Edtech: between neoliberalism and social justice

If edtech hopes to be educational inequality’s ‘silver bullet’, its main challenge is to ensure that neoliberal ideals of profits, cost-cutting and efficiency do not eclipse its primary goal…

With careful implementation, edtech has great potential to increase learner engagement and reduce educational inequalities. Unregulated, it risks doing the opposite.

Educational inequality

In 2019, the World Bank put the number of children not in school at 260 million. In low- and middle-income countries, 53% of 10-year-olds could not read and understand a simple story by the end of primary school. For the poorest countries, this number rose to 80%. Even by 2030, UNESCO predicts one in six children aged between 6–17 will still be excluded from school, and the World Economic Forum estimates 825 million children won’t have enough secondary-level skills to find decent work and the opportunity to make a meaningful contribution to their own societies.

There are many different reasons behind these figures – a lack of access to educational facilities, economic hardship, health issues and gender discrimination, to name a few. But even for the estimated billion children that do go to class every day, “a lack of trained teachers, inadequate learning materials, makeshift classes and poor sanitation facilities” means schooling does not necessarily equal learning.

This isn’t just an issue for developing countries; in developed countries too, “high income is no guarantee of high educational quality” and poverty and social exclusion mean many students fall behind. In some wealthy European countries, such as the Netherlands for instance, there’s a greater gap in the reading ability of 15-year-olds between schools than between children. Why? Rich and poor families send their children to different schools. And globally, governments often underfund schools in remote or low-income areas, resulting in “well-resourced educational institutions catering to an elite urban strata and poorly resourced institutions serving those in poorer or rural areas”.

Percentage of public education resources going to children from the poorest households versus that spent on children from the richest households

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UNICEF calculations using the World Inequality Database on Education and UIS data

Edtech and neoliberalism

Edtech is often touted as the answer to social justice issues in education. Confidence in this capacity within governments and influential global organisations is evident. For example, the UK Department of Education’s (DfE) 2019 report Realising the Potential of Technology in Education describes edtech’s capacity to remove “barriers to education” and provide training for everyone “whatever their background”. Similarly, the US Education Department’s Office of Educational Technology expresses its goal for edtech to transform learning and “shrink long-standing equity and accessibility gaps”. The developing world’s “largest financier of education”, the World Bank Group, describes edtech’s capacity to “contribute to poverty reduction around the world”.

However, there are fears that current implementations of digital technology are actually widening the digital divide and “strengthening existing socio-economic inequalities”. The UN Department of Social and Economic Affairs links the potential for greater inequality to edtech’s role in the growing commercialisation of education. Edtech offers opportunities to offload public education costs onto an increasingly interested private sector. The opportunities edtech offers to cut costs has prompted concerns that implementation is racing ahead of pedagogic research.

The drive towards profits, efficiency and cost cutting can be seen in technology ‘mechanising’ education through, for example, standardisation and automated evaluation systems. Andreas Schleicher, director of the OECD’s PISA programme, has discussed the potential for current implementations of edtech to negatively impact educational quality. He makes the point that the easiest things to digitise are also those easiest to teach and test – with the potential for education to focus more on the ‘superficial’ than on deeper conceptual understandings. In addition, tech ‘solutions’ are often simply “digitizing old ways of working, re-enforcing rote learning and other practices more suited to the past”.

Without careful implementation, edtech’s role in “making assessment more effective and effcient” may lead to a disregard for creativity and critical thought. Flexible thinking skills are especially critical for a future of technological and environmental uncertainty, yet the fear is that such skills may be seen as unnecessary – or unprofitable – by actors keen to restructure the provision of education in alignment with neoliberal interests. The hope is that edtech will be driven, or at least regulated, by those who desire to improve education itself, rather than those who seek solely to benefit financially. But one does not need to look far to find ambitions for edtech framed within neoliberal metrics:

“All too often technology initiatives have failed to deliver value for money” – DfE, UK

“International education is Australia’s third largest export, and… the greatest emerging opportunities will be borderless and enabled by edtech” – South Australian government

Is edtech poised to be one of the most profitable in the digital industry yet?Forbes

“The global education technology market size was valued at US$76.4bn in 2019 and is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 18.1% from 2020 to 2027” – Grand View Research: Education Technology Market Size Report 2020–2027

“Students, when treated as customers, can develop a deep loyalty to institutions” – Customer Service Leadership

What about edtech for social justice?

The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) broadly defines social justice as “the fair and compassionate distribution of the fruits of economic growth”. In a 2015 report, Deloitte described the need for a “broader vision of social change” in edtech to prevent empowering only those with the required digital skillsets, further widening the digital divide. In a 2017 article, George Veletsianos and Rolin Moe described the need for more collaboration between the academic community and edtech developers, without which “efforts to make edtech education’s silver bullet are doomed to fail”.

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Even where goals of expanding accessibility and increasing engagement are profit driven, edtech clearly has the potential to reduce inequality. Motivating materials, personalised learning, increased learner autonomy and greater access all help to encourage participation, reduce dropout rates and widen education’s reach. However, to really reform education along more equitable lines, edtech must consider the “broader social, political or economic conditions” within which technology is implemented, particularly in developing countries. To fulfil expectations for social justice and become a tool for change, edtech must attempt to tackle root causes of inequality.

Nancy Fraser’s participatory parity model

A useful way to consider how technology can address these root causes is through critical theorist Nancy Fraser’s participatory parity model. In her article Reframing Justice in a Globalizing World, Fraser identifies three specific dimensions of injustice: economic, cultural and political. These provide a useful framework for assessing edtech’s capacity to facilitate social justice.

Three Dimensions of Injustice

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Social justice-oriented narratives in European urban food strategies: Bringing forward redistribution, recognition and representation

Fraser’s three dimensions address:

Maldistribution: where economic structures facilitate the unequal distribution of resources

Misrecognition: where institutionalised hierarchies of cultural values foster marginalisation and prevent equal respect

Misrepresentation: where a lack of political voice restricts participation in decision-making processes

Application of Fraser’s framework in edtech: two examples

Open Education Resources (OER): Digital Open Textbooks

UNESCO defines OER as teaching, learning and research materials in any format, whose position in the public domain mean “no-cost access, use, adaptation and redistribution by others with no or limited restriction”. OER have the potential to reduce education costs “without harming learning outcomes” and current applications of Fraser’s framework in OER can be seen in the use of digital textbooks. Textbooks still represent the primary form of learning material for most students, and “one of the educational inputs that have the greatest influence on learning achievement.”.

Social justice issues with textbooks can be seen in all three of Fraser’s dimensions, for example: the economic aspect of textbook affordability – especially, but not exclusively, evident in developing countries; the cultural aspect in the underrepresentation of minority groups and the domination of hegemonic perspectives; and the political aspect in curriculum decision-making, publishing and dissemination processes.

An example of edtech tackling these issues can be found in the University of Cape Town’s DOT4D project. The project aims to empower local populations, through student-teacher collaboration to creating freely available, copyright-free digital textbooks that represent local cultural experiences and values. In Australia, the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) has recently funded an open textbook project. Currently in the research phase, it too specifically identifies its aims to “remedy injustice across three dimensions: economic, identity and representation.”

A quick online search indicates a growing OER movement focused on digital textbooks with a social justice focus, with examples of similar projects in the UK, USA, Canada and Hong Kong. However, outside of UCT, few examples of these projects appear to be operating in developing countries, since the capacity for digital open textbooks, or OER generally, to tackle injustice is limited by restrictions in hardware ownership and ICT infrastructure.

Mobile technologies

Mobile phone ownership is increasing sharply. According to a UK government-funded report by Global System for Mobile Communications (GSMA), in 2020 50% of the world’s students had no access to a computer at home, and in some developing regions, such as Sub-Saharan Africa, this figure was almost 90%. However, there were 239 million regular mobile phone users in Sub-Saharan Africa in 2019 and globally, smartphone users have tripled in less than 10 years.

Smartphone users worldwide (billions) 2012 to 2021

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Statista

this reflected in the enormous number of ongoing mobile edtech projects. It’s no surprise that the UN Broadband Commission describes mobile technology as “the key to bringing education to all”. But are mobile technologies effective for social justice in education? For students with unreliable or non-existent fixed broadband connections and limited access to organisational ICT infrastructure via schools and/or home computers, mobile technologies can offer a potential alternative. The “broadest and most obvious type of economic maldistribution” in education is evident in technological infrastructure disparities, and the comparatively low cost of mobile technology allows greater accessibility  for the “most impoverished segments” of populations, in both low- and high-income countries.

For students of both developed and developing countries, the customisable and portable nature of mobile phones allows for personalised learning and greater flexibility than ‘tethered’ technologies. With integrated text-to-speech and voice-transcription technologies, they can improve equitable access for those with physical disabilities in both low- and high-resource environments. They provide the capacity for greater gender equality for women and girls, or any individuals or groups that are limited or denied access to formal schooling. In addition, the comparative ease of re-establishing mobile infrastructure can help ensure the continuation and continuity of education during or immediately following a crisis.

Conclusion

Edtech offers great opportunities for social justice. The challenges, such as technological infrastructure and access to hardware, are surmountable with time and effort. But if edtech hopes to be educational inequality’s ‘silver bullet’, its main challenge is to ensure that neoliberal ideals of profits, cost-cutting and efficiency do not eclipse its primary goal: education.


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