickly endorsed among supporters of neoliberalism.

  2.   Discussing the relationship between technological development and society, the historian of technology, Melving Kranzberg, formulated the ‘Kranzberg’s First Law…’ which ‘…reads as follows: Technology is neither good nor bad, nor is it neutral’ (Kranzberg, 1985: 50).

  3.  Peter Dahlgren, for example, over two decades ago observed that ‘the information revolution now unfolding will no doubt offer still newer methods for subverting democratic participation. Yet it should also hold out possibilities for evolving new strategies to enhance people’s political control over their own lives’ (Dahlgren, 1987: 24).

  4.  Here I have described the politics of education through the simplified lenses of an ideological binary – the democratic and free-market utopia – that is unsuitable for a lengthier discussion of the implication of postmodernism in the politics of education. If one however believes, with Lyotard, Frederic Jameson, and others that the postmodern condition is our condition and one that in fundamental ways reflects the free-market utopia and its technocentric ramifications, one has to accept also the idea that democratic educators are de facto positioned in a subversive role. On professional grounds, this role invites the reformulation of some of the concepts most affected by the postmodernist turn (truth, knowledge, technology, authority, etc.) in ways compatible with democratic values, beliefs and practices. On political grounds this role rejects the tendency of postmodernism to deny the role of ideologies and the fundamental struggle for power that is fought on the terrain of education and technology. See also (Aronowitz & Giroux, 1991).