A Critical Lexicon of ELT in the ‘Digital Age’


I started this ‘critical lexicon’ in response to ELTjam’s ‘Lexicon of ELT in the Digital Age’ but, rather than just me having a go at ELTjam, it’s an attempt to take up Neil Selwyn’s recent call for us to ‘mind our language‘ when discussing education and technology.

There are numerous examples in ELTjam’s lexicon – not to mention their blog proper – of what Selwyn refers to as ‘Ed-Tech Speak’: adaptive learning, disruption, flipped classroom, fully flexible blended learning, instructional design,  m-learning, responsive language learning, twenty first century skills, and so on. Selwyn states that such language

is political in both its nature and its effect. These should not be treated simply as benign or neutral words, terms, phrases and statement. Instead, these are powerful means of advancing the interests and agenda of some social groups [e.g. venture capitalists? Silicon Valley entrepreneurs? Shareholders of massive IT companies such as IBM, Apple or Google? Owners of ELT businesses?] over the interests of others [e.g. teachers and students?]. (p. 2)

Quoting from Harry Frankfurt‘s On Bullshit, Selwyn is particularly concerned with

language that is excessive, phony and generally “repeat[ed] quite mindlessly and without any regard for how things really are.” Seen in these terms, then, much of what is said about education and technology can be classified fairly as bullshit. (p. 3)

The alternative for “anyone not drinking the Ed-Tech Kool-Aid” is “to distance themselves from much of the language that pervades digital education” (p. 3). I’m uncomfortable with the way that ELTjam’s lexicon further erodes whatever distance remains between educators and the startup world so I’m trying to push in the other direction by “recoding” some of these terms in a “counter-lexicon that reflects more accurately the conflicts, compromises and exclusions at play” (p. 5, my emphasis). Selwyn proposes this as a first step for “anyone concerned with matters of fairness, equality and genuine empowerment through digital education” (p. 4) (which no doubt includes the people at ELTjam and a large proportion of their readers) in the interests of countering a “‘public stupidity’ that is perpetuated through language that is “divorced from ethics, social responsibility, critical analysis and social costs”” (p. 4, quoting Henry Giroux‘s The Violence of Organized Forgetting: Thinking beyond America’s disimagination machine, 2014).

Clearly a greater diversity of people also need to be encouraged to speak up about education and technology. This would involve stimulating genuine public conversation about digital education amongst those who have direct and diverse lived experiences of it, providing a counterpoint to what currently passes for public discourse on the topic. Our attention would therefore be prised away from celebrity musings and privileged pronouncements and towards the voices, opinions and direct experiences of the various real-life ‘publics’ of education and technology – e.g. students, educators, parents, employers, administrators, designers and developers…Let us challenge the tired buzz-words and taglines that distort discussions of education and technology. Let us be more confident in calling out lazy generalizations and out-right bullshit. (p. 6, my emphasis)

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