What education problems can technology not address? Which ones does it exacerbate?

By Michael Gallagher, Yujun (June) Xu and Ben Williamson, University of Edinburgh

The Centre for Research in Digital Education (CRDE) and Comparative Education and International Development (CEID) Research Group at the University of Edinburgh recently hosted a consultation event to discuss our draft response to the concept note of the 2023 GEM Report on technology and education. The concept note is largely focused on the role that technology might play in education, particularly in a post-COVID world. Two macro questions guide the concept note and therefore the potential structure of the report:

  • What education problems can technology address?
  • What conditions need to be met for technology to support education?

To provide a more holistic, balanced report, we suggested in our draft response additional questions that may be raised to recognize the limitations or shortcomings of education. These could include:

  • What education problems are unable to be addressed by technology?
  • What education problems are exasperated by technology?

The event itself and discussions afterwards generated some lively discussion and identified what we believe to be three particularly salient takeaways.

What counts as technology?

There is a need to broaden the often-monolithic presentation of what technologies matter in education. Good examples were presented at the consultation event by Professor Laura Czerniewicz of the University of Cape Town and others demonstrating that a range of technologies can and do co-exist (analogue, digital, networked digital, and SMART technologies) and, in many instances, might be better suited to the needs of educational contexts. The GEM Report should consider the full range of technologies available to us: paper, radio, televisions, mobile devices, laptops, and so on. Although developed at different points in time, they all still coexist in many, if not most, places.  All present some possible utility for how education is structured and performed.

It is important, then, to avoid a definition of technology that excludes some in favour of others. Just as previous GEM Report editions have provided useful definitions for each of the themes they have addressed, including quality and inclusion, the 2023 GEM Report should include a working definition of what education technology refers to. This should be broad enough to include analogue and other widely used technologies and flexible enough to adapt to the lived realities of educational contexts.

Equity

The way equity is currently positioned in the concept note is problematic. It would be helpful to clarify how technology is utilized to facilitate equity, rather than merely equality and a tendency towards egalitarianism, in diverse contexts. The report could usefully provide guidance on strategies for balancing the dysfunctional nature of resource redistribution and potentially enlarged social stratification.

We are paraphrasing Professor Niall Winters from Oxford University here, but if the report advocated for using basic technology to reach the marginalized then it would be advocating for digital inequality to be built into the system: in other words, this approach would be limited to relying on pedagogies that this technology is constrained to support. This seems to go against the equity rationale, or even a prioiritarian one, where their learning needs would be put first. If the most marginalized are not targeted – or designed for – in these drives towards greater technological use, then their marginalization is inevitably accelerated.

Governance

There was a lot of discussion about the governance of large technological systems and the encroachment of the commercial sector into the everyday operations of education. One urgent issue concerns the business models that are driving up interest and investment in new digitalized and data-driven approaches to education. Billions of dollars of venture capital are flowing to EdTech companies, while global big tech operators are moving swiftly into education too, through the provision of new education platforms and cloud architecture.

The introduction of new capacities of automation, artificial intelligence, and other algorithmic operations could significantly impact on classrooms. There could be benefits here, but at present such changes are being driven by industry hype and ‘revolutionary’ promises, which see the EdTech market and even big tech itself as the most appropriate ways to transform education. These are not inevitably positive or beneficial transformations. In Barcelona, for example, the city council has challenged the power of Google and Microsoft in schools by funding the development of an alternative, open source infrastructure for digital schooling that does not rely on massive collection of student data. Building on the advice in its latest edition out last December on how to regulate non-state actors, the 2023 GEM Report should consider whether new governance mechanisms are required to control the rapid industry-driven expansion of data-driven business models in public education.

We see these broader definitions of educational technology, equity, and governance as being inevitably interdependent. One can see how an emphasis on positioning educational technology more towards artificial intelligence and less towards analogue technologies immediately cascades into fueling inequity, particularly for those already marginalized. Such an emphasis further fuels an already colossal EdTech market designed to ‘transform’ the ‘broken’ practices of education. And so on.

It is critically important we get this right. Starting from a place of equity and governance and incorporating the use of appropriate analogue and digital technologies sounds like a good place for the 2023 GEM Report to start.

A report summarizing the key takeaways from this event is available online.

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2 comments

  1. Education should steer clear of the major technology companies that are ever ready to exploit the education domain for their own business interests.
    Technology can aid teaching and learning process but cannot substitute the human factor involved!
    Students need human teachers to inspire and guide them to learn. Technology companies should not be allowed into the domain of lesson planning and creative teaching. No machine can beat a good teacher in educating students. A cautious and realistic approach is needed, not blind faith in technology.

  2. Technology increase the teaching process and education process. Online teaching process, blogs and articles very helpful for teachers and students. We have technology blogs and our website provide complete technology services.

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