In the last 20 years, rapid technological advances have helped democratise access to knowledge in education at scale. Sal Khan is one of the most famous examples of one man who has been able to reach millions of people through Khan Academy. The rise of access to mobile digital devices and the internet has also brought huge benefits in education for underdeveloped regions. In many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, China, India, and others, owning a mobile phone can be more common than access to electricity. While people still struggle for an affordable and reliable internet connection, companies like Kiwix and Kolibri are helping to solve this problem with offline and low-cost technological solutions.
Despite these great advances in access to digital technologies, over 10 million 15-year old students represented in the latest PISA global assessment were not able to complete even the most basic reading tasks normally mastered by the age of 10. The implications of this can be shocking. For example, while young people today spend around 3.5 hours daily online in OECD areas, over 90% of these students cannot distinguish fact from fiction, and commonly rely on superficial factors to evaluate trustworthiness (for example, a website’s design aesthetics). The proliferation of access to technology in the last 20 years is clearly not preparing young people for the future like many had hoped.
However, perhaps there are more urgent issues that need addressing to do with the mental wellbeing of students. PISA’s recent results also indicated that around one-third of students said they were not satisfied with their lives, a quarter reported being bullied at-least a few times a month, and 6% reported always feeling sad. The online world, in particular, creates a space that connects a student’s life both in and out of school. For the young people who grow up with access to digital devices and social media platforms from birth, the difference between online and offline environments are often not distinguishable in comparison to the perspective of many adults today (who may remember a life without them). Consequently, the online problems that emerge for school students are difficult for adults to understand because they frequently have more digital skills and understanding of the current problems than they do. For this reason, education around digital wellbeing lacks the rigour and relevance to be meaningful for young people today.
How can technology help prepare young people for the modern world?
More technology is not the answer alone. Instead, leaders should look towards the thoughtful integration of technologies at all micro and macro levels in the education ecosystem. Let me explain what I mean by integration; technology integration is about increasing engagement with real world problems that the intended users already have direct experience in. For example, students shouldn’t just go through a linear online course to achieve learning outcomes set by curricula – they should be involved in the decision to select online courses to solve a particular problem they have direct access to in the real world.
Two conditions are key to making this happen: one, the student voice should be heard and meaningfully integrated into the school system; and two, a mindset shift in the way teachers engage with young people and their own learning is needed at scale. The student voice is necessary so that educators become experts in understanding how to ignite intrinsic interests. On top of this, teachers must become excited about learning if they are to keep up with students and inspire a culture of fearless experimentation for promoting the skills needed in the future (e.g. creativity and critical thinking across disciplines).
To help make this happen, I’ll highlight three examples of already impactful and scalable educational solutions that meaningfully integrate technology at various levels. These solutions are by no means exhaustive of the change we need, nor can they claim to fit every context without careful efforts to adapt them, but they do provide some inspiring examples that can help education progress:
One school that is changing the paradigm on personalised learning is Agora, founded in the Netherland. Here, there are no classes, no classrooms and no curriculum. They start with what the student wants to learn, along with their ambitions and interests. They trade courses, timetables, classes and tests for challenges, collaboration and coaching by teachers. Technology is not exclusively used to ’teach’ students, but integrated into their problem solving processes so they learn to experiment with different tools to find the one(s) most appropriate.
The lack of separation between the online and offline worlds in and out of school has created many challenges for schools and teachers. As a result, educators today are more often than not dealing with issues that emerge online and out of school time. Project Rockit aims to help young people think critically through providing student-led workshops about online cyber-bullying and leadership for Year 7-9 students. They change the negativity pervading online social media by encouraging students to self-reflect on previous experiences, while simultaneously equipping them with credible and risk-free ways to stand up to hate in the future.
Checkology and NewsLitCamp
Checkology and NewsLitCamp connect local journalists to students and educators so they can critically engage with the news they consume online with professionals. Through the Checkology virtual classroom, secondary school students learn to separate fact from fiction, to understand the vital role of free press within a democracy, and to become informed and engaged participants in civic life. NewsLitCamp connects educators with local journalists for a unique professional development experience. Both organisations believe that news literacy education — learning what to believe — is the most effective approach to meeting today’s big issues around fake news.
These innovative practices and solutions are just a few examples of the way we can meaningfully integrate technology to address some of the challenges highlighted in the most recent PISA results. However, if we slip into implementing technological solutions with a thoughtless tick-box attitude, we will likely continue these worrying trends. It’s clear we need technological solutions to help overcome the challenges we face in education, but we also need to avoid the mistaken assumption and blind trust that access alone will be enough to enable children to flourish in the modern world. With the highly thoughtful integration of technology at all levels, and by learning from already impactful and scalable solutions, I believe we can improve the overall way education is heading with our eyes open.