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Digital technology and the contemporary university: on some research issues

Technologie numérique et l’université contemporaine : aspects de recherche
Neil Selwyn

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  • 1 Ses publications les plus récentes : Selwyn N., Facer, K.,eds., The politics of education and techn (...)

1Pour conclure ce dossier thématique, nous avons souhaité prolonger et élargir le dialogue en interrogeant un chercheur issu du monde anglo-saxon. Neil Selwyn est actuellement Professeur à la Faculté d’Education de Monash University (Australie) et il co-dirige la revue « Learning, Media and Technology » (Routledge). Ses travaux de recherche, au cours des vingt dernières années, ont concerné différents aspects des rapports entre éducation et médias numériques1. Il s’est notamment intéressé « aux non-usages ou faibles usages » des outils technologiques.

Marie-José Gremmo: Some of the research results discussed in this thematic issue indicate that the factors that can explain non-use or limited use of ICT for university teaching are on different levels: social identity, institutional recognition, scientific membership, teacher training. As far as academics in England and Australia are concerned, what are the conclusions you have drawn in your current research work about these topics?

Neil Selwyn: As people such as Michael Fullan have pointed out, the nature of innovation and change in educational institutions is highly complex and contingent on multiple and often contradictory influences over time This warns against seeing the nature of technology-related innovation and change in simplistic terms of any inevitable ‘impact’ or ‘effect’ of technology on universities. Any explanation of technology-related change and innovation needs to recognize the systemic nature of educational activity, and focus of the dynamics of how new technologies and techniques become embedded in the broader contexts of local practice.

In order to make sense of these broader contexts, I often refer back to the notion of there being ‘micro’, ‘meso’ and ‘macro’ levels of analyses – borrowing these concepts from economic studies. Another useful model is the idea of the institutional ‘ecology’. The ecology metaphor was pushed forward in ed-tech circles by Zhao and Frank at the beginning of the 2000s and is a helpful shorthand for highlighting the varied influences at the level of the individual student and teacher, alongside the layered ‘context’ of the classroom, department, faculty, university, local community, state and nation, as well as the presence of many different competing technological innovations at any one time.

Whatever framework you choose, it is important to recognize the wide range of factors that bear on the success of technology-related change. Recent research in the UK, and US points to a range of different issues in this respect. For example, Masterman and Shuyska (2012) stress individual differences in student educational engagement and motivation, alongside what Aleman & Wartman (2009) term wider ‘online campus cultures’. Shelton’s (2013) recent work highlights prevailing subject sub-cultures and the cultural and epistemological ‘fit’ between digital technology and different subject disciplines. Alongside perennial issues of technical support, access to resources, and poor troubleshooting, Johnson (2013) draws attention to the ‘practical theories’ and perceptions of professional control imported by educators to the innovations that they engage with, and which shape the nature of their experience with them. Another important factor here is the constraining frame of high stakes assessment strategies and the struggle to reconcile them with digital learning and teaching. All of these practical ‘ecological’ factors therefore need to be included in any examination of realistic technology-related innovation and change across the university sector.

Marie-José Gremmo: Academics, especially in humanities and social sciences, are often viewed as conservative and resistant to technology and technological change in their teaching practice. How would you qualify academics’ attitudes toward ICT? Are there sociological factors that can explain these attitudes, whether for or against the use of ICT for teaching at university level ?

Neil Selwyn: There is a long-standing tendency within the field of educational technology to ‘blame’ individual teachers and academics for not engaging with digital technology. Assuming that non-use or low-use of technology is solely due to individual deficiencies is to distract attention from all of the wider factors and issues that I was referring to in the previous question. It is helpful to see academic attitudes towards technology as more knowing, more aware, more astute than simply being technological dinosaurs or ‘Luddites’. Much non-use of digital technology could be seen as perfectly rationale, pragmatic or even strategic – especially in the face of wider pressures of academic work.

In particular, I continue to agree with much of David Noble’s critique of the ‘Digital Diploma Mills’, where he railed about the deprofessionalisation and deskilling implications of much technology use in education. Which academics wouldn’t try to resist or subvert a set of technologies that ultimately serve to undermine their professional standing ? A neat recent study also highlighting the sociological complexity of academics’ responses to technology use was David Johnson’s ‘Technological Change and Professional Control in the Professoriate’ (2013). Here Johnson paints a picture of some staff (usually senior, tenured, research-active individuals) being able to work around the worst aspects of technology use, and have some say in how they ‘do’ technology. At the same time, a whole range of more vulnerable staff (often younger and employed on fixed-term, part-time, precarious contracts) are very much having technology ‘done’ to them – coerced into using restrictive and regulating technology systems that did little but exploit their academic labour. Studies such as Johnson’s ably highlight the close connections between ‘new’ technologies and the ‘old’ politics of the university as workplace.

Marie-José Gremmo: Do you believe in a “generational divide” between students as “digital natives” and university teachers? According to you, which are the current boundary lines between students and academics in terms of ICT (non) use?

Neil Selwyn: The idea of the ‘digital native’ reminds me of what the Germans call an ‘Ohrwurm’ – i.e. a piece of music that is so catchy that you can’t get it out of your head. If you don’t give it much thought, then the idea of the ‘digital native’ makes perfect sense. When I introduce the concept to students (with the intention of debunking it as soon as is possible) I am always surprised with how many of them cannot get the idea out of their head, and continue to refer to it as fact (or worse still a ‘theory’) for the rest of the course. So I will begrudgingly admit that the beauty of the ‘digital native’ is that it is an idea that makes common sense. We have all seen (or at least heard stories of) two years old infants appearing to pick up iPads and then use them in spookily advanced ways. Most adults have all been bamboozled by teenagers’ rapid ability to use five technologies at once. At first glance, there are plenty of examples of young people who are apparently ensconced in high-intensity, high-tech lifestyles in ways that very few adults are.

However, if you do think about it for a while, then the idea of the digital native makes much less sense. There is no evidence that current generations of young people have some sort of innate affinity with technology use in ways that their parent’s generation does not. Even if some young people are spectacular users of technology, it is surely not sensible to presume that an entire generation acts in the same ways or think along the same lines. Many young people are fairly unsophisticated users of digital technologies. There is also the inconvenient fact that nearly all of the high-tech devices and applications that only young people are supposed to ‘get’ were designed, developed and innovated by older adults. Would you have called Steve Jobs (born in 1955) a digital immigrant ? The idea of a generational divide is a lazy way of glossing over the quite complex differences in technology engagement between students and staff.

Of course, people do realize these inconsistencies and contractions. In fact it is becoming popular now to talk instead of ‘digital residents’ and ‘digital visitors’ – acknowledging that some people (of any age) live fully in a digital bubble, while other people dip in and out. Although I’m still wary of any essentialising explanation, this does seem to be a more sensible analysis. However, it is important to remain mindful of context and circumstance. In terms of circumstance the boundary lines of social class, income, gender, disability and ethnic group continue to be very important. In terms of context, then it is perfectly possible to make extensive use of technology in one’s real-life, and then act differently in a work context. In this sense, it is not the individual’s capacity to use technology that changes, but the need or appropriateness of the specific situation. While the vast majority of people are avid users of mobile phones, there are only a few completely dependent technology users who would be texting or tweeting while having a family meal or attending church. Context is everything in understanding people’s uses of technology.

Marie-José Gremmo: One of the methodological aspects we have had to tackle in our work is the very term of “ICT”. In the French research context, there is much debate about the term ICT, which is viewed as vague and unrealistic. One article in this issue chooses the term “digital tools for university teaching”, another argues for the more conceptual terms of e-learning, e-research and e-management. What is your position on this?

Neil Selwyn: You are certainly not alone in coming up against this problem of terminology! Education and technology is definitely an area beset by jargon, acronyms and unhelpful language. There is a need for more clarity of definition, but also a need to not get too hung up on what term is currently de rigour.

In the UK, the rise and fall of the term ‘ICT’ was very much a political process. It became popular during the latter half of the 1990s firstly to distinguish between computers and computing (IT) and the internet and online applications (ICT), but also to denote a style of computer use in education that was based around the ‘end use’ of applications rather than coding and programming. However, ICT has now become a deeply unfashionable label. On the one hand there is a strong argument to be made for the continued use of ‘IT’. Some people choose to talk about ‘technology enhanced learning’ (which is full of presumptions !). However, I am currently preferring to use the terms ‘digital technologies’ and – when talking more about more creative and artistic practices - ‘digital media’.

There is certainly a need to distinguish between the use of digital technologies for learning, teaching, research, administration, management and so on, so I can see the sense in the e-learning/ e-research/ e-management … but I still feel that the ‘e-‘ prefix is as redundant now as the ‘cyber-‘ prefix was in the 2000s. Surely we are talking about digital technology !

One neat distinction that I recently came across was ‘instructional technologies’ (i.e. for teaching and learning) and ‘institutional technologies (i.e. for administration, management and governance). I also like Gregor Kennedy’s distinction between ‘learning technologies’ and ‘living technologies’. For most people (teachers and students alike), a VLE is a learning technology, whereas Facebook is a living technology !

Marie-José Gremmo: According to you, what research methods and tools are adequate for describing and understanding ICT use in university teaching? What positive and negative elements do you see if this research is conducted by university researchers?

Neil Selwyn: Research into education and technology tends not to be especially strong when it comes to describing the complexity of what is actually going on within digital education. Much of the field is concerned with looking for examples of technology being used to its full ‘potential’ – thereby resulting in enthusiastic case studies and very context-specific evaluations. There is clearly a need for academic researchers to take a broader approach to research methods and methodology, while also showing a greater concern for the quality and rigour of their research.

On one hand, then, there is clearly a need for the more detailed qualitative research that is genuinely trustworthy, ‘rich’ and ‘thick.’ There is a handful of genuinely illuminating ethnographic studies of technology use in education (and most of these at school-level rather than university-level) – there is clearly room for more of these looking at higher education. On the other hand, there is a need for quantitative studies that are statistically literate and appropriate, while also resulting in analyses that actually prove something. One emerging area in this respect is the growing amounts of ‘big data’ that are being generated by technology use in universities. These surely merit empirical attention and scrutiny.

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In all cases, then, there are clear benefits to be gained by researchers adopting more expansive and imaginative approaches to investigating technology and education. We all can benefit from getting out of our own personal comfort zones and particular methodological ruts. Researchers should be making use of the methods of data collection and analysis that best fit their research questions of the moment, rather than methods that simply reflect personal convenience or habit.

Aleman A., Wartman K., Online social networking on campus: understanding what matters in student culture, New York, Routledge, 2009.

Fullan M., The new meaning of educational change, New York, Teachers College Press, 2007.

Johnson D., “Technological change and professional control in the professoriate”, Science, Technology & Human Values, n° 38, 1, 2013, p. 126-149.

Kennedy G., Judd T., Churchward A., Gray K., “First year students’ experiences with technology : are they really digital natives ?”, Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, n° 24, 1, 2008, p. 108-122.

Masterman E., Shuyska J.A., “Digitally Mastered ? Technology and transition in the experience of taught postgraduate students”, Learning, Media & Technology, n° 37(4), 2012, p. 335–354.

Noble D., Digital Diploma Mills ; The Automation of Higher Education, New York, Monthly Review Press, 2001.

Shelton C., “Virtually mandatory : A survey of how discipline and institutional commitment shape university lecturers’ perceptions of technology”, British Journal of Educational Technology ; 2013,

Zhao Y., Frank K. A., “Factors affecting technology uses in schools : an ecological perspective”. American educational research journal, n° 40(4), 2003, p. 807–840.

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1 Ses publications les plus récentes : Selwyn N., Facer, K.,eds., The politics of education and technology, London, Palgrave MacMillan, 2013 ; Selwyn N., Distrusting educational technology, London, Routledge (à paraitre en novembre 2013) ; Selwyn N., Degrees of digitization : digital technology and the contemporary university, London, Routledge (à paraitre en juin 2014).

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Neil Selwyn, « Digital technology and the contemporary university: on some research issues  », Distances et médiations des savoirs [En ligne], 4 | 2013, mis en ligne le 10 octobre 2013, consulté le 24 mars 2017. URL :

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Neil Selwyn

Faculty of Education, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia
Learning with New Media Research Group (Twitter @LNM_Monash)

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