Julian Sefton-Green: this changes everything! What does “the digital” mean for the...

Julian Sefton-Green: this changes everything! What does “the digital” mean for the purposes and practices of education?


By Julian Sefton-Green

February 2019 saw DER host a day-long symposium on ‘digital education futures’.  A number of ideas and provocations resulted from the day, some of them summarised in a previous post. Here, Julian Sefton-Green asks the “big questions” – questions about meaning, purposes and, indeed, the future of education and learning. Julian is a distinguished author and scholar who published extensively about digital technology in formal and informal educational settings. He is part of REDI (Research for Educational Impact) @ Deakin University

Featured Image: Chris Limb


In general, putting together the words “digital” and “education” (or “learning”), means finding ways to integrate technology more effectively in schools to most people. I would argue this is at best disingenuous and at worst dishonest because it refuses to face up to the fact that schools and education systems are caught in the headlights of the digital era. “Digital” may be an inadequate and overly technical term to stand for an extraordinary array of structural changes that are transforming what schools are for, how we learn, and indeed how we will live our lives as citizens and individuals in the future.

We tend to live our lives focusing on the “everyday digital” worrying about how many hours our children should spend on their iPads, the impact of autonomous vehicles, the erosion of jobs due to automation and AI. Even in our social lives spending time on Facebook or buying household goods on Amazon or searching for stuff on Google we think that the digital is simply a way of making all of our social interactions more efficient, and more oriented to helping us live more pleasurable lives.

Yet the everyday digital – which can also create deep uncertainties and confusions in family life let alone the ways that schools, teachers families and students are negotiating new kinds of conventions around, for example the use of mobile phones during the school day or platforms that connect teachers with parents beyond the traditional ways that schools communicate – in some way disguises the deeper challenge.

There are no single simple explanations for why societies have schools or indeed how being schooled makes modern societies run the way they do. Schools and forms of schooling have a long history. Nowadays most public debate and most discussion about education seems to revolve around its capacity to prepare young people for “jobs in the future”. Even though nobody knows what these might be we are used to living in a world where constant economic growth means changes in employment opportunities that mean children can expect to live materially more successful lives than their parents. But school is not just about employability, it is about involving all citizens in joint project of shared national culture; it is about preparing forms of responsibility (or compliance depending on how you look at it) to behave as citizens and law-abiding subjects; it is about visions of how to enable all to achieve their potential (whatever that might be); and it can be about forms of knowledge that societies value from learning to think about sustainability to mathematical reasoning (or in some cases the reverse such as a denial of evolution).

My key argument is that every one of the traditional explanations that we use to justify the existence of schools and every one of the shared assumptions we use to explain how schools work, what the point of learning is and how the norms of any one countries social behaviours work, are, in the face of the changes wrought by the digital,  in a state of crisis – that no society around the world is facing up to.

Just as the great American educational philosopher, John Dewey formulated the principles of education for democracy in the context of violent industrialisation, rapid urbanisation and unprecedented social change in a new and emerging nation, so the global effects of computerisation and the digital are going to transform the wider purposes of education in both liberal democratic and authoritarian societies.

As globalisation, automation and artificial intelligence contract and change employment opportunities and as the countries of the global North can no longer hold a monopoly on generating wealth, what does it mean to think of a curriculum for work in the future? Faced with the reality of needing more people in low paid service jobs, how can schools really support and develop positive futures for all? In the face of international global platform cultures what does it mean to talk about a nation when boundaries are porous – not just the people but for forms of expression and language? In an era of “fake news” and of predictive analytics how can representative democracy flourish when individual citizens can no longer be held responsible for the views that they may have? What does it mean to be a professional teacher in an era of social media and how can a school as a respected institution situated within a community and invested with so many hopes and dreams of a future conduct itself in a responsible way that genuinely meets the needs of its stakeholders?