Digital Imaginaries and Imperatives of Education of the 21st Century – Critical Perspectives from Sociology of New Public Management and Philosophy of Education


”More than 70 startups from across 15 countries have graduated from xEdu, some of which have gone on to raise follow-on capital. They include 3DBear, a developer of augmented reality learning experiences, coding education startup Bomerbot, social-emotional program provider Mightifier and Roybi, which makes educational robots for kids.” (Wan 2020.)


In this paper we reflect digital imaginaries and imperatives around the pedagogic and didactic discussions and practices of child and youth education. Today we are living within a global moment and political, as well as economic, project where digitalization is claimed to solve many problems. With ‘digital imaginaries’ we are referring to politics, policies, and discourses whose aim is to advance the overall change within which many both societal and individual level activities will be arranged and conducted in a digitalized way (Alastalo et al. 2014). With ‘digital imperatives’, then, we are referring to the societal and socio-cultural realities where there are no options to step out from digi-technological equipment use (Talsi & Tuuva-Hongisto 2009) or to seek other ways to arrange school-going, working, communitarian participation, customership, or clientness – to practice citizenship in its very wide sense. Digital imperatives, thus, mean that individuals and organizations have to become acquainted with digital technology: to create wide software understanding and ‘craft’, as well as to comply with quite wide hardware ownership.

Even though our motto presented above does not refer to child and youth education only and directly, it opens up the wide field of promises linked with digitalization. Our examination focuses on digitalization of child and youth education for two main reasons. Firstly, educational digitalization is one of the strongest international level aspirations with shared national level aims and argued with ‘humanistic’ discourses (see e.g., EU 2021). Secondly, young people are often claimed to form a generation of ‘digital natives’. This attribute, then, is often used as one self-evident legitimation for political programs of digital education: “a shepherd has to herd where the sheep already are”.

In this paper, we constitute our scrutiny on the ongoing discussions around developmental programs of education and the ways they have been spread by those who benefit these programs. We borrow a starting point for our scrutiny from the European Union (EU) level policy making. The strategies of, for example, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) put a pressure on the EU’s educational strategies, and thus have a vast impact on, European nation-level realities and on the concrete fields of educational and schooling practices. In our analysis, we put the discursive strategies of digital education in front of a mirror of critical reflections striving from the sociology of New Public Management (NPM) and from the humanistic philosophy of education, as well as from Karl Marx’s prognostic theories of intensification of economy and added value in covering societal ideologies.


The European Commission’s Digital Education Action Plan 2021–2027 (EU 2021) brings out the massive economic value of digitalization of education. The new Action Plan is created to outline the commission’s vision for “high-quality, inclusive and accessible digital education in Europe”. One of its overall objectives is expressed to make “education and training systems fit for the digital age”. The objectives are ratified with two strategic priorities that are “development of a high-performing digital education ecosystem” and enhancement of “digital skills and competences for the digital transformation”. A related document (EU 2020) to the Action Plan refers to President Ursula von der Leyen’s political guidelines highlighting a “need to unlock the potential of digital technologies for learning and teaching and to develop digital skills for all”.

It is notable that in these kinds of strategic visions and political declarations digitalization itself is not explained or argued as a choice but presented as self-evidence that justifies itself. In this notion we witness, for example, Michel Foucault’s (1969/1972) idea about what the attribute “discursive” means: a discourse is a truth that legitimates itself without any need to be kept up with other means. Discursive words, when enunciated from a powerful position, have huge practical implications as they begin to guide practical activities and life-course choices of “all” (as von der Leyen, for example, puts it).

The Foucaultian (1969/1972) way to define discourse is paying attention also to the fact that large discursive ‘dos and don’ts’ are usually not signed just by anyone recognizable – and indeed, articulated programs and visions of digital education are often published by, for instance, governments, ministries, trade unions, and training organizations or centers (see e.g., the Trade Union of Education in Finland 2021). Within the theme of digitalization of education this is especially notable: the strongest discourse is not produced by grassroot level pedagogists but by economists, economically oriented politicians, and industries that produce digital infrastructure. One facet that usually remains hidden as a beneficiary in the – partly very humanistically delirious – declarations aimed at digitalization are those who make business with and from it.

From the ordinary user’s perspective, the speed and turbulence of digital hardware and software development, as well as their marketing, are unaccountable. However, we can get some idea about the imagination of the digital industry if we look at how digital technology is developed for ever more various groups of people to be educated. For example, the growth into a digitalized life-world (Heller 1984) is expected to begin already years before the formal schooling age. Examples of a digital enterprise named Kano (2021) and its digital learning tools offer a sight to a tendency where digitalization can be seen as an educational tool in developing effective ‘digital citizens’ already from the very early childhood. According to Kano (2021) and its offers, preschool kids can assemble their own computer or a tablet from a pack of components – like building a castle from Lego bricks earlier in the history. Then they can code, create video game characters or learn online basics. All this is promoted with claims of offering kids “ownership over their learning devices and ways of learning”.

The kinds of expressions presented by Kano (2021) are in line with the general contemporary jargons of common (project) management, conceptualized as NPM in social scientific analyses of the Zeitgeist and its dominant ideology. The discourse of NPM has shown to be a discourse of economical optimizing, where the idea is to ‘empower’ individuals as productive and ‘harmless’ societal agents (Rose 1989; Cruikshank 1999; Kaisto & Pyykkönen 2016). In the discourses of digitalization, empowerment means, to a large extent, to grow up with algorithms and to accept to do it as circumscribed by digital devices.

To sum up, we claim that digitalization is, except a covering societal practice, also an economically led ideology even though we do not always recognize it as such. Digitalization does not only create economy but also leans on it and is legitimized by it, and produces great added value to those who own means of production, in the classical Marxian sense (1867). The ideological modifying of people takes place with the means of NPM, within a very early start in producing agents who grow up as ‘digital natives’ – or digital citizens.


Even though teachers acting with children and young people can take only slightly part in national and international level strategic work concerning their work, they, however, change those strategies to everyday realities of schooling – and thus also to the contents of learning. When we move our scrutiny to this grassroot level, a more pedagogical issue, then, rises: how to reflect the educational effects and side effects (“unanticipated consequences”, as Robert K. Merton (1936) has put the term) of digital education? When we consider philosophy of education, we face no reflections of technology; rather we face such concepts as pedagogical ethics, moral regulation, trustful, intimate and interactive relationships, and increase of solidarity, empathy and esthetic capability (e.g., Biesta 2013).

From this perspective, school-going is not just learning techniques: What to do and how to do? Humanistic basic capabilities and orientations still form the contents of the most national level curricula (e.g., POPS Finland 2014). In addition, competences called academic skills are still mentioned as general aims of education: learning to think, question, discuss, and argue, as well as growing up to literacy as a multilevel capability and capacity. Studies on cognition and mental activities have, however, shown that learning in digital environments can, indeed, have unanticipated consequences if it will become the only rule. Handicraft with letters, numbers, and papers as a haptic interaction between a text and its reader or writer is still seen as an action that has a constitutive role in learning and cognitive development, and may even be a significant building block in language development. An interesting scrutiny about this topic is conducted by Anne Mangen and Jean-Luc Velay (2010) who have pondered what might happen when people as learners lose the hand-pen-and-paper-connection and their penmanship:

”As a highly sophisticated and comprehensive way of externalizing our thoughts […] writing always involves the skillful handling of some mechanical/technical device, and necessarily results in a visuographic representation – some kind of (more or less) readable text, in the form of a string of letters or symbols. […] Changing the technologies of writing has profound implications, at least in part, because different technologies are materially configured in profoundly different ways. That is, different writing technologies set up radically different spatial, tactile, visual, and even temporal relations between the writer’s material body and his or her material text.”

It seems that in today’s school-going digi-technical skills have overcome both ethical and academic aspirations of education. A lot of attention is focusing on what young people need to know about technology – that is, the forms of competence and understanding they need if they are going to use technology effectively and for wanted purposes, in terms of digital literacy. Within this educational tendency, technology can, even maybe imperceptibly, fade the classical educational aspirations of internalizing empathy, developing social capabilities and academic skills, as well as the learner’s haptic connection with a text as a manifold object to work with.

Today young people are offered a new kind of literacy. When literacy in the nearby educational history meant learning letters and words, often in verbal intergenerational interaction, digital literacy of today means use of digital devices, starting with ‘synthetic’ songs, cartoons, or game applications for toddlers. Electric toys can be programmed to give even emotional impressions when a baby presses or pushes certain parts of them. These devices are advertised with assumptions that educational aims can be reached now in new kinds of agendas for meeting and perceiving – but can they, actually? At least this far there are no longitudinal research data to convince that.


Only a couple of decades ago a concept of information society, connected with the idea of network society, was introduced (see e.g., Castells 2000). Already during the sunrise of that societal revolution the links between knowing and technology were obvious even not inevitably explicitly articulated (see e.g., Finnish Prime Minister’s Office 2006). After this, the links have been strengthened and it is no longer possible to participate in formal education in practice without the necessary technological know-how and owning (buying and investigating in) digital devices. The digitalization of education, thus, is not a choice to be made but a covering and forcing reality.

The overall winning streak of digitalization is a crystallized example of how societal realities are constructed in a discursive way. Behind hegemonic discourses we can – and should – also pay attention to (often anonymous) facets with special interests linked with the topic (Foucault 1969/1972). In this paper, we have reflected digitalization as a process that clearly serves the aims of NPM policies. Behind them, then, often implicit links with market economy and business can be pointed. In a network society, however, the power of business is hard to show directly (Castells 2000). One reason for this effective hiding is the jargon of NPM that turns societal reforms into a language that manages to translate the interests of market economy into individuals’ best interests (e.g., Cruikshank 1999; Kaisto & Pyykkönen 2016).

Our aim in this scrutiny is not to claim that digitalization is a failed or oppressing reform that people of today just have to accept. We, however, call for a wider look at this discursive project where people have not been asked if they really are wanting and aware of the all-consuming change – digital imperative – they have now to live in. This awareness can be especially important in the fields of education where many ethical commitments and even universal internalized capabilities still are mentioned as bases and arguments for action but taught in a reality with sparse human encounters and no concrete encounters with the text. 

Biljana Stankovic,
Päivi Armila &
Ville-Samuli Haverinen


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