E D I T O R I A L Open Access
More than tools? Making sense of the
ongoing digitizations of higher education
and Neil Selwyn
* Correspondence: firstname.lastname@example.org
Grupo de Investigación de
Departamento de Didáctica y
Organización Escolar, Facultad de
Educación, Universidad de Murcia,
Full list of author information is
available at the end of the article
Keywords: Critical perspectives; Constructive criticism; Marketization; Neoliberalism;
Pedagogy; Learning; Digital technologies
In times of hype surrounding the ‘Internet of Things’,‘blockchain universities’,‘learning
analytics’and the like, this special issue of the International Journal of Educational
Technology in Higher Education starts from a simple proposition –how might we de-
velop critical perspectives and alternative visions of technology in higher education?
Our initial call resulted in the six articles that you find attached. These were written
from a diversity of perspectives, and therefore address a range of concerns and
approaches. We have articles that consider the implications of neuroscience for under-
standing educational technology, phenomenological reinterpretations of the ‘affor-
dances’of technology, and the politics of ‘big data’in higher education reform.
Elsewhere is a reassessment of mobile learning, a critical exploration of the ideological
underpinnings of national digital strategies, and pedagogical analysis of personalized
and adaptive learning. Contributions have been made by authors across Europe work-
ing in psychology and the behavioural sciences, social sciences, education research,
communications and the arts. We feel confident that this collection meets our initial
intention of problematizing the claims and assumptions surrounding higher education
in the digital age. This is an interesting and insightful set of arguments, offering a
useful counterpoint to articles featured elsewhere in the journal.
While we are happy to have amassed this broad range of critical perspectives, we are
not particularly surprised by the range of articles we received. The past 5 years has
seen a sharp increase in scholars expressing critical views of education and technology.
It is no longer an oddity to encounter challenging questions of the social, cultural,
political and economic connotations of digital technology use in higher education.
Nowadays, someone who problematizes the digitization of universities does not
instantly draw accusations of being dystopian or simply out-of-touch. After decades of
critical voices in education technology being simply ignored, or marginalized and
maligned, it is now reassuring to be able to claim that there is nothing distinct about
the articles that we present in this issue.
However, this is not to say that these articles do not deserve our close attention. As
one might hope, this is a collection of interesting contributions that raises a range of
important ideas. As such, we have decided not to waste our ‘editorial’space simply by
© The Author(s). 2018 Open Access This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International
License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium,
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indicate if changes were made.
Castañeda and Selwyn International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher
Education (2018) 15:22
summarizing the contents of each article in turn. If you want an overview of what each
author argues then feel free to browse the abstracts. Instead, we want to use this oppor-
tunity to reflect upon some of the broader conversations that these articles speak to.
The following list is by no means comprehensive or necessarily representative –so feel
free to identify alternatives. Nevertheless, let us outline a few over-arching issues and
themes associated with these articles that we feel are definitely worth taking forward
into subsequent discussions of higher education in the digital age.
#1. We need to talk about ‘learning’
Our first contention is straightforward - educational technology has yet to properly get
to grips with matters of learning. On the one hand, digital technology use in higher
education is a clear example of what Gert Biesta has termed ‘learnification’–i.e. “the
translation of everything there is to say about education in terms of learning and
learners”(Biesta, 2009, p. 38). Thus this is an area that is often described as ‘learning
technology’or ‘technology enhanced learning’, and where technologies are framed in
terms of their association with learning –i.e. ‘learning management systems’and ‘learn-
ing analytics’. This clearly limits the ways in which digital technologies are understood.
As Biesta points out, there are many other aspects to education that stretch well
beyond issues of learning. Framing digital technologies in terms of learning therefore
obscures the socialization, subjectification and qualification purposes of education –as
well as the political, economic and cultural aspects of the systems being used. As has
been argued before, the most prevalent function of an ‘learning management system’in
universities is usually to support management rather than learning (Selwyn, 2016).
Continually presenting educational technology through a learning lens renders our
understandings abstracted from these other contexts of purpose.
On the other hand, while this is a field that likes to talk continuously about
learning, it is striking how little of substance is said on the topic. Indeed, it is
striking how little is known about the relationships between technology use and
learning. Many discussions of education technology appear remarkably incurious
about how learning might actually take place. Much work on technology-based
learning appears unconnected to an explicit model of learning, and even those
studies that do make reference to learning theories often do not fully follow this
through. When learning theory is used there is an overreliance on ‘pre-digital’
theories of learning more suited to mid-twentieth century European classrooms
than contemporary digital settings. Moreover, popular ‘theories’of digital learning
(such as connectivism and connected learning) are little more than flat descriptions
of the logistics of online information seeking and communication. It is notable that
many of the sharpest minds who once worked in the area of technology and learn-
ingarenowmovingintotheareasofthe‘learning sciences’and ‘learning complex-
ity’–recognizing that serious scholarship about learning is perhaps most fruitfully
pursued outside of the field of educational technology.
In this sense, discussions of educational technology in higher education clearly need
to be focused more sharply on working out, first what technology-based learning is,
and then how learning is conceptualized in the design and deployment of technologies
in universities. This will require sustained theorizing about the new biotechnological
Castañeda and Selwyn International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education (2018) 15:22 Page 2 of 10
qualities of interconnected learning –especially in terms of how learning is moving be-
yond the boundaries of the brain, and what it means to learn when the prospect
of accumulating transformed information in our brains is no longer sufficient
(Clark, 2003). This will also require consideration of how established self-regulation
mechanisms of learning are challenged by the use of technologies (Azevedo, 2009;
Dabbagh & Kitsantas, 2012), and what new forms of self-regulation and self-determined
learning are now best supported by digital technologies. All told, there is much about
‘learning’that needs to be re-thought and re-conceptualized.
#2. We need to talk about pedagogy
Another surprising gap in discussions around digital technology and higher education
is pedagogy. Looking back, it is notable how many studies published in the area of
educational technology –even those having a great impact on subsequent literature –
pay little consideration to underlying pedagogies and teaching models. Throughout
most discussions of the development and implementation of technologies in higher
education, there is little consideration of this fundamental element of educational
action. Of course, this lack of acknowledgement of pedagogy does not mean that
pedagogy is absent from these actions. On the contrary, pedagogy is inherently part
of any educational technology use. Thus not explicitly addressing the pedagogical
foundations of any instance of digital education makes it difficult to robustly ques-
tion (let alone change) the ways in which the technology is being used to support
This lack of pedagogic insight fundamentally limits what can be said about digital
technology in an educational sense. At best, then, the pedagogies of technology-
based education are framed as taken-for-granted and non-negotiable. Conversely,
the supposedly ‘urgent’issues that instead take up the time and attention of educa-
tional technologists (such as instrumental or contextual concerns over ‘what works
and why?’), cannot be fully understood or addressed without detailed knowledge of
the pedagogical underpinnings of the technology use (Cobo, 2016). Talking about
pedagogy implies being concerned about all aspects of any educational process –
be it intellectual, structural, or instrumental terms. Paying close attention to
pedagogy allows us to understand that the educational use of technology is not a
chaotic process with dynamics that are governed by chance. Instead, any educa-
tional use of technology is a complex process that is shaped, conditioned, and
modified by a range of pedagogic actors and influences. All of these elements need
to be known if we are to understand or improve the educational process (Decuypere &
This raises a range of important questions about any forms of technology use in edu-
cation. For example, what is the knowledge being developed, how do we understand
how knowledge is generated and transformed (epistemology)? What are the most im-
portant processes to support people to learn (psychology)? What processes are set in
motion in the processes of teaching and learning with the technology (didactics)? What
role do the other pedagogic agents play and under what conditions do they operate?
All of these are fundamental questions when it comes to understanding any educational
process (Bartolomé, Castañeda, & Adell, 2018).
Castañeda and Selwyn International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education (2018) 15:22 Page 3 of 10
These might appear to be dry, boring details in comparison to the more exciting, cre-
ative, playful or even disruptive discussions of educational technology use. Yet sidestep-
ping consideration of these important issues of pedagogic intent and epistemological
outcomes clearly limits the scope of understanding what digital technologies are being
used for in higher education, and with what consequences. The ‘educational’element
of educational technology is not simply common-sense or implicit. We need to develop
visions that go beyond conceptualising digital technology as an instrument within
instructional design (what might be called the classic object of interest within the field
of educational technology) or a systemic conditioner of education as a specialized
communication process (Aagaard, 2018). Instead, discussions about the pedagogic
underpinnings of the technologies being used in university teaching and learning are
much-needed and long over-due.
#3. Acknowledging the ‘human’aspects of digital technology use in education
Thirdly, it is important for discussions of educational technology to extend beyond
‘rational’aspects of the educational process (e.g. discussions of the informational, cogni-
tive or neurological aspects of teaching and learning), and also give full consideration to
education as a profoundly emotional and human process. It seems that there is a
pronounced trend in many discussions of education and technology to discount (or even
deny) affective aspects of the higher education experience. Much work continues to
conceptualize education simply as a “collection of expertise and demonstrable abilities”
(Zeide, 2017, p. 169). In contrast, cultural, affective, spiritual, emotional, and ecological
aspects (Coeckelbergh, 2018; Earp & Savulescu, 2018), are either assumed to be ‘over-
come’through hyper-rationalist forms of digital education, or else somehow controlled
and re-programmable (Williamson, 2017). All of these perspectives work to denaturalize
technology-based education and deny that is remains a human endeavour shaped by basic
Instead, more attention needs to be paid to the interplay between the use of digital
technology and people’s emotions, feelings and affect. This is essential if we are to fully
engage with issues such as identity, responsibility and accountability, as well as the idea
of digital technology use as a collective endeavour grounded in social relations. More-
over, it is also important to explore how the use of digital technologies in higher educa-
tion settings profoundly shapes the emotions, moods and feelings of students and staff.
The ways in which digital technologies are used in/for university plays an increasingly
key part in the production of student and teacher subjectivities. As such, digital tech-
nologies do not simply support the transmission or exchange of information between
staff and students. Instead, these technologies mould peoples’values, beliefs and behav-
iours. Conversely, it is also necessary to explore how these digital technologies are
themselves shaped by people’s emotions, moods and feelings –for example, exhaustion
and excitement, boredom and flow, discomfort and relief. All of these issues highlight
an area of change that is difficult to pin down –that is, how digital technologies are
altering what it is to be human while at university. For example, how are digital
technologies mitigating and/or exacerbating feelings of disconnection, distancing and
what might be termed ‘alienation’? How are people proving able to accommodate
mismatches between human feelings and machine logics?
Castañeda and Selwyn International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education (2018) 15:22 Page 4 of 10
#4. Digital technologies and the (hyper) individualisation of digital education
Digital technologies are certainly proving to be a key vehicle for recasting higher educa-
tion as an individualized activity. Indeed, some of the most prevalent forms of digital
technology in higher education seem based on the implicit framing of individual
students taking responsibility for decision-making with regards to their education, as
well as dealing with the consequences of these decisions. We are told, for example,
how digital education demands increased levels of self-dependence and entrepre-
neurial thinking on the part of students, with educational success dependent
primarily on students’ability to self-direct their engagement with learning through
various preferred forms of digital technology. In this sense, technology-based
learning is increasingly positioned as an implicitly self-centred endeavour. Digital
technology places students in personal formative cycles, and individual feedback
loops. Individuals –students alongside lecturers and academics - are expected to
become industrious self-improvers, driven by external goals and striving to improve
one’s own performance.
Alongside this individualization of action is the reframing of higher education along
less collective lines. Unencumbered by the need to learn and work with those in our
immediate contexts, educational technologies are sold on the promise of making it eas-
ier to interact and learn with other people of our own choosing. One widely touted
benefit of this is that the dispersed ‘communities’of remote learners and academics
established through digital technologies differ considerably in terms of social diversity,
obligation, solidarity and social relations. All these changes may well have merit, yet
need to be acknowledged more openly and vigorously discussed. One concern that
readily springs to mind is how such shifts in emphasis sit with the traditional values
and desires of ‘public education’–i.e. education as a public good rather than private
interest, and learning as a social rather than solipsistic undertaking. At best, these indi-
vidualistic constructions of digital education could be said to be doing little to reflect
issues of social justice, inequality or the notion of education as a collective public good.
Depending on one’s perspective such gaps may –or may not –constitute a problem,
but these issues at least deserve more consideration within discussions of higher educa-
tion and digital technology.
This raises a number of important questions. For example, to what extent does the
idea of the self-responsibilized, self-determining learner advantage those individuals
who are able to act in an agentic, self-motivated, empowered fashion –what Tressie
McMillan Cottom (2016) has witheringly referred to as the ideal of the well-resourced
‘roaming autodidact’? At best, then, it is likely that only privileged groups are able to
act in this empowered fashion. As such, a number of scholars have begun to unpick the
uneasy and often unconvincing assumption of the individual ‘rational’learner operating
within an efficient digital network (Blum-Ross & Livingstone, 2016). Even, some of the
objectives we mentioned before, regarding supposed emancipation of students, which
could be understood as the empowerment of future professionals who manage their
Personal Learning Environment (PLE) and which, as such, at least on theory are
considered desirable within the competencies to be developed within the framework of
higher education, actually are not developed almost at all (Prendes, Castañeda,
Gutierrez, & Roman, 2016). While digital education might work well for individuals, it
is likely to work better for some individuals rather than others.
Castañeda and Selwyn International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education (2018) 15:22 Page 5 of 10
#5. Digital technologies and the commercialization of higher education
The use of digital technology in higher education is now a multi-billion dollar business
which sees global technology corporations exerting increasing influence on the affairs
of local universities. Thus, the wide-scale digitization of university teaching and learn-
ing raises a number of different ‘commercialisations’of higher education that need to
be better acknowledged. In particular, the market-led nature of higher education tech-
nology has connotations that reach well beyond from the simple provision of resources
to university consumers. For example, much of the organization and administration of
universities is now shaped by commercially-provided systems based around models de-
veloped for business and industry. The rise of ‘content management systems’,‘workload
management systems’, performance metrics and analytics could be seen to key elements
in the steady corporatization of higher education –i.e. the restructuring and
reorganization of universities to function and behave as if they were corporations.
Similarly, the commercial design of educational systems and software increasingly
shapes the forms of teaching and learning that take place in universities. Regardless of
the pedagogic intent of university educators, the software they use shapes what can and
cannot be done in the classroom and lecture theatre. In this sense, it could be argued
that “engineers, data scientists, programmers and algorithm designers are becoming
today’s most powerful teachers”(Williamson, 2017, n.p). This draws attention to the
philosophies of pedagogy and learning that are ‘baked into’the coded design of the
software that universities purchase and use, alongside any corresponding consideration
for equity, critique and other ideals that might be seen as traditional underpinning
features of higher education.
It is also important to recognize the influence of the IT industry on policy and pro-
fessional thinking about higher education. Indeed, in one way or another, the influences
of the IT industry have been central to many of the recent technology-related educa-
tional reforms and innovations, sometimes in the supposedly innocuous form of “phil-
anthropy”that helps in times of crisis. These includes seemingly innocuous ideas such
as Digital Badges, Flipped Classroom, Twenty-First Century Skills, the Smart Campus
and personalized learning. All of these ideas have been supported and sustained by the
likes of Mozilla and Gates Foundations, Pearson, Cisco, Intel, Microsoft, Apple, and a
host of smaller corporate names. Altogether, this industry activity continues to generate
substantial pressure to reshape and redirect university education. As Kevin Carey
(2012) observed, the most influential thought leaders in higher education are increas-
ingly likely to be programmers, hackers and trillion-dollar Silicon Valley IT industry
that has grown up around them.
#6. Digital technologies and the neoliberalisation of higher education
Related to these issues of individualization and commercialisation is the implicit
advancement of neoliberal values through the digitization of university processes and
practices. While neoliberalism is often talked about in terms, there are a number of
specific aspects that are clearly embodied in the forms of digitally-based education
discussed in the special issue. In particular, it is striking that many forms of digital edu-
cation seem aligned closely with the promotion of market mechanisms and free-market
values. For example, the design of many forms of digital education appears to support
Castañeda and Selwyn International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education (2018) 15:22 Page 6 of 10
rational market exchange as a dominant framework for organizing and regulating edu-
cational engagement. Moreover, digital technologies are increasingly used to support
the overt monetization of education provision within commercial marketplaces. This is
apparent in attempts to use online education to diversify higher education provision
through alternate offerings such as the recently proposed $57,000 per year ‘Woolf
University’–an online service which strives to function as ‘Uber for students, Airbnb
for academics’(THE, 2018).
It is also notable how digital technologies are also often used to promote the reconfigur-
ation of education into a commodity state –i.e. framing education processes and practices
into ‘market forms’that have calculable and quantifiable value, and that are therefore
exchangeable. One of the values implicit in many popular instances of digital education is
the reconfiguration of educational practices and relations into forms that can be quanti-
fied and exchanged; governance practices are increasingly directed by market rationales,
supported and fostered by principles of international ranking based competition (Diez,
2018). This can be seen in the increased use of online metrics, measurements and ‘analyt-
ics’,aswellasthe‘unbundling’of components of university learning in the form of micro-
credentials, blockchain based programs and certifications, or digital portfolios.
Digital technologies are also implicit in the increased expansion of higher education
into unfamiliar areas of society and social life, leading to what is celebrated as an
‘always-on’state of potential educational engagement. Indeed, digital technologies are
commonly used to support the expansion of university education into domestic, com-
munity and work settings. The idea of being able to engage with university work on a
continuous 24/7 basis reframes the idea of ‘the student’around a neoliberal ideal of the
entrepreneurial consumer engaging with education on a flexible and self-motivated
basis. While often promoted as making access to higher education more free and open,
such forms of digital education clearly support ideas of higher education as a product
that is consumed along economically rational lines.
#7. The need for constructive criticism of digital technologies and higher education
All these previous points raise the need for usefully critical research and writing. As the
articles in this special issue show, being critical of digital technology in higher educa-
tion does not entail a blanket dismissal of all things technological. It is all too easy for
people to slip into dystopian fears of universities being ruined beyond repair by devel-
opments in digital education. Moreover, academic critique of digital higher education
should not be conducted with a ‘moralizing undertone’(Massumi, 2015, p. 14). As
Banks and Deuze (2009, p. 425) warn, critical academic observers are not somehow
“lifting the veil from the eyes of otherwise hapless participants”. Students, staff and
institutions who are involved in the forms of digital education described above are
certainly not ‘dupes’whose failings are only apparent to the outside academic observer.
Thus, critical accounts of higher education and technology should strive to offer
different - rather than better - perspectives on the topic. Critical scholars should not be
dismissive or discounting of other approaches. As Rita Felski (2015) reminds us, just
because other work is not critical does not mean that it is uncritical. Thus, critical
studies need to be conducted in a generous, open-minded spirit if they are to find a
place in the general educational technology firmament.
Castañeda and Selwyn International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education (2018) 15:22 Page 7 of 10
Similarly, it is important to remember that the underlying aim of taking a critical ap-
proach is the desire to make a difference. To be more specific, the aim of critical schol-
arship should be to make digital higher education ‘better’than it currently is. Taking a
critical approach toward digital technology use in universities is a constructive rather
than destructive exercise. Critical studies should set out to critique rather than
criticize –the aim here is to “make meaning out of things, not find fault in them”
(Watson, 2016, n.p). Thus, ideally critical studies of education and technology will
result in the proposition of alternate uses of technology. The ultimate aim of tak-
ing a critical approach to educational technology in higher education is therefore
to turn critique and insight into the production of alternative strategies. In pursu-
ing this aim, it is important to remember that any critique is never “the final
word”on a matter (Konstantinou, 2016, n.p). Instead, this is work that is intended
as the starting point of a conversation, and the beginning of renewed efforts to
look for better ways of doing things.
While these discussion points cover a lot of ground, this is by no means an exhaustive
list. If given another 5000 words to play with, then we might easily come up with seven
different issues. Each author could undoubtedly come up with a further seven issues
specific to their own article. The key point here is that there are plenty of important
conversations that need to take place about digital technology and higher education
beyond the presumption that technology is an instrumental issue that is neutrally
implemented. As each of the articles in this special issue illustrate, the need for critical
questions to be asked of higher education and digital technology is more pressing than
Perhaps the key sensibility underlying all these issues is that the digitization of higher
education is something that needs to be framed in problematic –rather than celebra-
tory –terms. In making this point we are not arguing that digital technologies are
necessarily bad. Rather we are suggesting that digital technologies need to be seen as
problematic. This requires an ongoing suspicion and scepticism (rather than cynicism)
toward seemingly ‘ubiquitous’technologies that are all too easy to take for-granted as
they recede into the background of everyday life. This also involves an active commitment
to ‘thinking otherwise’about how these technologies might be better implemented
across higher education settings. As Michel Foucault (cited in Dreyfus & Rabinow,
1982, pp. 231–232) put it:
“My point is not that everything is bad, but that everything is dangerous, which is not
exactly the same as bad. If everything is dangerous, then we always have something
to do. So my position leads not to apathy but to a hyper- and pessimistic activism.
I think that the ethico-political choice we have to make every day is to determine
which is the main danger.”
These are sentiments that one might not associate immediately with discussions of
digital technology use in higher education. Indeed, most people are a long way from
framing digital technology and universities in ethico-political terms, let alone as cause
for vigilance and activism. Yet these are sentiments and concerns that clearly need to
Castañeda and Selwyn International Journal of Educational Technology in Higher Education (2018) 15:22 Page 8 of 10
be more forcibly acknowledged as we move beyond instrumental questions of ‘what
works?’and ‘how can technology fix education?’. Clearly the role of digital technology
within the fast-changing machinations of higher education is complex. The six articles
in this special issue go some way to suggesting directions for future discussions and
debates. We therefore look forward to seeing these conversations developing in the
pages of this journal for many years to come. These are not problems that are going to
be resolved quickly.
Both authors read and approved the final manuscript.
The authors declare they do have no competing interests.
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
Grupo de Investigación de Tecnología Educativa, Departamento de Didáctica y Organización Escolar, Facultad de
Educación, Universidad de Murcia, Murcia, Spain.
Monash University, Clayton, Australia.
Received: 24 April 2018 Accepted: 2 May 2018
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