For technology in education, 2021 has been a year of experimentation and reflection. Educators have seen widespread use of mobile devices and digital platforms as part of an attempt to bridge the divide created by lockdown measures. Measures which have affected over 1.6 billion students spread over 150 countries (World Bank, 2021). However, as well as providing continuity for millions, these solutions have also exposed new forms of digital divide. A global survey of teachers across 92 countries found that 56% of teachers felt that they did not have the skills needed to make digital learning a success (Oxford University Press, 2021).
The digital divide is no longer just about access to devices and connectivity. As argued by thought leaders worldwide, the digital divide is also increasingly about the choices made in the classroom. If these new forms of digital divide are left unaddressed, the gap between the under-connected and the hyper-digitalised will widen, aggravating existing inequalities (Oxford University Press, 2021).
If we can’t provide meaningful digital engagement within teaching and learning, are we perpetuating the digital divide?
The availability of technology is a necessary part of removing the inequalities of living in a digital world. But access alone will not make a sufficient difference to the lives of those using it.
For learning to be successful, there needs to be meaningful two-way interactions between students and teachers. Part of this is about improving how we listen to students – listening to what they want to tell us and using that information to identify not just what they know, but why and how they know it.
As TED prize winner and international thought leader Professor Sugata Mitra says: “In a world where a child can learn anything using the smartphone in their pocket, we should not be testing them on their ability to recall information but their ability to find something out, comprehend, and communicate their findings.”
Mitra champions the case for PhD viva style approaches to assessment for children and young people – asking probing questions and listening not just to what students tell us but how they tell us.
Mitra is not alone in championing this cause. One of the many consequences of the pandemic lockdowns has been the acceleration of the existing debate about the nature of assessment for children and young people. There has been much conversation about the widespread implications of cancelling national assessments and exams (TES, 2021). These decisions have surfaced debates about the purpose of such assessments, the format that they take, their relevance in today’s world, and the ripples that summative assessment process has for wider issues such as mental health, workload, consistency and workplace relevance.
In a world where recommendations, ratings and peer reviews inform our decision making as much as any quality assurance process, Professor Peter Twining has been leading the way in thinking about how such metrics could enable us to assess the things that matter: “We’re now at a stage where it’s far easier to evidence and thus value what young people can do, not just what they ‘know’. This means that we are closer than ever to being able to use digital technology to enable non-standardised assessment, within a standardised system, in ways that are robust, practical, and credible enough to become accepted in everyday practice”.
This is a sentiment echoed by Montessori principal Gavin McCormack, a LinkedIn Top Voice (2020): “Education and assessment should not be centred around what the child can do today. If you can’t see the potential oak tree from the acorn in your hand, then you’re not looking in the right way.”
In a world where online portfolios, peer recommendations and consolidated ratings are commonplace, questions inevitably arise around what we are looking for, what we are looking at, and where we find that information from. Artificial intelligence has been a hotly debated aspect of this with an increasing spotlight on the uses of data.
But as Professor Rose Luckin – widely regarded as a world leader on AI in education – points out, we must not confuse artificial intelligence with human intelligence: “Meta-intelligence is where I think the most attention needs to be paid. AI does not have it – it does not understand itself. Humans can. We don’t always understand ourselves very accurately, but we can learn. But AI really struggles with social intelligence and meta-intelligences”.
It is this social intelligence which has been one of the greatest challenges during the pandemic – the void created by using today’s technologies without really re-thinking what the purposes of schooling are in the age of AI.
New technologies create new relationships and possibilities
One such relationship that has changed significantly during the pandemic has been the one between parents and teachers. Where once upon a time parents were provided with updates and information, now parents expect insightful and real-time data about their child’s progress, curriculum, attainment and interactions so that they are able to have more meaningful conversations with their child.
The pandemic created a window into the realities of classroom life which no other generation of parents have been privy to. This has been a catalyst for all kinds of conversations about the many and varied needs of students across the world and the relevance of classroom activities to the ‘real world’ outside of school. For example, discussions have been raised about what equality looks like when considering technology in teaching and learning.
As Ken Shelton, who often uses the neologism ‘Techquity’, passionately champions: “This is about creating an inclusive culture within your learning environment; recognising that different students need different tools, different experiences and different forms of support. Intelligently used technology can open up opportunities or break down barriers that have previously defined the parameters of learning”.
Personalised pathways through learning and tailored programmes of support are no longer aspirations or ‘nice to haves’. They have become an expectation, now that AI and analytics are part of everyday life.
Furthermore, with voice activation, eye-tracking, touchscreen, portable and affordable technologies, access to learning opportunities need no longer be the preserve of the high attaining, able bodied student. Increasingly forward-thinking schools are using a fusion of school provided technology with ‘bring your own device’ (BYOD) such that technology can become a ubiquitous tool in classroom life. The shift in mindset which comes with BYOD means that different people are able to use different technology in different ways, when, where and how they need to – moving the focus from tools to learning.
The scale of the digital divide continues to widen. At the forefront there are innovators exploring what the metaverse and its virtual forms of reality mean for education. Whilst at the other end there are those whose gatekeepers remain resistant to the very principle of using technology as part of learning. Yet, very little of this may be to do with the technology itself.
As research by OECD and others has consistently shown, once a minimal level of technology infrastructure is in place, the presence of the technology itself made insignificant difference to frequency and nature of use within teaching (Twining et al., 2017). That minimal standard of infrastructure is below what the majority of UK schools have (BESA, 2018), and international TALIS data shows us that even in schools with a comprehensive IT infrastructure, there can often be very low levels of meaningful digital engagement.
Digital learning pioneer Dr Sonny Magana addresses this issue by challenging schools to think about moving from consumption to social entrepreneurship: “Technology itself can be disruptive; forcing us to move from automated processes and consumption of content, through production of new knowledge and ideas towards meaningful inquiry centred learning design and social entrepreneurship.”
According to Raya Bidshahri – named by the BBC as one of the world’s 100 most influential voices – the difference in how we use technology to do this is about “focusing on the competencies, mindsets, and behaviours needed to flourish in, and contribute to the world. It’s about enabling people to make human progress. Far too much investment in edtech has gone into the technology, rather than the education. We don’t just need new digital platforms, we also need to innovate on curriculum and pedagogy for the 21st century world.”
Each of these global thought leaders are united in the message at the heart of their challenge to us all. We need to think more precisely, more forensically, about what it is that we are trying to do – whether that be teaching or learning. This is why we need to change the narrative around technology.
When we talk about edtech, we create a false impression that we are focusing on teaching and learning. Yet edtech remains stubbornly focused on technology – the systems, the processes, the data – rather than the individual human beings using it. We need to shift that narrative in order to shift our thinking. Going into 2022, we should start talking about pedtech – focusing on human purposes and behaviours, the role of language, the nature of relationships, the enacted curricula and pedagogies. That’s where we will see meaningful and lasting change.
So, as we move through 2022, the role of teachers and the professional development supporting them is more critical than ever (World Bank, 2021). With the weight of responsibility still on the shoulders of our teaching profession to address the lessons learnt from the pandemic – both positive and negative – we are also now under huge pressure to respond to new kinds of expectations – from leaders, parents, society, employers, and from students themselves.
We can start to do this by listening to the thought-leaders above. Each of these experts – with intelligent insights from their specialist field – tell us to ask probing questions, and listen carefully to what students, and societal trends (including through AI) tell us before responding diligently to those findings.
They also show us that creating a personally meaningful learning experience for every individual learner doesn’t mean an exponential workload increase. It just means utilising what technology offers and being open to engaging with the new relationships, new efficacies, and new possibilities made available to us.
Going into 2022, the role of technology is now fundamentally about social justice, and our responsibility to facilitate meaningful equality for all children.
All of these issues will be debated and unpacked at The World Education Summit (21-24 March 2022), where all those featured in this article and many more global thought leaders will be sharing their expertise in depth through keynote presentations and panel discussions.
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