Selwyn, 2016

Selwyn, N. (2016). Minding our language: why education and technology is full of bullshit … and what might be done about it. Learning, Media and Technology, 41(3), 437–443.


Educational uses of digital technology tend to be discussed in enthusiastic and often exaggerated terms. It is common to hear talk of the digital ‘disruption’ of education, ‘flipping’ the traditional classroom setup, and technology as a ‘game changer’. Industrial-era schools are regularly decried as ‘broken’, while various digital technologies are celebrated for kick-starting ‘twenty-first century learning’. Doubts are even raised over the need to actually ‘know’ or be ‘taught’ anything in an age where things can be found out on a ‘just-in-time’ basis. This is an area awash with bold assertions and confident claims.


openness, information technology, technology, bullshit



Key Quotes

These should not be treated simply as benign or neutral words, terms, phrases and statements (technology-enhanced learning, computer-supported collaborative learning). Instead, these are powerful means of advancing the interests and agendas of some social groups over the interests of others. As such, this limited linguistic base is a serious problem for anyone concerned with the democratic potential of digital technology in education. (p. 438)

Language therefore needs to be recognized as a key element in informing ideas and shaping actions within any educational context. Although it might appear a relatively trivial concern, close attention should be paid to the language used to portray digital technology use in education. (p. 438)

For example, a seemingly innocuous term such as ‘learning technology’ implies an unambiguous purpose for digital technology in education – that is, as a tool that is deployed in the pursuit of learning. Consider the implications and inferences of other common terms of the trade – ‘virtual learning environment’, ‘Smart Board’, ‘intelligent tutoring system’ and ‘connected learning’. Such labels convey a clear sense of what will happen when these technologies are used in education. Certainly, the possibility of technology not leading to learning and/or other educational gains is rarely a matter for consideration. (p. 438-9)

One useful route into developing a critical take on the language of educational technology is Frankfurt’s (2005) philosophical treatise ‘On Bullshit’. Just as Frankfurt contends, the language that pervades education and technology does not set out deliberately to lie or hide the truth per se. Yet, it could be said to conform to Frankfurt’s description of language that is excessive, phony and generally ‘repeat[ed] quite mindlessly and without any regard for how things really are’ (p.30). Seen in these terms, then, much of what is said about education and technology can be classified fairly as bullshit. (p. 439)

the past 100 years show that education has been largely un-transformed and un-disrupted by successive waves of techno-logical innovation. (p. 439)

Many discussions of education and technology are therefore the result of people talking loudly, confidently and with sincerity regardless of accuracy, nuance and/or sensitivity to the realities of which they speak. (p. 440)

For example, it is surely not satisfactory that the dominant framing of education and technology blithely marginalizes, ignores and/or denies the complex and compounded inequalities of the digital age. (p. 440)

Indeed, the ways that digital technology is talked about within educational circles certainly extenuate superficial, ephemeral and often banal aspects of the topic at the expense of any sustained engagement with its messy politics. This is also language that routinely normalizes matters of oppression, inequality and injustice. There is little – if any – acknowledgement of differences of class, race, gender, disability or other social ascription. (p. 441)

Instead, we find ourselves caught in a situation where the dominant discourses of education and technology work primarily to silence dissent and reduce most people to shutting-up and putting-up. (p. 441)

Fighting back against the paucity of educational technology debate and discussion is not an easy task. An obvious first step would be the sustained promotion of alternate language for educational technology – encouraging a counter-lexicon that reflects more accurately the conflicts, compromises and exclusions at play. (p. 441)

  • teaching management systems
  • instructional organization systems
  • work groups
  • places for 'required response' or 'mandatory comment'

Perhaps, we need a language of education and technology that unpacks more aptly the underlying functions of these technologies and exposes their political intent. (p 441-2)

  • content delivery services
  • digital resource dump
  • teacher monitoring system

I might add:

  • digital surveillance system

Let us set about talking more frequently and forcibly about education and technology in ways that foreground issues such as democracy, public values, the common good, morals and ethics. (p. 442)