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Towards equity-focused EdTech
A socio-technical approach

What is EdTech?

Published: 20 December 2023

Rebecca Eynon

Technology is, in simple terms, something that is made in order to achieve a certain goal. However, precisely what people mean when they talk about technology and how they conceptualise it varies quite considerably.  

Some see technology as primarily a tool, as something that will enable humans to achieve certain ends, and often in ways that suggest it will inevitably do “good”. This view of technology can be seen as an “engineering view of education” where technologies are seen as relatively neutral tools that can be developed to achieve specific learning or other educational outcomes often with a strong focus on efficiency and effectiveness. In contrast, other scholars view technology as an artefact that embodies social, cultural and political practices; and that draws attention to questions of experiences, values, and social and political structures that are part of technology use (see Oliver, 2016). 

In this project, our work is firmly placed in this latter “camp”, where we aim to combine walkthroughs of EdTech (e.g. Decuypere, 2021) alongside ethnographic work in schools. In doing so, we aim to interrogate the underlying commercial, cultural and pedagogical values of different technologies, the political frameworks that position their use, account for the rich and varied social and educational practices when using these technologies in classrooms, and the potential implications for equity. 

In practical terms we are interested in all digital technologies (both hardware and software) that are used in schools. This includes technologies that have been developed specifically for some aspect of learning, teaching and assessment; those that have been developed to support the administrative functions of the school (e.g. for reporting, timetabling and record keeping); the everyday or ‘infrastructural’ technologies that are routinely used in and outside schools for all purposes (e.g. email, online search) and technologies that young people use for pursuing their own interests outside of the school that sometimes are brought into formal educational settings.  

Regardless of where we place the focus of our attention, none of these technologies can be understood in isolation. As numerous scholars have previously argued, it is important to understand our technological environment in a relational way. For example, this could be as a socio-technical ecosystem, network, field, or assemblage. Thus, our definition of what EdTech “is”, is necessarily broad, complex, and multifaceted. 

How we define EdTech in this project is important for achieving the two overarching aims of the project. First, is to provide a richer academic understanding of the relations between equity, technology and teaching and learning; and second to expand and reframe the way that the use of digital technology in schools is conceptualised and designed in policy and practice. This second aim is very much aligned with a recent call by Facer and Selwyn (2021) who argue that what is required for future school use of EdTech is a practice – policy response that “reimagine[s] forms of technology use in education that are explicitly designed to address issues of equity, diversity and overcoming disadvantage” (p. 143). This is particularly pertinent given the current political economy of EdTech, where many are concerned about the increasing power of Tech platforms and EdTech companies in shaping the future use of digital technologies in schools for primarily commercial interests (e.g. Williamson, 2021). 

Our deliberately broad definition of EdTech works well in achieving the first of these aims. A rich and multi-faceted conceptualisation of technology enables theoretical development and reflects the complex realities for students, educators, schools and families. However, maintaining a very broad view of what EdTech “is”, perhaps leads to more challenges for achieving our second aim of reimaging EdTech. If we take our cultural and relational definition of EdTech to encompass all technology used in schools, where are our reimagining efforts best targeted or located? Should we, for instance, focus on areas which perhaps could be considered “highest stakes” in relation to equity, those that are most concretely “EdTech”, and / or those where change might be most possible?  

These are important questions, but as yet we have sought not to close down definitions. We hope that through our fieldwork and engagements with varied stakeholders we find areas of focus that offer a positive synergy across these and other priorities. Most important, that these areas come from a rich understanding of technology and equity together with the needs and goals of educators.