The Rise of Educational Technology as a Sociocultural and Ideological Phenomenon

Key Takeaways

  • The rise of educational technology is part of a larger shift in political thought, from favoring government oversight to asserting free-market principles, as well as a response to the increasing costs of higher education.

  • The technocentric view that technology can solve these challenges combines with a vision of education as a product that can be packaged, automated, and delivered to students.

  • Unless greater collaborative efforts take place between edtech developers and the greater academic community, as well as more informed deep understandings of how learning and teaching actually occur, any efforts to make edtech education's silver bullet are doomed to fail.

Educational technology — known colloquially as edtech — represents efforts to design, develop, and use technology to achieve a never-ending array of desirable educational outcomes, including improving learning, increasing retention rates, enhancing teaching effectiveness, reducing costs, and increasing access. Throughout its history, edtech proponents have assumed positive impacts, promoting an optimistic rhetoric despite little empirical evidence of results — and ample documentation of failures.1 Regardless, edtech continues gaining momentum as a solution for the problems facing education. Why? Why is there so much interest in edtech when many of its practices run counter to the research, history, and theories of academic research on edtech?

In this article, we posit that the rise of broad cultural interest in edtech is a sociocultural and ideological phenomenon. In particular, we assert that edtech

  • is a response to the increasing price of higher education;
  • represents a shift in political thought from government oversight to free-market oversight of education;
  • is symptomatic of the belief that education, like training, is a product to be packaged, automated, and delivered; and
  • is symptomatic of the technocentric belief that technology is a solution to the perils facing education.

Understanding the environment that surrounds the edtech phenomenon is important; such knowledge may enable educators, administrators, researchers, and industry stakeholders to better understand our current social and cultural landscape. This greater understanding of unstated assumptions, biases, and sociocultural realities could contribute to practices that lead to more desirable social outcomes rather than continuing to use edtech in a way that may ultimately exacerbate rather than mitigate the very problems it promises to solve.

Here, we describe the above assertions and the sociocultural context that supports the prominence of edtech. We then offer recommendations aimed at addressing some of the shortcomings associated with edtech practice.

Assertion 1. The edtech phenomenon is a response to the increasing price of higher education.

In April 2015, Arizona State University (ASU) and edX, a massive open online course (MOOC) provider, announced the Global Freshman Academy partnership to offer a full year of freshman courses and credits to anyone who takes, pays for, and completes the courses in a satisfactory way. The partnership between ASU (an accredited institution) and edX (a technological platform) is just one response to the current high cost of a degree and its unclear return on investment. The Global Freshman Academy represents a longstanding interest in edtech as a way to slow down, stop, or even reverse the continuing cost increases in higher education.

This initiative and its coverage in the popular press are indicative of a larger trend to question both the viability of a college degree and the future of higher education institutions. Media coverage — such as The Atlantic magazine's August 2014 cover story, "Is College Doomed?" and Kevin Carey's 2016 book, The End of College2 — reflect a growing frustration with the rising cost and uncertain financial returns of higher education. Over the past 30 years, the cost of attending college in the United States has risen by more than 225 percent, while the number of students attending degree-seeking college programs has more than doubled.3 As enrollments and tuition have increased and state funding has declined, students themselves bear a higher percentage of the cost of education, leaving many of them facing considerable debt and hardship.4

Commentators and scholars have wondered whether the increasing costs and decreasing value of a college degree represent an education bubble on the verge of bursting. Perhaps unsurprisingly, education writers in the US, as well as in Australia, Canada, and the UK, have questioned the relevance and value of higher education.5 Others go further; for example, the Thiel Fellowship — designed for "people who want to build new things instead of sitting in a classroom" — offers youth $100,000 to pursue a pathway other than college.

Assertion 2. The edtech phenomenon reflects a shift in political thought from government to free-market oversight of education.

The rise of edtech is partly predicated on the curtailment of government involvement in education. Reducing governmental involvement and increasing emphasis on market forces in education has provided a space and an opportunity for the edtech industry to flourish.

To better understand this, we must examine the changing ways that education is funded. Though future federal support for higher education under the Trump administration looks grim,6 cuts to education budgets have been ongoing. In the past decade, US states cut 10 percent of their funding for the 101 top public universities,7 and higher education appropriations in 46 states have declined. In 1971, for example, the state of California provided 70 percent of the annual expenditures for the University of California, Berkeley; state support fell to 30 percent by 1999 and to just above 12 percent in 2012.8 Similar reductions have occurred outside the US. Between 1980 and 2007, for example, governmental financial support per full-time student decreased for most Canadian postsecondary institutions.9 At the same time, learning institutions continue to purchase edtech products, and, even though venture capital investment in edtech has recently slowed down, the edtech industry is described as "2017's big, untapped, and safe investor opportunity."10

If we view higher education as an economic marketplace, the reduced state support could be seen as an attempt to address the negative effects of government intervention on that marketplace, enabling the private sector to respond to market imperfections. This perspective, labeled neoliberalism as early as the 1960s, is largely based on the idea that a free market economy is most suitable for all aspects of society because competition will drive businesses to improve services and reduce costs/prices, and thus provide better products for consumers, improving society in the process. In recent years, an increasingly popular narrative in Australia, Canada, the US, and the UK proclaims that education, insulated from the free market, is bloated due to its protection from economic influences. If education were to function in a free market, the theory goes, costs would be driven down and better services would be offered. To address education problems, reform committees in these countries have recommended market-based reforms, including reductions in government funding, deregulation of tuition and fees, and increased competition among universities.

These policies point to a trend in which "lawmakers are taking up the minutiae of higher-education policy, pushing for increased performance and cost containment" toward an economy that approximates the free market.11 In the US, federal discussions of legislation to reduce the cost of higher education

  • promote online education as an inexpensive alternative to traditional approaches,
  • encourage technology-based public-private partnerships,12 and
  • ease accreditation restrictions to allow edtech ventures in the marketplace.

In the future, such trends may extend beyond instructional practice and digital platforms to the financial underpinnings of the educational superstructure. Under President Obama, the Department of Education imposed student loan system restrictions that were favorable to lenders, but the Trump administration is expected to reverse some of these changes in favor of growing private enterprise in the sector.13

The reduction of public funding for education, and the associated rise in edtech to fill the voids it leaves, has many implications for higher education systems. For example, institutions face a tradeoff between outsourcing operations and conducting them in-house. David L. Kirp argues that, "whether the practice is called outsourcing, contracting out, or privatizing, the impact is the same…[and an] endless array of activities that universities used to manage" such as bookstores and health services are now run by private organizations.14

In the edtech industry context, the market for private corporations offering online program management services — ranging from student recruitment to student support to instructional design services — has exploded, increasing from $360 million in 2011 to $1.1 billion in 2015, with a projected increase to $2.5 billion in 2020.15 The disaggregation of some elements of educational provision is often referred to as unbundling. While some expect that unbundling might reduce costs, others look at such practices with greater skepticism, anticipating, for example, that the outsourced pieces will relegate power and control to non-institutional actors. Other concerns center on the aims of private businesses in relation to social needs and conflicts between short-term and long-term goals, where educational institutions might have different aims than for-profit businesses.

Assertion 3. The edtech phenomenon is symptomatic of a view of education as a product to be packaged, automated, and delivered.

Despite the disappointing history of previous attempts to package education as a product and automate its delivery, such efforts continue. The lack of historical awareness with respect to edtech is readily apparent.16 As Neil Selwyn has charged, "the current understanding of schools in the digital age [is] hampered by a curious amnesia, forgetfulness or even willful ignorance of past phases of technology development and implementation in schools."17

An early example of efforts intended to standardize, package, and efficiently deliver training to large numbers of people — what some today might call education at scale — occurred when the US began its entry into World War II. At the time, the military relied on audiovisual devices to train a large populace of unprepared military personnel and civilians. While data evaluating the impact of these technologies are not available, the perception at the time was that training films and filmstrips enabled the US to efficiently and effectively train these individuals en masse.18 Despite a lack of empirical proof of efficacy, the quest for technologies to deliver training and education at scale has continued through successive waves of technological innovations, including radio and television. Through the early and mid-20th century, content providers and educational institutions invested heavily in information and communication technologies to deliver education via a variety of means and media. The producers of the materials were companies such as Encyclopedia Britannica and Disney, large-platform providers with the infrastructure available to create multimedia. The campus facilitators were originally reference-based professionals, under the designation of media services, people whose instructional design focus provided expertise in engaging such materials. The first wave of academic austerity coincides with the rise of personal computing, and by the mid-1990s most of the media service positions had been consolidated into other reference and library duties, with the expectation that the content itself could teach the student.19

This is an early example of how edtech products and services often automate, package, and deliver education by removing the need for instructors; a more modern example is the numerous MOOCs depending on recorded lectures and automated assessment. Such digital artifacts "remove the need for exposure to teachers, by providing participants with peer interactions and automated coordination and testing."20 Personalized learning software — which tailors instruction to individual learners' needs, skills, and interests — is another example of efforts to automate and deliver education. Its very idea is predicated on defining discrete learning objectives; identifying content to address those objectives; packaging content into discrete chunks; delivering it to individual learners according to various behavioral, emotional, or cognitive measures; and automating the process so that it can be repeated for many different learners in many different contexts.

Understanding the current and historical efforts to use edtech to automate and mechanize education is important. Such an understanding might give administrators and practitioners insights into the types of practices and activities that edtech fosters. Such technologies are rarely neutral, and understanding their biases — especially their biases toward packaging and automating education delivery — should lead us to ask critical questions as to their goals and implications. Sian Bayne even noted that it's "not that automated methods are undesirable — on the contrary, the computational turn in education is both exciting and important — it is rather that the terms on which they are proposed are driven by a productivity-oriented solutionism which has been critiqued for decades now."21

Assertion 4. The edtech phenomenon is symptomatic of the technocentric belief that technology is the most efficient solution to the problems of higher education.

Edtech's promises are premised on the notion of technology as a silver bullet. Technology's widespread impact on society has generated the expectation that it will also transform education. Such expectations have a long history. The early 2010s saw the resurgence of narratives focusing on two ideas:

  • techno-determinism, which holds that technology shapes its emerging society; and
  • techno-solutionism, which holds that technology will solve societal problems.

Both ideas indicate underlying beliefs, held both inside and outside of education, about the development of technologies.22 Technology has been promoted as a solution to education's problems by helping students learn and instructors teach in more efficient and effective ways — despite the fact that learning scientists and education researchers have long been skeptical about this idea.

Why does this technocentric perspective persist when researchers have warned about the pitfalls of techno-deterministic thinking's pitfalls and numerous others have provided overwhelming evidence that technology access alone has little impact on learning outcomes?23 Undoubtedly, many reasons exist for this paradox, but work by one of us (Veletsianos) and Royce Kimmons provides a lens through which we can begin to understand the persistence of technocentrism.24 That work argues that technology use in the broader culture impacts various subcultures and, as such, technologies that were successful elsewhere are expected to succeed in education. Following this logic, we would expect technology to disrupt education in the same way it has disrupted industries such as music and photocopying. Further, the work notes that, because technophilic consumer cultures found value in online collaborative projects (such as Wikipedia, Firefox, and Linux) and the practices that surround them (such as peer review), edtech developers have sought to apply similar models and practices to education (such as peer review in MOOCs).

The technocentric belief that technology provides a solution, however, shows an ignorance of the significant history and knowledge base surrounding technology use in education. Such lack of understanding is illustrated by public comments arguing that the education system has remained unchanged for hundreds of years — most recently by US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos,25 but also by edtech advocates.26 In fact, education and educational institutions are in a constant state of evolution.27

One dangerous outcome of technocentric practices and the dismissal of the field's history is the development of products and services uninformed by lessons of the past. For example, even though MOOCs were pursued to both disrupt and reimagine education, their pervasive pedagogical practices are primarily objectivist,28 marking a sharp contrast to theories of learning that imagine learning as a collaborative, active, emancipatory, and social endeavor.


The rise of edtech is underpinned by ideology: edtech is financially driven, adheres to privatization of longstanding public structures, desires automated or prepackaged contents and processes, and envisions technology as a solution in and of itself. From this perspective, edtech is neutral, ahistorical, and apolitical. It assumes positive impacts and is positioned as the answer to the strains and consternations of administrators, faculty, students, teachers, and learning institutions. Although this type of edtech may serve as a vehicle to improve the efficiency of various practices associated with teaching and learning, we question both its potential outcomes and its ideological underpinnings.

A microcosm of edtech's sociocultural positioning and potential to exacerbate rather than improve outcomes can be seen in the partnership between San Jose State University (SJSU) and Udacity. In January 2013, Udacity and SJSU announced a partnership to develop and teach a handful of remedial-level courses, available at a price less than a third of traditional tuition. The partnership was heralded as an opportunity to show how MOOCs could benefit underserved students and demonstrate the democratizing potential of digital learning. However, the partnership was paused after one semester and fully suspended by the end of 2013 because the scores of students enrolled in the Udacity courses were lower than those enrolled in SJSU's traditional introductory courses.29

Udacity's explanation? The course registrants were too heavily weighted toward historically underrepresented college populations, as well as students who had struggled in remedial courses before; this despite the partnership's stated purpose to serve those nontraditional students. The SJSU-Udacity partnership was one in which technology was prescribed as a neutral solution, but it actually resulted in abdication of blame and worse-off outcomes for students and the institution.

Nonetheless, if we avoid the misguided uses all too common today, the benefits of edtech lie within reach. Toward this goal, we make the following recommendations.

First, edtech programs should foster an understanding of the ideological, social, political, and economic contexts that surround use of these technologies. Such a need is only increasing; while edtech programs should continue to prepare individuals to design, develop, evaluate, implement, and manage edtech and associated instructional practices, we cannot ignore that fact that this technology is not neutral, politically or ideologically.

Second, given the divides between practice and scholarship, we recommend that individuals in the education field and its numerous associations — including EDUCAUSE — take steps to inform and educate the entrepreneurs seeking to create edtech about the essentials of teaching and learning: theory, pedagogy and emergent trends in the research. Although individuals often work for organizations that direct what they can and cannot do, many opportunities exist for academia to help bridge the gaps. Such education opportunities might include offering:

  • Short, intensive sessions on topics of pressing need, such as weekend-long seminars on what researchers know about scaling up educational innovations and what we have learned from successful edtech efforts
  • Standalone courses or informational materials aimed at education entrepreneurs
  • Degrees aimed at developing educational entrepreneurship

Further, organizations might pursue collaborative partnerships to create edtech. For example, researchers can partner with edtech companies to conduct independent research and evaluation or to offer formative critiques of products based on their expertise and knowledge. Similar efforts have been pursued in the past, but they are few and uncommon. For instance, Columbia University's Teachers College offers opportunities for entrepreneurs to partner with them to evaluate products.

Third, individuals working in edtech ventures can take steps to bridge the divides between their practice and existing edtech research. For example, individuals designing, developing, or funding edtech innovations could do the following:

  • Commit to support any claims they make regarding edtech's impact with empirical evidence resulting from transparent and rigorous evaluation processes30
  • Invite independent academic experts to advise on prototypes and designs, as well as proposed tools and innovations
  • Attend conferences (such as the annual Association for Educational Communications and Technology conference) that aim to develop a critical understanding of edtech, rather than focusing exclusively on conferences that celebrate and promote the technology, and explore how conversations at these conferences might inform your edtech products
  • Reflect on their understanding and knowledge of education, teaching, and learning, and take actions to develop a deeper understanding of each that goes beyond their personal experiences or those of select groups of students

Moving Forward

Some organizations and individuals are already pursuing these recommended approaches to edtech. For example, one edtech developer working on a popular video platform told one of us that she sought to understand how students learn from videos by reading all she could from the literature on the topic. As another example, Pearson recently shared a list of learning design principles it is using to guide its design and development. Such efforts should be applauded; unfortunately, they are currently the exception to the norm.

Edtech as a scholarly field and edtech as practice will both continue their efforts to improve teaching and learning. However, until greater opportunities arise for these groups to understand and benefit from each another, we do not foresee a future of close collaboration. As a result, it is likely that the results of their separate efforts will continue to be, by and large, disappointing. We encourage the community to further these collaborations when they arise with the ultimate goal of advancing the value of edtech in education.


  1. Craig Peck, Larry Cuban, and Heather Kirkpatrick, "Techno-Promoter Dreams, Student Realities," Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 83, No. 6 (2002): pp. 472–480.
  2. Kevin Carey, The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere, Riverhead Books, New York, 2016.
  3. US Department of Education, Digest of Education Statistics, 2010 (NCES 2011-015), National Center for Education Statistics, 2011; and US Department of Education, Digest of Education Statistics, 2015 (NCES 2016-014), National Center for Education Statistics, 2016.
  4. Sara Goldrick-Rab, Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream, University of Chicago Press, 2016.
  5. Anya Kamenetz, DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2011; and Kio Stark, Don't Go Back to School, Kio Stark Publishing, 2013.
  6. Donald J. Farish, "The Specific Threats Now Facing Higher Education," Chronicle of Higher Education, Nov. 15, 2016.
  7. Phil Oliff, Vincent Palacios, Ingrid Johnson, and Michael Leachman, "Recent Deep State Higher Education Cuts May Harm Students and the Economy for Years to Come," Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, March 19, 2013.
  8. George Breslauer, "UC Berkeley's Adaptations to the Crisis of Public Higher Education in the US: Privatization? Commercialization? Or Hybridization?" Center for Studies in Higher Education, Vol. 17, No. 13, 2013.
  9. Trends in Higher Education, Volume 1—Enrollment, Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, 2007.
  10. David Bainbridge, "Edtech Is the Next Fintech," TechCrunch, August 13, 2016.
  11. Megan O'Neil, "Pushed by Lawmakers, U. of Florida Dives into Online Education," Chronicle of Higher Education, 2014.
  12. For example, in a 2013 policy speech detailing the government's efforts to make college more affordable, President Barack Obama pointed to a public-private partnership at the Georgia Institute of Technology with MOOC provider Udacity and telecommunications corporation AT&T; the partnership was designed to offer graduate degrees through online coursework in computer science. For more on this, see Ry Rivard, "Massive (But Not Open)," Inside Higher Ed, May 14, 2013.
  13. Shahien Nasiripour, "The Trump Era Is Already Giving a Boost to Sagging Student Lenders," Bloomberg, December 11, 2016.
  14. David L. Kirp, Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line: The Marketing of Higher Education, Harvard University Press, 2013.
  15. ICEF Monitor, "Private Partners Helping to Drive Growth of US Higher Education Online," October 27, 2015.
  16. Gregory Ferenstein, "How California's Online Education Pilot Will End College as We Know It," TechCrunch, January 15, 2013; and Natasha Singer, "Silicon Valley Turns Its Eye to Education," New York Times, January 11, 2015.
  17. Neil Selwyn, "In Praise of Pessimism—The Need for Negativity in Educational Technology," British Journal of Educational Technology, Vol. 42, No. 5 (2011): 713–718.
  18. Paul Saettler, The Evolution of American Educational Technology, Information Age Publishing, 2004.
  19. Rolin Moe and Linda Polin, "TPACK as a Framework for Educational Technology Instruction and Practice," in Online Teaching in K–12: Issues, Methods, and Best Practices for Teachers and Administrators, Sarah Bryans-Bongey and Kevin J. Graziano, eds. (Medford, NJ: Information Today, 2016).
  20. Marisa Ponti, "Hei Mookie! Where Do I Start? The Role of Artifacts in an Unmanned MOOC," Proceedings 47th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, 2014, 1625–1634.
  21. Sian Bayne, "Teacherbot: Interventions in Automated Teaching," Teaching in Higher Education, Vol. 20, No. 4 (2015): 37–41.
  22. John Coleman, "Introduction: Digital Technologies in the Lives of Young People," Oxford Review of Education, Vol. 38, No. 1 (2012): 37–41.
  23. Larry Cuban, Oversold and Underused: Reforming Schools through Technology 1980–2000, Harvard University Press, 2001; Seymour Papert, "Computer Criticism vs. Technocentric Thinking," Educational Researcher, Vol. 16, No. 1 (1987): 22–30; and Yong Zhao, Jing Lei, Bo Yan, Chun Lai, and Hueyshan Sophia Tan, "What Makes the Difference? A Practical Analysis of Research on the Effectiveness of Distance Education," Teachers College Record, Vol. 107, No. 8 (2005): 1836–1884.
  24. George Veletsianos and Royce Kimmons, "Networked Participatory Scholarship: Emergent Techno-Cultural Pressures Toward Open and Digital Scholarship in Online Networks," Computers & Education, Vol. 58, No. 2 (2012): 766–774.
  25. Matt Frendewey, Krista Carney, Whitney Marcavage, Paul Dauphin, Kim Martinez, and Kimberly Sawatka, Teach Choice: The School Choice Yearbook, 2016.
  26. David Raths, "edX CEO: 'It Is Pathetic That the Education System Has Not Changed in Hundreds of Years'," Campus Technology, 2014.
  27. George Siemens and Kathleen Matheos, "Systemic Changes in Higher Education," in education, Vol. 16, No. 1 (2012).
  28. There are exceptions to this model. For example, connectivist-oriented open courses are grounded on networked learning principles, and pedagogical innovations may exist within particular courses. For more, see Sian Bayne and Jen Ross, "The Pedagogy of the Massive Open Online Course: the UK View," The Higher Education Academy, 2014.
  29. Ry Rivard, "Udacity Project on 'Pause'," Inside Higher Ed, July 18, 2013.
  30. Phil Hill, "About Those D2L Claims of LMS Usage Increasing Retention Rates," e-Literate, May 14, 2015.

George Veletsianos, PhD, is associate professor and Canada Research Chair in Innovative Learning and Technology, School of Education and Technology, Royal Roads University.

Rolin Moe, EdD, is assistant professor and director of the Institute for Academic Innovation at Seattle Pacific University.

© 2017 George Veletsianos and Rolin Moe. The text of this article is licensed under Creative Commons BY 4.0.