Ben Williamson

ben-williamson

Ben Williamson is a Lecturer in Education at the University of Stirling. His research examines the interweaving of politics, governing, and digital technologies in education. He studies “network governance” in education policy, and is leading a funded project exploring how computer code interacts with educational institutions, pedagogic practices, and governing processes: http://codeactsineducation.wordpress.com/about/. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @BenPatrickWill.


Blogs (36)


Schooling Silicon Valley

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Silicon Valley’s high-tech companies, startups and venture capitalists are “the centre of a techno-economic revolution” that is “now spreading outwards across the world, with major societal effects and implications,” argues Alistair Duff in a new article. Surprisingly little research has been conducted on the Silicon Valley workers whose labor and learning contributes to this revolution. Here, I try to piece together some sense of how education is being organized in Silicon Valley as an initial attempt to answer the question: how are the forms of knowledge, skills, practices and ways of thinking that contribute to a


ClassDojo and the Measurement and Management of Growth Mindsets

Thursday, March 10, 2016

ClassDojo is one of the most successful educational technologies in history. Originally developed as part of a Silicon Valley ed-tech accelerator program, it is highly illustrative of how the entrepreneurial culture and politics of high-tech innovation is now infusing the field of education. Through successful products like ClassDojo, Silicon Valley is seeking to radically disrupt education, and in the process to popularize new psychological theories of behaviour modification that align with emerging governmental agendas around the “non-academic” measurement of school performance. Changing Behaviours ClassDojo is a free mobile app that allows teachers to award “positive behaviour”


Turning Digital Learning Into Intellectual Property

Monday, January 25, 2016

The world’s largest publisher of educational textbooks and resources, Pearson, recently extended its work into digital media and learning. As well as producing innovative new digital learning resources and platforms, Pearson is also positioning itself as a major center for the analysis of educational big data. This has implications for how learning is going to be conceptualized in the near future, and begs big questions about how the private ownership of educational data might impact emerging understandings and explanatory theories of the learning process itself. The Big Data Gatekeeper Originally established in 1844, by 2014 Pearson


Learning in the Digital Microlaboratory of Educational Data Science

Monday, November 30, 2015

In the last few years, Educational Data Science has emerged as a new field of inquiry in educational research. Where did it come from, what is its likely future impact on the production of knowledge about educational practices and learning processes, and how might it affect studies in digital media and learning? In sociological research, it has become quite fashionable to conduct studies of particular academic fields, their historical origins and development, and their methods of knowledge production. Influential research has been conducted, for example, to trace the development of psychology, neuroscience, behavioural sciences, and the


Uber for School?

Monday, October 26, 2015

Disruptive innovation. Bleeding edge. Scalable solutions. The Uber for X. Silicon Valley is routinely ridiculed for the language of technology entrepreneurship and startup culture it has dispersed. Yet, the Silicon Valley vocabulary is fast becoming part of the language of education, and major tech companies are using their massive financial power to create their own new schools. In the last few years, IBM has launched P-TECH, a network of “smarter schools” modeled on its Smarter Cities program. A former Google executive has established AltSchool, a chain of schools designed more like makerspaces than conventional schools. And,


Feeling Machines: The Psychopedagogies of Emotion-maximizing Media

Monday, September 14, 2015

It is now possible to measure and manage emotions through mobile apps and other digital devices. As part of my current research exploring the expert practices and knowledge base of the emerging field of “educational data science,” I have been gathering examples of educational technologies that are designed to both monitor learners’ emotions through data mining techniques, and also to manipulate their feelings. I term these “psychopedagogies” of emotional maximization that are based on insights from the psychological sciences and delivered through digital media. They are also part of a wider trend in the digital control


Software and Digital Data in Education

Monday, August 24, 2015

For the last two years, a group of colleagues from across the universities of Stirling, Edinburgh and Bristol have been working with me on a seminar series exploring how code acts in education. As the project comes to an end, we have produced a free, open access e-book: “Coding/Learning: software and digital data in education.” The seminar series was designed to address two particular matters of concern: first, the extent to which learning processes, practices and spaces are increasingly mediated and shaped through code; and, second, the emergence of a movement based on the idea of


Eating Robots: Data Diets and Hungry Algorithms

Thursday, July 02, 2015

What do robots eat? Contemporary digital data analytics systems feed on a diet of data produced through human activity. Through this feeding, robotic machines receive the informational nutrition required for their own development: to become smarter, more aware of their environment, more responsive and adaptive in their interactions with people. By eating human data, robots are learning. Feeding Societies The claim that we now live in a consumer society has become commonplace in academic research. People have become voracious consumers, but also, through their participation in social media environments, present themselves as desirable commodities for the


Making Education as Machine-readable as Digital Data

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Data have long been used to manage education. Data appear to make the messy complexity of schools and schooling more easy to understand, and help policymakers in their decision making. Now, with the rise of “big data” and associated data processing, mining and analytics software, a new style of digital education policymaking is making education increasingly machine-readable. In particular, education policy is now being influenced to a significant degree by the design of the devices through which educational data are collected, calculated, analysed, interpreted and visualized. As a result, schools and classrooms are being configured as


The Digital Imagination of Government

Thursday, April 30, 2015

In the UK, the last year or so has seen a massive proliferation of interest in digital education right across the spectrum of the public, private and civil society sectors. Digital education has now become the focus for a cross-sector “network” of interests and concerns, and, as a result, is now becoming “governmentalized” as a seriously political business. The consequence of this network of interest is the production of a shared vision of the digital future of society that digital education is to play a part in making into an attainable reality. Digital Government Visions In


The Future and History of Learning to Code

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Much of the discussion around ‘learning to code’ is couched in futuristic terms. By learning to code, we are told, young people will be equipped to become the innovators, tech entrepreneurs and civic leaders of the future. Yet, much less is said about the history underpinning learning to code, and how such an appreciation of its past might enrich our understanding of its future. Future Codes Before considering its past, it is worth reviewing some current claims about learning to code and its potential contribution to the future. For example, a recent UK report entitled “Young


Hackerspaces and Homeschooling: Making ‘Startup Schools’

Monday, February 23, 2015

The rapid growth of learning to code clubs, makerspaces, hackerspaces and even makercities has been remarkable. It’s fairly logical, then, that the focus for various coders, makers and hackers has switched back around to focus on education and learning itself. We’ve learned to code, hack and make new stuff, why not code, hack and make a new kind of education? Neo-unschooling A recent article entitled “Hacking Education” in Wired makes the case that many coders, hackers and makers are now choosing to educate their own children through the DIY logic of digital making. It profiles a


Computing Brains: Neuroscience, Machine Intelligence and Big Data in the Cognitive Classroom

Monday, December 08, 2014

The human brain has become a major topic in education. The field of educational neuroscience, or neuroeducation, is flourishing. At the same time, a number of initiatives based in computer science departments and major technology companies are also taking the brain seriously. Computer scientists talk of developing new brain-inspired cognitive learning systems, or of developing new theoretical and computational understandings of the brain in order to then build new and more effective forms of machine intelligence. The important aspect of these synchronous developments in neuroscience and brain-based systems is that they are beginning to come together


Smart Schools in Sentient Cities

Thursday, October 30, 2014

What makes a city “smart?” And, in a “smart city,” what makes a “smart school?” Designers, researchers and commercial technology companies are increasingly concerned with the development of “smarter cities,” “programmable cities”  and “sentient cities” that are augmented with big data, sensor networks, and other computationally programmable processes  and software-supported practices. The smart city is an urban environment with a computational “nervous system.” It appears to have some form of awareness, intelligence, and thoughtfulness, along with some ability to learn and to transform itself. In many smart city programs, themes such as “smarter education” are emerging as important


Organizing Algorithms, Calculated Publics in Digitally-Mediated Education

Monday, August 04, 2014

Recent news reports have begun to reveal how various analytics companies are now data mining millions of children. The learning analytics company Knewton, for example, claims that 4.1 million students are now using its proficiency-based adaptive learning platform, which has served 3.5 billion total recommendations between May 2013 and May 2014 alone. The role of these predictive analytics platforms and recommender systems in education is increasingly causing political and parental concerns, largely related to privacy. Less acknowledged, however, is the increasingly autonomous and automated capacity of the software algorithms working in the background of these platforms.


New Centers of Data Visualization in Education

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Contemporary educational systems, spaces and practices are increasingly represented through digitally-mediated visualizations. Is the increased visibility made possible by visualization practices and technologies also influencing and shaping perceptions of education, and contributing to how the future of learning is envisioned and imagined? Cascading Data Education is a field dense with statistical data. The numerical manipulation of the school and the university is well established. These numerical data, including administrative records and student assessment data, have assumed significant power in educational policy debates globally. Statistics, collected and analysed in databases, provide a new kind of powerful knowledge,


Calculating the Child Through Technologies of the ‘Quantified Self’

Monday, May 26, 2014

The concept of the ‘quantified self’ has become the focus of global interest. Less acknowledged is the emergence of a range of technological devices and apps designed specifically for children to track, monitor and analyze data about their health, bodies and well-being. What are the issues raised by these technologies of the quantified self for kids? Emergence of the ‘Quantified Self’ In the last five years, there has been a sharp growth in the popularity of health data collection devices and apps for use in everyday life. The idea of a ‘quantified self’ first emerged through


The End of Theory in Digital Social Research?

Monday, January 20, 2014

Computer code, software and algorithms have sunk deep into the “technological unconscious” of our contemporary “lifeworld.” How might this affect academic research in the social sciences and the formation of the professional identities of academics? These are important questions for researchers working in Digital Media and Learning, asking us to consider how the digital devices and infrastructures that we study might actually be shaping our practices, shaping our production of knowledge, and shaping our theories of the world. Professional work across the natural, human and social sciences is now increasingly mediated and augmented by computer coded


Programming Power? Does Learning to Code Empower Kids?

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The idea that young people should learn to code has become a global educational aspiration in the last few years. What kinds of questions should digital media and learning researchers ask about these developments? I want to suggest three approaches: first, to take a historical look at learning to code; second, to consider it in political and economic context; and third, to understand its cultural dimensions. The importance of learning to code is expressed in catchy slogans and ideas like Douglas Rushkoff’s “program or be programmed,” and the view that if you are not working on


How Software Sees Us

Friday, August 02, 2013

How we think about digital media is paralleled by how we think about learner identities. What kinds of learning identities are being promoted for an anticipated future in an increasingly softwarised society? About ten years ago, the designers Dan O’Sullivan and Tom Igoe asked the question “how does the computer see us?” The striking image of a hand with one finger, one eye, and two ears that they produced as a response to this question—a simple yet weirdly obscene finger-eye-being—reminds us that the technologies we create carry built-in assumptions about the people who will use them.


Edu.txt: Mediating Education

Monday, July 01, 2013

Digital media are increasingly shaping how we produce, transmit and receive knowledge, but do we often pause to think about the techniques which now mediate how we think and know about education and learning? In the field of digital media and learning, the use of the web, digital devices and social media for communicating what we know about learning and education has become entirely normalized. We blog on education, we Tweet learning, we wiki about assessment, we Skype MOOCs, and so on. The stock of knowledge about digital media and learning has escaped from the analogue


Code Acts: How Computer Code Configures Learning

Monday, February 04, 2013

Computer code is rapidly becoming a mature part of contemporary collective life. Commonly understood as the instructions that act on software and computing machines, code itself is now however becoming a significant focus for social scientific research. Yet the specific influence of code on learning remains only barely researched. So how might we think about researching how computer code acts to configure learning? Rethinking CodeCode is the language of computation; it instructs software how to act. But as the instructions written down in code travel out into the world, organized in the algorithmic procedures that make


Learning and the Emerging Science of Behavior Change, aka ‘Nudging’

Monday, November 19, 2012

The language of learning today is full of references to “softness” and “openness.” Software, soft skills, soft performance, and the softening up of school knowledge go hand-in-hand with open source, open access and open educational resources in much current thinking about networked learning. How might this softening and opening up of the language of networked learning influence how learners think, perceive, feel and act? The emerging field of behaviour change theory suggests new ways in which networked technologies might be used as a form of pedagogical persuasion to influence and shape learners’ behavior, even at the


Coded Curriculum: The New Architectures of Learning

Monday, October 15, 2012

How should we understand the part played by code in digital media and learning? We are accustomed to arguments that digital media are affecting our existing practices of reading, looking, seeing and hearing, yet relatively little is said of how the underlying code and algorithmic architectures of software actually exert those effects. The work done by code and algorithmic architectures in remediating learning through digital technologies, however, should be treated extremely seriously. Code increasingly affects our notions of agency (who does what), and sociality (how we form attachments and collective belonging). Code is woven into the


Expertise, Redefined

Monday, August 27, 2012

What makes an “expert”? What makes for “expert knowledge” in the digital age? In today’s culture of digital media, new forms of expertise and knowledge seem to be increasingly available, with the result that young people are now being encouraged into new knowledge practices and incited to learn from and identify with new models of expertise. As educators, what kinds of expertise are we trying to develop in our students? It is fairly safe to say, in general terms, that, historically, education has tended to emphasize a “great minds” model of knowledge and expertise. What gets


Programmable Pedagogy: Reconfiguring the Future of Learning

Monday, July 16, 2012

What is “pedagogy” and what does it do? In the digital age, the future of education is being redefined in relation to new technologies and digital media, and we are having to rethink what we understand by pedagogy and its possible effects on learners. What kinds of pedagogies, then, are being configured in discussions about the future of education, and how might they configure the future learner? Programmable Pedagogy Pedagogy is often taken to be a technical term for teaching. But it is important to define it a little more expansively. In its wider definition, pedagogy


Methods for Shaping Society

Thursday, April 12, 2012

What do research methods do? Research methods are routinely understood as objective techniques for getting to know the world. Yet they may be more influential and socially significant than this, particularly as more digital methods are being developed and deployed. So what, too, do digital methods do? And why is this important for researching digital media and learning? In the field of digital media and learning, we use an array of social scientific methods in order to get to know as much as we can about learning situated in contexts that are increasingly understood to be


Wikirriculum: The Promises and Politics of an Open Source Curriculum

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The idea of an “open source curriculum” has until now seemed entirely at odds with the political standardization and prescription of the curriculum. Are there any signs that curriculum will catch up with the decentered open source potential of digital media, and what are the political implications? “Advances in technology should … make us think about the broader school curriculum in a new way. In an open-source world, why should we accept that a curriculum is a single, static document? A statement of priorities frozen in time; a blunt instrument landing with a thunk on teachers’


Digital Media, Learning, and the Future

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

New research findings from a global study of education systems suggest that the promise of a hi-tech, high-skills, high-wage future for kids is a fantasy. Does digital media and learning offer a better future? It’s always important to remember that the future has a history. Back in 1939 the satirical book The Saber-Tooth Curriculum showed how seemingly radical educational innovations can quickly lose their intended utility and become conservative even while they are justified on the basis of their supposed cultural value. The book explains how the “paleolithic curriculum” of practical skills of “fish-grabbing-with-the-hands,” “horse-clubbing,” and


The Cosmopolitan Classroom

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

The globalization of digital media has put pressure on education systems worldwide to be reformed. The emphasis is on schooling that will promote the cosmopolitan identities of globalized digital citizens. But what kind of cosmopolitan identities? And can we imagine truly cosmopolitan classrooms? Debates about digital media and learning and the need for educational reform have gone truly global. The proof is Rupert Murdoch’s massive News International corporation. At the recent global eG8 forum in Paris in May, Murdoch used his speaking platform to advocate a “digital revolution in schooling.” According to his eG8 speech, the


School, Work and Play: Decoding Digital Age Shifts

Friday, April 01, 2011

Learning with digital media is often articulated through an affective vocabulary of play, informality, enjoyment, and creativity, as opposed to the formality, standards and routines of conventional schooling. This difference in the language of learning corresponds with changing patterns in work. Employers now claim they want to hire more playful and creative recruits with portfolios of experience in social networking and online virtual worlds.  The 21st Century Workforce Mindset The links between schooling, culture, and employment are now changing as the growth of an “interactive economy” places new demands on youth both as potential consumers of


Happiness, Learning, and Technology: Why “Affective” Schools are the New “Effective” Schools

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

What are the connections between emotional education and digital media and learning? Faced with a global economic recession, civic unrest, and major environmental catastrophe, governments around the world are now obsessed with cheering us all up, especially kids. Measures are being designed to gauge global, national, organizational and individual levels of happiness, and well-being is being put at the heart of public policy. Ensuring children’s happiness now and in the future is therefore becoming an urgent aim for education. The State of Happiness Schools are emotional places. Everyone remembers their school days through the rhythm of


On Parenting, Media, Education and Phobias

Monday, February 14, 2011

Modern cinema can teach us how youth and media are widely understood in our cultures. Cinema, like works of literature and visual art, can represent and diagnose our widespread fears and fantasies about young people and about how we, as cultures, bring them up. Back 150 years ago, for example, Charles Kingsley’s moral fable The Water-Babies challenged child labor. Today, the journal “International Research in Children’s Literature” publishes scholarly analyses of how children’s literature can both help in children’s growing up and impose on them social and moral codes from the dominant culture. Similarly, analyzing the


Wikirriculum: Curriculum in the Digital Age

Monday, February 07, 2011

Developing a school curriculum is a complex act of creative design. Add networked participatory media to the mix and curriculum design gets even more complicated. So, from the perspective of digital media and learning research, what kind of approaches to curriculum design should we be developing? A group of researchers and curriculum developers recently undertook some initial work on “curriculum innovation” as part of the DML working groups program. We were looking for the newest developments in curriculum design, situating what we found in a wider context of social, communications and curriculum theory, and just put


How Learning Spaces Reflect Our View of Children

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Many school buildings are in a terrible state. Even in seemingly advanced western nations many old schools resemble architectural catastrophes that, along with post-war urban tower blocks and the shopping malls of the 1950s, have largely been left to the crumble of rust. In the last few years, though, there has been a renaissance in school building design based on a reimagining of learning spaces (pdf) that has mirrored the advance in our understandings of education-oriented information and communication technologies (ICT). Yet as I pass my local school, currently being completely rebuilt to a high-tech spec, and


Bio-Politics, Video Games, and Kids’ Bodies

Monday, September 27, 2010

Some recent research findings have got me thinking a lot about Franz Kafka’s story about a young clerical worker who wakes up half-transformed into a giant insect. No, it’s not research from the new journal Horror Studies but something even more horrifying from pediatric research. Research published in the August issue of Pediatrics by psychologists from Iowa State University has suggested a causal link between playing video games and children developing Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). The study reported that children who exceeded the two hours per day of screen time recommended by the American