Book review – Selwyn, Neil 2017. Education and Technology: Key Issues and Debates

Selwyn, Neil 2017. Education and Technology: Key Issues and Debates, Second Edition. Bloomsbury

Professor Neil Selwyn is one of the leading academics on technology and education, developing a reputation for high quality and critical work examining exclusion, literacy, policy and rigorous examination of students’ experiences. Based on Selwyn’s research reputation, I was keen to review his latest book on Education and Technology. True to form, this book provides a reflective, challenging and comprehensive overview of core concepts and debates in education and technology. This is definitely a concept or theory book, reviewing the history and development of current thinking on educational technology. Selwyn challenges many common assumptions about the role and purpose of technology, including established models of the role of technology in learning environments. In short, this is a great book to get you thinking.

The preface outlines the book’s “take home” message as being “less idealistic and more realistic” about the role of technology in and for education, emphasizing the importance of thinking carefully about both. The book is broken into 8 chapters, each of which is followed by a helpful set of further questions and further readings, including web links to discussions about additional questions and unresolved issues. These features are useful for readers who are new to the subject as well as those who are more experienced.

Chapter 1 begins with a thorough grounding of the popular and academic meanings of education (based in learning) and technology (based on techne – craft and knowledge), urgently reminding readers to break assumptions that one naturally improves the other. My favourite part of the introductory chapters comes at the end of chapter 2 in “the imperatives of disruptive innovation” section. Here, Selwyn calls out the association of technology on-its-own as fundamentally disruptive and emphasizes that broader change or disruption is embedded in context, involves particular sets of players and interests. It is only when these broader contexts also change, including key players, that technologies can be considered innovative or disruptive.

In chapter 3, ‘a short history of education and technology’, Selwyn challenges assumptions about technology as innately improving learning, pointing to a long history of communication technologies failing to transform education. Reviewing the 20th century take-up and use of film, radio, television and micro-computing, Selwyn argues that each came with high levels of “hype, hope and disappointment” yet none changed the dominance of “chalk and talk” style classrooms. While Selwyn convincingly argues that technology has a long history of making transformational promises without delivering, I found myself asking about technological enhancements to and for learning. Where might good examples of successful or even engaging technologies fit in with the history of education and technology?

Chapter 4 addresses learning theories, particularly those that have been most influential for the introduction and adoption of technologies in learning environments. Selwyn dutifully reviews behaviourism, cognitivism, constructivism, constructionism and socio-cultural theories, providing a summary for anyone interested in the pedagogical foundations of educational technology. The discussion of connectivist and connected learning as two of the key contemporary learning theories, are rich and engaging. Each of these focuses on learning as situated, active and networked, where connected learning particularly addresses learning contexts beyond the classroom, including the home, work, social spheres etc. Selwyn rightly cautions that although these theories provide important theoretical insights into the value of technology enhanced learning, there is still very little empirical work proving a cause-and-effect relationship between technology and learning improvement to support these theories. In my view, valuable ethnographic and qualitative work on connected learning could be better included here (e.g. Ito et al 2012, Jenkins et al 2015; Sefton-Green and Livingstone 2016).

Chapters 5, 6 and 7 address learning technology from the perspectives of the teacher, the institution and the rise of the individualized learner. Selwyn defends the role of the teacher as crucial for learning, identifying structural issues like lack of time, increased institutional pressure and changing classrooms as complicating the effective take-up and use of digital tools. Selwyn further addresses concerns about technology phasing out the role of the teacher, exploring the rise of teachers-as-facilitators and uses of teaching robots. This point is further emphasized in chapter 7, where Selwyn examines online learning, personalized learning environments and the wide-spread take up of students’ self-directed learning in and out of the classroom. Chapter 6 looks at the “educational inertia” embedded in institutional structures and compulsory education.

Finally, Selwyn concludes with a reflection on where this all leaves us. It is clear that Selwyn is critical of implementing educational technologies as a solution for deeper problems related to learning, teaching and institutions. Technologies almost always arrive with a cycle of hype and hope, a cycle often initiated without recognizing deeper issues. Selwyn argues that one of the biggest questions facing education today is whether schools will continue to exist in the future, and instead of focusing on the possible, Selwyn argues we urgently need to think about how technologies are being used. For Selwyn, this focus must include voices of learners, of teachers and of educational institutions. Based on this, Selwyn urges all those involved with technology and education to think carefully and critically about their work.

Overall, Selwyn is a skilful academic, offering readers a critical, historically informed overview of education, of technology and of the many intersections between the two. Education and Technology is a clear and readable account raising important questions and debates about how educationalists use and think about technology. This is a highly stimulating book which provides a great resource for anyone interested in or working with technology and education.

Works cited

Ito, Mizuko, et al. 2012. Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design. Digital Media and Learning Research Hub, URL:

Jenkins, Henry et al. 2015. Participatory Culture in a Networked Era: A Conversation on Youth, Learning, Commerce, and Politics. John Wiley & Sons

Sefton-Green, Julian; Livingstone, Sonia. 2016. The Class: Living and Learning in the Digital Age. New York University Press

 Dr Zoetanya Sujon

Senior Lecturer in Media Theory, Regent’s University London


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