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There often seems to be a contest of ideas around the digital society between those who want it to be “transformative” and those who fear the ways that it will be so. Call them enthusiasts and doomsters, if you like, or optimists and pessimists.

This blog has often argued for the middle way. Digital realists – I’d count myself among them – doubt the hype from both ends of the spectrum and focus on what’s likely and what’s possible: on how to promote what we think desirable, protect what we have that’s valuable, and prevent what would be harmful.

Realism’s been gaining ground, but anyone who reads the literature knows that hype’s still hot in digital discourse. Education’s been one of the battlegrounds, and coronavirus has brought it to the fore again.

This blog’s a little longer than the norm but I think that’s justified: the impact of getting educational decisions right or wrong is lifelong.

Education: what is it good for?

I’m not an educationalist, so don’t ask me to philosophise. But as a citizen and an advocate of public policy that seeks to advance development and welfare, what would I see as goals? I’ll give you three:

  • the opportunity for all children – not just the children of the rich, not just boys – to identify the ways in which they can build lives and careers that fulfil them;

  • the inculcation of skills and resources across the board that society needs if it’s to work for the benefit of all – not valuing some skills or some people more than others;

  • the encouragement of social integration, respect for others and their rights, that builds a social environment in which people and communities can work together for the common good.

The solidarity of that third goal may sound old-fashioned to some in today’s commercialised digital environment, but I’m a social democrat not a libertarian, and I think cooperation has more to contribute to society than competition.

Digitising education

So my test, as a citizen, of whether digital innovation contributes to education outcomes would rest on what it does to help achieve those three objectives.

And clearly digital technologies have much to offer. Access to information and resources which would not otherwise be available to students and their teachers is strongly positive. Equipping young people with digital skills that will become more valuable in future to both themselves and their societies, likewise.

I’ve done work in the past – for the World Bank and African Development Bank – that identified potential benefits from open educational resources, national education portals, teachers’ professional development, the management of schools and training centres, and so on.

There isn’t doubt about potential value here, but there are questions about how it might be realised and, especially, how it fits with other educational resources and experience.

Access to more information isn’t all that useful, for example, if nothing’s done to help students navigate their way through it. Digital literacy’s essential, and often neglected.

Putting more digital kit in schools, too, is potential not solution. That kit has to be used, and used in ways that are productive educationally: in conjunction with good teaching, not in place of it. It needs to be equally available to all (including those who’re deemed less academic). Properly trained teachers are essential to draw out the value of new technologies and new resources.

As in all digitalisation, equality is complex. Research on the value of computers in schools has been inconclusive. It’s hard to disentangle outcomes from kit in schools from those that stem from use of home laptops and mobile phones.

Schools that are better resourced get better kit more quickly and are more likely to attract teachers with the necessary skills. Students from wealthier families are more likely to go to those schools and/or have access to digital resources in their homes as well.

And local context matters. I’ve heard enthusiasts for MOOCs – massive open online courses – say that they enable students anywhere to learn from “the best teachers”.  MOOCs have their place, but lectures designed for Harvard students aren’t relevant in many subjects to students in the global South – and emphasising Northern content undermines capacity to build up Southern schools and universities.

Avoiding the worst mistakes

Digital realism requires us to think of ICTs in education in terms of what will happen in real contexts, not what might happen if the digital were maximised in "ideal" circumstances.

Michael Trucano of the World Bank has been a champion of realism in digital education for more than a decade. As long ago as 2010, he set out ten examples of ‘worst practice in ICT use in education’. Errors often made in digital enthusiasm, to be regretted later.

‘Dump hardware in schools, hope for magic to happen,’ he said was one of these. ‘Assume you can just import content from somewhere else.’ ‘Don’t think about total cost of ownership.’ ‘Assume away equity issues.’ ‘Don’t train your teachers.’ All common mistakes that haven’t gone away.

The context for digital education

So what do we need to do if we want digital education to contribute to the three goals that I suggested earlier?

First, I’d say, as usual, policy has to be led by education outcomes not technology.

Second, that requires it to be led by those who know. Teachers and educationalists know more about how students learn than software developers. If they think something won’t work, that doesn't mean they’re luddite; it often means they’re right. Software developers and content corporations should listen to what educationalists, teachers and students have to say.

And, third, as always, context matters. Four questions seem crucial to me in working out what’s possible, what’s desirable and what is likely to succeed at different times in different places. It’s these that ought to shape policy thinking:

  • First, what’s the overall environment? Is the society or community or school concerned wealthy or poor? Do students typically have decent housing, food and sanitation – or are they living on the margins? Are they subject, in their society, to violence, conflict, harassment or worse? What is the state of gender (in)equality? Has government invested in young people's education, or have resources it can use to do so?

  • Second, what’s the educational environment? How much does access to good education depend on household income or geography, ethnicity or gender? How much is spent on each child in each school? What’s the teacher-pupil ratio? How skilled – even how present – are the teaching staff? How do outcomes at the end of school compare, in-country and beyond?

  • Third, what’s the connectivity environment? Not just what digital resources are available – whether there are computers in a school, but whether they can easily be used, and how? What’s connectivity like? How goes electric power? Is online activity affordable? Are teachers trained to use digital kit, curriculum, resources? How far do schools rely on students’ own devices, and what do they do, here too, about equality?

  • And fourth, what is the home environment for each and every child? Are parents supportive – or, come to that, abusive? Are students able to follow up school work at home, or is their home-time taken by domestic work or paid employment? How often are they absent? How long do they last at school – and is that different for girls and boys?

In summary

Some contexts for digital education, in short, are (generally) enabling, and some are not. Digitalising education in contexts that aren’t enabling won’t fix them, though digital resources can help to overcome some problems and benefit some children. Where there’s inequality, as in most other sectors, digitalisation on its own’s as likely to make things more as less unequal.

Whether digital investments add value will depend on whether they address the educational contexts to which they’re applied, whether sufficient thought’s gone into them, whether they’re associated with attention to other challenges faced by schools and students, and whether they are monitored effectively. Public policy is crucial.

The impact of the virus

All this is in my mind at present thanks to one of those online discussion fora that take up time in lockdown.

On the one side, an enthusiast whose starting point was that the present crisis was an opportunity to press on faster with digitising education. On the other, a realist whose starting point was the harm the crisis is doing to education now and the risk it poses to future education outcomes.

The corona crisis has become a testing ground for many different aspects of the digital society. What do we see where education is concerned? I’ll give you two examples.

in higher education …

I’m writing this today in one of the world’s oldest, most prestigious universities. Its students would normally be in its libraries, lectures and tutorials, but instead they’re scattered round the world, reading online, watching lectures, zooming into seminars.

Is their experience of distance education, and that of other students in other universities, the same, or just as good, as what they’d get in normal times. In spite of all the efforts, almost none thinks so.

They’re unable to discuss ideas and subjects freely and openly, as they would not just in seminars but also in bars, among friends as well as among Zoom or Teams participants; unable to do experiments (if they’re scientists), engage with patients (if they’re medics); unable to socialise in the ways that students do as they learn how to live as well as study. Some in lockdown universities want money back as a result.

Distance education is immensely valuable, not least in widening access to education. I’m a strong supporter of Britain’s Open University (OU), which was a pioneer. But distance education requires resources. It can’t be used as a cheap substitute for traditional educational experience. The corona crisis has shown how far there is to go if mainstream universities are to offer anything like the positive experience that specialists like the OU have built up over decades.

and at school …

Schools in my (rich industrial) country have been almost entirely closed for three months now. School students have been supported to some degree by online lessons; parents have been asked to teach them, too, at home, using online resources where these are available.

But policymakers, teachers, parents and students are generally agreed that this ain’t offering the kind of education that is needed. They fear that a generation of young people is missing out on something crucial that they’ll need in years to come. There’s compelling evidence that lockdown’s increasing inequality in education outcomes as children in richer homes with more resources (including digital resources) are learning more than those in disadvantaged homes. Policymakers are desperate to find ways of helping all catch up.

Looking forward

Alice Albright of the Global Partnership for Education’s spoken eloquently about the risks she sees to education as we look beyond the crisis, particularly in developing countries. She’s worried that many of the gains made this century – through the Millennium and Sustainable Development Goals – could well be lost, especially gains in access and equality.

Her priorities, she says, are these. Keep education going, first and foremost. Reach out to girls and others who’ve been marginalised or are under-represented in schools and colleges, for whom disadvantage is recurring under lockdowns. Train teachers. Reopen schools safely to protect children and their families, teaching and other staff, and make sure that they don’t have to close again.

Do these things in a time of economic recession, with lower tax receipts, lower household incomes, lower remittances contributing to education, and we’ll be doing well.

As for technology, she recognises its value but insists that the focus oughtn’t to be on the highest tech. Lack of electricity and connectivity make that unviable for many schools, alongside availability of suitable devices, affordability, the lack of tech-trained teachers. Old ways of doing things like broadcast radio are often more accessible and more productive than shiny innovations.

And so what now?

There’s a longstanding debate about the best ways forward for education in the digital society. Tech companies and digital enthusiasts are keen to maximise digital inputs, and often seem to think that digital means better. Educationalists are more concerned to integrate the new and old, recognising that building on successful experience is better than innovation and transformation for their own sake.

It’s a debate that’s there in other sectors too, where likewise it’s exacerbated by corona crisis.

That crisis is, to some degree a testbed.

We can gain experience, for example, of ways in which digital innovations are able to overcome hurdles and challenges in distance education in different environments – and we can consider how to make those better in the future, crisis or no.

We can gain experience, too, of where digital innovations are failing, and where they pose a risk of greater inequality because they work for some and not for others – and we can consider how to mitigate those risks.

As the world comes out of the coronavirus crisis, it will be challenged economically. The need to prioritise education in recovery will be profound but fewer funds will be available. Governments will need to focus resources on what they’re confident will make a difference. Technologists can help by focusing on what will help do so in difficult and cash-strapped contexts.

Image: By Aaron Burden via Unsplash.

David Souter writes a weekly column for APC, looking at different aspects of the information society, development and rights. David’s pieces take a fresh look at many of the issues that concern APC and its members, with the aim of provoking discussion and debate. Issues covered include internet governance and sustainable development, human rights and the environment, policy, practice and the use of ICTs by individuals and communities. More about David Souter.