The political philosopher Robin Celikates has written widely around the topic of critical thinking and critical theory. He contends that critical scholarship across the social sciences, arts and humanities has become quickly distanced from its radical origins – to the point where most reasonably-minded scholars are now happy to label their academic work as ‘critical’ inasmuch as it questions (and  perhaps mildly challenges) particular aspects of late-capitalist society.

Celikates argues that while this mainstream ‘critical’ turn across the social sciences over the past 20 years or so may be well-intentioned, it is sorely lacking some of the defining qualities traditionally associated with the critical tradition. In particular, Celikates highlights a drift away from the principle that critical scholarship is entwined with the emancipatory struggles of our times. This is the idea that critical scholarship arises from the concerns, grievances and struggles of minoritized and marginalised groups – extending these struggles by making connections to other social movements, and then working to raise a broader critical consciousness. 

Without starting from these emancipatory struggles and conflicts, Celikates reasons that the current cohort of critical scholars runs the risk of simply talking amongst themselves. More specifically, these are likely to be conversations around issues that academics have themselves identified as ‘critical’, while superciliously presuming that others have not had the time or insight to notice for themselves.

This raises a pointed challenge to those of us working in the critical studies of education and technology. Where are the emancipatory struggles and social movements against EdTech that our own work arises from and seeks to amplify? What ‘urgent’ issues does our work highlight that has not been picked up by non-academic audiences? Alternately, what existing struggles and opposition against EdTech does our work ignore? In short, to what extent can our ‘critical’ work around EdTech be genuinely said to be of public interest and importance?

In one sense, the often rarefied nature of discussions within the critical studies of education and technology is nothing to be ashamed of. In a world where the ongoing unfettered digitisation of education continues to be seen as an inevitable and/or desirable progression, then there is clear value in offering otherwise unvoiced alternative analyses and arguments that problematise, unsettle and oppose the dominant discourse of EdTech as a largely ‘good thing’. 

Nevertheless, there is certainly value in the critical studies of education and technology paying much more attention to the more prominent struggles relating to EdTech that have emerged over the past 10 years. One stumbling-block that we face here is that such struggles are not especially plentiful. Educational technology is not a site of widespread civil disobedience, vocal public resistance or strident social movements. At best, we might point to sporadic localised controversies such as student and staff push-back against online exam proctoring or personalised learning systems. Yet, these forms of mainstream public controversy remain rare – particularly in comparison to the numerous points of protest and disapproval that we find in the critical academic literature. 

However, this is not to say that political struggles relating to education and technology are non-existent. Critical scholars of education and technology would do well to focus on how digital issues are increasingly implicated in broader emancipatory struggles in education. Take, for example, the role that virtual teaching and outsourced online labour has played as employers attempt to circumvent the ongoing university lecturer strikes in the UK. Here we have seen the threat of digital technology being used by employers as a means of strike-breaking – bringing in online marking services from Australia, or offering students access to old video lectures in lieu of their ‘live’ striking tutor. This seems like a clear example where struggles around ‘digital education’ as a labour issue might be productively picked up by critical technology scholars.

All told, the big question of what the critical studies of education and technology can be said to be doing demands our renewed attention. As Robin Celikates reminds us, critical scholarship cannot be an autonomous enterprise. For our work to be useful, we need to ensure that our work does descend into a vacuum of inward-looking academic concerns, but is more forcibly situated within the forms of social struggle that are actually emerging around the continued digitisation of education. In these current times of growing social and political unrest, we need our work to play a genuinely critical role in pushing for change.



Celikates, R.  (2018).   Critical Theory and the Unfinished Project of Mediating Theory and Practice. in Honneth, A.,  Gordon, P. and Hammer, E. (eds.): The Routledge Companion to the Frankfurt School. Routledge (pp.206-220)